Notes on Bicycling in Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Denmark is not a natural bicycling city. In the early 1960’s it was very much of a car town. In 1962 the city created its first pedestrian street, the Stroget, and every year since then Copenhagen has allocated more and more of its public space to bicycles, pedestrians and people who just want to sit and take a load off. The result is a remarkably pleasant city. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl says that the single biggest key to the change has been the development of the city’s extensive bicycle network and that the Copenhagen of great public spaces that we see today would not be possible without bicycles.

Indeed, there are bikes everywhere. Thirty-six percent of Copenhageners commute by bicycle. It’s an astonishing number considering that this isn’t exactly Miami Beach. It is cold and rainy for much of the year. The city is, however, extraordinarily flat.


Except for young children, hardly anybody wears a bike helmet. Young children do get around the city by bike, usually accompanied by a parent. There is currently some debate about helmets underway and a local group is pushing helmet legislation. Gehl’s concern with a helmet law is that it might discourage people from hopping on a bike and running an errand. The city’s goal is to get its cycling mode share up to 40 percent in the next few years.


It turns out that wide, busy thoroughfares, the favorite routes of motorized traffic, are also some of the very best biking roads. It turns out that cars and bikes pretty much want to do the same thing — go fast and straight for long stretches without having to stop and start lots of times. People seem to ride their bikes fast and with extraordinary confidence that no car or truck is going to open a door or hang a right turn into their path. Moving at my slow, careful New York City riding speed I had Danish moms passing me hauling two kids and groceries. Which brings me to the next observation: People have all kinds of different bikes and they use them for everything; carrying two kids, delivering mail, hauling shopping bags and large pieces equipment. In one of his speeches, Jan Gehl, who used this conference as his retirement party, said, "every Copenhagener must have two bikes; one for the rain and a nice one as well."


Again and again I saw bicycles in the space that, in New York City, we would give to parking. This really seems to be where the ultimate choice lies when it comes to building a strong urban bicycle infrastructure. Do we want a city with abundant curbside parking that invites people to drive their cars into the city, or do we want a city where people can get around by bicycle? Forty-five years ago the City of Copenhagen made their choice. Slowly but surely, every year since then, the amount of land dedicated to parking space in the city center has been reduced, 2 or 3 percent annually, according to Gehl. The changes have continued because people continue to enjoy the results. Are the residents and merchants of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens ready to give up some of their on-street parking for better bike (and bus and ped) facilities? I wonder.


>There are all kinds of different bike lanes. The lane below is marked off by little green LED lights running along this stretch with no overhead streetlights (see the close-up). 


There is great creativity and flexibility in the way the city carves out space for cyclists and helps different modes of transport interact with each other. Sometimes you’re biking on the sidewalk, sometimes on the street, sometimes in the same lane as traffic, sometimes on the inside of the parked cars, sometimes on the outside. Mostly, though, bike lanes are positioned between the parked cars and the sidewalk. To me, that arrangement felt a whole lot safer than the lanes that we have in New York City between the more frequently opened drivers’-side door and traffic.


Copenhagen’s city government, along with Jan Gehl’s public space research institute, is constantly measuring and analyzing street usage. After finding that the majority of the city’s bike casualties (note they don’t call them "accidents") were taking place at busy intersections they began striping them in blue. They are now studying whether these blue paths are doing anything to reduce casualties. As in New York City, the city is finding that there is "safety in numbers" for cyclists. As they number of cyclists increases, the casualty rate decreases.


People really follow and respect the rules of the road here. The vast majority of Copenhageners will get off their bicycles and walk when they come to a pedestrianized street like the Stroget. People stop at traffic signals. They stay in their lanes. I asked a number of Danish planners and transportation experts whether this was a cultural thing, whether, for some reason, the Danish are just better behaved and more orderly than Americans. Everyone I spoke with rejected that assumption. Their general feeling was that cyclists follow the rules of the road because they are a legitimate mode of transportation and they have their own infrastructure. I still think there’s a cultural thing going on here but I agree with the alternative explanation completely.


There is loads of bicycle parking provided both by public and private entities.


For the most part the bicycle parking is pretty orderly.


But not always. Every once in a while you’ll see an entire row of bikes toppled, domino-style, one on top of the other.


All of the train stations and transit hubs have serious bicycle parking facilities built in as a matter of course. There is even a motor vehicle parking lot on the outskirts of town that is providing people with "Park ‘n Pedal" services so that they can park their car and finish the last leg of their daily commute on a bike. For about $20/month you get a bicycle along with your parking spot. You ride the bike into town and you get to keep it all day and then drop it off at the parking lot when you pick up your car. Park ‘n Pedal is a creative response to the lack of parking in Copenhagen’s inner city. It is proving to be popular according to the local, English-language newspaper.


Sometimes sidewalks are blocked and public squares are clogged by all the bikes. It seems to be the Copenhagen equivalent of New York City government employees parking their cars on the sidewalk. I’d rather have bikes blocking my way than civil servants’ automobiles.


Danish cyclists somehow manage to arrive at their destinations less sweaty than me. Perhaps it is my professional bloggers’ cardiovascular system. I don’t know, but I seem to be the only guy who arrived to the meeting looking like he just came from the gym.

18 thoughts on Notes on Bicycling in Copenhagen

  1. It’s tough keeping up with the Danes on bikes. I did a 60 mile bike tour with a group of Danes when I was studying there. Even folks that were much older and much more out of shape physically than I was, were kicking my butt.

