From Copenhagen to Toronto – Looking at a world-class transit example before Ontario Line construction begins

Transit agencies are constantly comparing notes to uncover learnings from the most recent subway projects. Copenhagen provides an interesting case study as Metrolinx moves forward with four priority subway projects, including the Ontario Line. In September 2019, Copenhagen opened its new Cityringen line with 17 stations circling through its historic downtown. Putting that many underground stations in a crowded area presented many challenges from both an engineering and public communications perspective.

We all look forward to new transit lines that bring speed and convenience to our daily travels, but the construction comes first.

That’s why every new subway project has two goals – delivering the best possible transit and minimizing the impact of construction in the neighbourhoods surrounding the lines. Copenhagen faced unique challenges in delivering the new Cityringen (literally, the city ring) with 17 stations circling through its downtown.

Transit agencies are always learning from each other, so Metrolinx News reached out to Copenhagen’s Metroselskabet transit agency. Much like the planned Ontario Line, the Copenhagen subway system uses autonomous driverless technology running over a mix of above- and below-ground sections.

Throughout construction of the Cityringen, effective community relations work was essential to keeping people living near the line engaged, informed and involved. The end result is a new subway line that Copenhagen residents are proud of.

The Cityringen opened on Sept. 29, 2019, to rave reviews. Residents love the fast rides through the core and easy transfers to existing routes from the airport and suburbs. But, before they could enjoy better transit, Copenhagen residents first had to live through construction.

Copenhagen skyline
Copenhagen’s historic and densely populated downtown is home to the new Cityringen subway line. (Mike Winterburn photo)

Car and pedestrian detours were set up near landmarks like Copenhagen’s town hall, inter-city train station and major shopping destinations as well as several residential areas. Despite the challenges, effective communication with people in the surrounding neighbourhoods led to high resident satisfaction levels, said Christian Bjerregaard, the Team Leader in Neighbour Relations on the Cityringen project.

“The most important thing was to offer a constant flow of communication about the project, both about the inconveniences and what the Cityringen would do for people when completed,” Bjerregaard said. “It was a balance to see both sides of the coin.”

“We didn’t hold back about the inconveniences but on the other hand we tried to tell what it would mean to them once the metro was completed.”

Metroselskabet went beyond newsletters, traditional media and online platforms to communicate with people living along the line. Organized tours were part of the plan.

”We invited people to come down the street to the building sites and see what we were doing,” he said. ”People could look down into the holes, see the big machines and talk to the construction workers.”

Local schools, companies and other organizations were encouraged to arrange special visits. ”We had lots of trips down the tunnels and shafts,” Bjerregaard said.

Copenhagen subway map
M3, the new Cityringen subway, circles through downtown Copenhagen, connecting with the older M1 and M2 lines, that start in the suburbs. The M4 is expected to be completed in 2024. (Metroselskabet map)

Online content brought the tour experience into people’s homes with photos, videos, stories from construction workers and computer-generated videos that showed how the actual stations would look. In addition to sharing the vision for new line and showing progress, the Neighbour Relations team reached out to people to give advance warning of coming inconveniences.

Residents could sign up to receive regular newsletters, emails and text messages.

“We put a lot of effort into informing our neighbours,” he said. “If works were delayed or other unexpected events occurred, then neighbours would be informed through email and SMS messages.”

These tools gave residents up-to-the-minute information.

“If we could see during the day that the work was delayed, we sent out an SMS to all our subscribers.”

As well, the Neighbour Relations team was on the street reaching people that weren’t online.

“We also had loads of young people delivering paper notices to front doors and putting up posters to communicate in a non-digital way,” he said.

The team took pride in answering mail and phone questions quickly and correctly.

“If you wanted information you could get it through many different channels,” he said.

Copenhagen’s Neighbour Relations team studied construction projects in other cities, including London, England, when coming up with this plan. Likewise, Metrolinx studies other transit systems and uses these outreach techniques for projects here in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

“We’re inspired and encouraged by what we learned from the Cityringen project,” said Josh Vandezande, Senior Manager of Community Relations for the Ontario Line.

”People have questions about the Ontario Line project and what it will mean for their neighbourhood. Although getting together in person is challenging right now, we are available online and look forward to walking tours, neighbourhood events and introducing the design-builder teams, once selected. We’re going to be here for you every step of the way.”

Photo of a metro train in Copenhagen
The Cityringen uses autonomous driverless technology, similar to what is expected for Toronto’s Ontario Line. These trains offer views to passengers in the front and back. (Søren Hytting, Metroselskabet photo)

Since the opening of community offices was put on hold due to COVID-19, Metrolinx has been using more online channels and virtual meetings to share information and bring the community’s voice to the project. There are also blogs, web content and social media posts to make people aware of new information along with discussion forums and several different ways to provide feedback.

