Carla Sands, the former United States Ambassador to Denmark, was last week ridiculed for claiming large parts of the Danish population cannot afford to own a car.
Sands, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump and served as ambassador from 2017-2021, claimed in a Twitter post on Friday that “in Denmark, middle class people can’t afford to drive a car”.
People in Denmark “have a bike and take the train for long trips. My embassy driver would bike an hour in the snow to get to work,” Sands tweeted.
The tweet elicited responses from Danish politicians members of the Danish public, with Sands largely mocked for the claim.
Tweeting a picture of himself on a bicycle, former Minister of Transport Benny Engelbrecht wrote that “I can assure you that using the bike for urban mobility is a question of choice, not economy for most Danes. This is for instance me in my time as minister — and don’t worry, we could afford a car.”
According to official data, there were 2.79 million private cars on Danish roads at the beginning of 2022. The country’s population is 5.8 million.
Around 276 million cars were registered in 2020 in the United States, where the population is around 330 million. So there are indeed more cars per person in the US than in Denmark.
But is this really because Danes can’t afford cars, or are other factors more important?
It’s unclear exactly who Sands was referring to by “middle class people”, since Danish society does not have such highly differentiated social classes as, for example, the United Kingdom.
Nor does the Scandinavian country have the sort of chasm between rich, middle and poor incomes that isolates communities from each other enough to make classes easily definable – even though economic segregation is reported to be on the increase.
Official statistics suggest that families in Denmark are becoming increasingly likely to own a car. A July 2021 report from official agency Statistics Denmark notes a significant increase in the number of car-owning households between 2011 and 2021.
The number of households who own one or more cars increased by 233,800 over the ten-year period, according to the agency.
That equates to 62.3 percent of all households owning a car in 2021, compared to 59.6 percent a decade prior.
In four Danish municipalities – all located in Jutland – over 30 percent of families own more than one car (i.e. two cars or more). This was not the case anywhere in the country in 2011.
The agency’s data shows that there is a difference between car ownership in urban and rural areas – supporting Engelbrecht’s argument that bicycles are a popular choice for urban mobility. In the Greater Copenhagen area, under 60 percent of families own a car, while the proportion can increase to over 80 percent in municipalities just outside of the capital’s urban sprawl.
There is also a difference between the types of family households with relatively high and low car ownership.
Amongst families with high levels of car ownership are couples with children, of whom over 90 percent owned a car in 2021.
People in executive jobs also owned a car in over 90 percent of cases in 2021, while 84 percent of those who lived in detached house also owned a car.
This supports the suggestion that the more affluent are more likely to own a car, which is perhaps unsurprising.
Single people without children owned a car in 40 percent of cases in 2021, while those with the lowest amount of disposable income – the 10 percent of the population with the smallest amount of monthly disposable income – owned a car in 14 percent of cases.
People who live in Greater Copenhagen or another city with 100,000 or more residents owned cars in 42-48 percent of cases in 2021. A similar proportion – 39 percent – applies to people who live in apartments.
Given the high cost of living in Copenhagen, where rent and house prices are far higher than elsewhere in Denmark, it’s conceivable that, if all other factors are equal, a household in the capital might have less money available to run a car. Or perhaps they just don’t need one?
Small towns or villages with populations less than 2,000 had car ownership percentages of 77-80 percent in 2021, much higher than in Copenhagen.
A separate 2021 analysis from Statistics Denmark states that close proximity to a bus, rail, metro or light rail network correlates to the amount of people who own cars.
According to the analysis, around 360,000 people over the age of 18 in Denmark have easy access to a very high level of public transportation – meaning at least 10 departures per hour and more than one type of service located with 500 metres of where they live.
Just under one million have slightly lower access – 4-9 departures per hour – while around one million do not have a permanent bus stop or rail station within 500 metres of their home.
In Greater Copenhagen, 77 percent of all people have a high public transport service level. This falls to under one percent in towns with fewer than 200 inhabitants.
More than 80 percent of families in areas with the lowest levels of public transport own one or more cars. This figure is 39 percent in areas with very high service.
The analysis also found that families in areas with high levels of public transport coverage are less likely to have a car than families in areas with medium or low levels of public transport.
Calculations intended to correct the trend for factors including income, age, family type, children, socioeconomic group and commuter distances found that people in rural areas with less public transport were still more likely to own cars, albeit by a smaller difference.
For a family in an area with very high public transport coverage, the probability of having a car was calculated to be 57 percent. An equivalent family (with the same income, city size, distance to work etc.) in a low public transport area was found to be 68 percent likely to have a car, the report notes.