The first open houses for neighbourhoods along the Ontario Line construction took place in early 2020 and the feedback has already been used to make changes in the route’s alignment.

While Copenhagen’s earlier routes moved in relatively straight lines from the suburbs to downtown, the Cityringen’s construction was complicated by a circular route through a busy and densely populated downtown, with 17 stations – some near fragile, historic buildings.

Modern techniques to reduce noise and vibration are routinely used by Metrolinx and other transit agencies around the world, and they were critical for the Cityringen.

Particular care was taken at Marmorkirken station which is near Frederiks Church (popularly known as the Marble Church) which dates back to 1749. It is the only station where the two tunnels are stacked on top of each other (they are parallel on the rest of the line) to stay further away from the church.

During construction, approximately 1,000 recording devices were used in the landmark building to make sure that neither its structure nor its artifacts were disturbed.

A photo taken inside the Marble Church
Inside the historic Marble Church, approximately 1,000 sensors were placed to monitor vibration and ensure that its delicate architecture and iconography were not damaged during construction of the nearby Marmokirken station. (Mike Winterburn photo)

The extra precautions were doubly important as the station is near the Royal Palace.

Older houses also required special attention. In the 17th and 18th century, many of the city centre’s oldest houses were built on foundations of wooden piles that are preserved in the groundwater. Construction had to proceed in a way that would not disturb the water tables because if they were lowered, the piles would have rotted.

Downtown Copenhagen is full of heritage buildings standing over high water tables. This added to challenge of designing the new subway line. (Mike Winterburn photo)

Metrolinx is also working to preserve historic buildings as it plans the new Ontario Line. For example, the route for the proposed station at King and Bathurst was realigned to run diagonally through the intersection, preserving the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Built in 1849, the landmark building with the distinctive mansard roof is widely believed to be the oldest pub in Toronto.

The diagonal shift is a unique solution to the constant challenge of minimizing the impacts of construction. Fitting the Ontario Line within the existing surface rail corridor in Riverside and Leslieville is another example of this kind of thinking. Adding new infrastructure to property Metrolinx already owns reduces the need to make room for multiple excavations and construction areas in the community, cutting down on impacts to businesses, homes and other important spaces like the local recreation centre.

Even with the use of tunnel boring machines underground, subways inevitably create disruptive building projects near the stations, which have to be dug down from the surface. These have major impacts on travel at street level.

One detour in a particularly busy corner of Copenhagen was caused by construction at the town hall square of the Rådhuspladsen station.

While lane reductions were necessary to make room for construction, there were enough remaining lanes to reduce the impact.

“The square is big and has a three-way road next to it, with three lanes moving in each direction,” Bjerregaard said. ”Because the square was so big, we were able to reduce the bottleneck.

“The most inconveniences must have been for all the offices around the square and for pedestrians because the building site was at the square itself where thousand of people walk every day.”

Image of a construction site
Construction of the Rådhuspladsen station created detours for pedestrians and drivers in a congested part of the city, near the town square, seen here in April 2019. (Mike Winterburn photo)
Recent photo of the town square
… Now that construction is over, it’s as lively as ever. (Metroselskabet photo)

Ventilation shafts also require digging from the surface. Bjerregaard remembered work in the trendy Nørrebro neighbourhood as being a particular challenge to explain because it was not close to a station.

Public transit is not the only transportation mode that’s popular in Copenhagen. Older stations are surrounded by massive bicycle parking structures. Cityringen stations follow suit.

“It is maybe ‘the’ bike city in the world, and a lot of people take their bikes to the metro station, so all the stations have bike parking capability,” he said.

Image of bikes in front of a subway station
Copenhagen’s metro stations are famous for their sprawling bike racks. (Mike Winterburn photo)

Copenhagen residents are proud of their Metro system and customer satisfaction reached 97 per cent in 2019.

Metroselskabet surveyed people living near the Cityringen every six months through construction, constantly measuring success against the goal of 75 per cent satisfaction from neighbours about the building process.

“What we know from all these surveys, is that around 85 to 90 percent of our neighbours supported the fact that there was a metro station coming to neighbourhood, 75 to 80 per cent were satisfied with the info coming from us and 70-75 per cent believed they have received sufficient info about construction work in their area,” Bjerregaard said. ”We’re quite proud of those numbers.”

The hard work of Bjerregaard’s team to engage local residents has paid off and now residents of Copenhagen are equally proud of their new, faster transit line.

Metrolinx will continue to study best practices from Europe and around the globe as it works to deliver the Ontario Line and other world-class transit projects.

Story by Mike Winterburn, Metrolinx Senior Advisor