    There must be certain biking muscles that if constantly used and developed, allow people to transcend age and even weight compared to non-regular riders. In fact I remember seeing some older and obese Danes (not very common, but they are around) going very fast on bikes around town. It’s not genetic, it’s a lifetime spent riding around town on a bike.

  2. I don’t ride slower because of the cars, but I know I certainly ride more fearfully, hand always on the brake in case some car pulling out of a cross street doesn’t notice me or something like that. As for cyclists in Denmark respecting traffic laws, I suppose it’s a matter of “I will respect the law if the law respects me”. In traffic law and street design in the US, cyclists are really an afterthought, and their is no thought to their different abilities and needs.

  3. I would imagine city density and size are also a consideration on whether a cyclist obeys traffic laws as well. If you have a long ride ahead of you I’d guess you’d be more inclined to run a light when there’s no traffic.

  4. Actually, there is a strong culture of obeying traffic signals. Not just cyclists, but cars and pedestrians too. It wasn’t a law enforcement imposed situation either. I don’t know if they are taught it in school or what, but I remember old people yelling at me in Danish when I would cross against the light. I would see people standing at “don’t walk” signals in the middle of the night with absolutely no cars around. Very strange at first, but after a few months I completely stopped jaywalking because it was socially unacceptable.

  5. Hmm, wonder where you found those lanes with green leds?

    How you have been able to miss people riding bicycles on Strøget and running red lights is pretty impressive 🙂 Try a ride on Nørrebrogade at some point.

    One very important point about bike traffic in Denmark is that there is no such thing as cars turning right on red, and bikes going straight have right-of-way. Generally when driving a car, you are used to looking for, and yielding to bikes.

  6. I’ve visited Copenhagen and took many photos and observations as background research for our struggle with DOT to get bike lanes on Houston St.

    It’s stunning the lack of vision in NYC’s “transportation” agency. Here is an article about Melbourne, Australia getting “Copenhagen”-style bike lanes because of 6 injuries in 5 years. DOT in NYC won’t act with Houston St.’s 82 injuries from 2002-04 and three FATALITIES 2005-06!

  7. Thanks for the report, I love reading about positive attitudes toward cyclists in other cities. I think cyclists and pedestrians should be allowed to cross through a red light after having made a diligent assesment of the danger, like a car coming to a yield sign before entering a highway. It poses no danger to others or to traffic when a cyclist carefully crosses through a red light and it is an incentive for people to ride a bike as opposed to drive a car.

  8. William — check out the Idaho statute:

    49-720. STOPPING — TURN AND STOP SIGNALS. (1) A person operating a
    bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and,
    if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing
    to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to
    any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely
    as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving
    across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a
    person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if
    required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection
    without stopping.
    (2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a
    steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection
    and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may
    proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a
    person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if
    required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a
    one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to
    other traffic.

    I’m not sure if any other states have similar laws.

  9. It happens that I am reading Jan Gehl’s _Public Spaces, Public Life_. I recommend it as an excellent overview of Copenhagen planning, though it doesn’t have as much about bicycling as Aaron’s post.

    Gehl’s _Life Between Buildings_ is a classic, which I also recommend to everyone.

  10. I live in Melbourne (Australia) and am so hopeful that those Copenhagen bike lanes do end up here – I travelled through Copenhagen about a month back and was so impressed that I bought a bike within an hour of arriving. The Danish cycle an average of 3 kilometres a day.

  11. This week, Portland Oregon celebrates the opening of its latest bicycle way, the “Three Bridges” connection between Oaks Bottom and Springwater corridor, an old interurban line between downtown and Gresham. The section through Oaks Bottom, along the Willamette River nature preserve, still hosts a sometimes-used freight rail line that’s fenced off from the bike and pedestrian way; an example of Rail AND Trail restoration. The three bridges are quite dramatic, crossing Hwy 99, the UP railroad main line, and salmon-bearing Johnson Creek. I forget the cost, but it was in the tens of millions, for sure. Portland has won many Best Bicycling City awards. I credit much of this success not merely to bicycle lanes and bike ways. I say the pedestrian infrastructure (widened sidewalks, narrowed traffic lanes, curb extensions, pedestrian amenities and streetscape, urban economics, etc) play as important a role. These slow down the traffic, making bicycling safer though still not as perfect as it could be, getting there. 🙂

  12. Hi,
    My name is Mike Perrault and I am in a research course at the University of Oregon school of journalism. My topic for the term is centered around bicycle facilities(lanes, parking,etc) and I would love to read this article. Could I get a link to the original news article?
    Thanks very much,
    Mike Perrault

  13. Great article! It takes time to get to that level of development and appreciation for what is considered “alternative” in terms of transportation. Notorious the emphasis put on the user, the bicycle and the opportunities thereof.
    DJ.Cincinnati, Ohio

  14. GREAT ! It`s inspiring . We are trying to get the Local Authorities to build dedicated cycle tracks and promote cycling. Few symptoms, but far from success. May be your report may be of some help.
    thanks once again.

    pune cycle pratishthan, pune INDIA

  15. Kudos for highlighting Copenhagen’s bike culture, which I tried out to my pleasure last summer.

    If I remember correctly, bike usage in Copenhagen made tremendous progress in the 1990s when major employers signed onto an incentive plan. It was around then, too, that the city’s free bike program was instituted.

    As for Danes’ law-abiding behavior being culturally derived, notice the puny bike locks that most Copenhageners use — a bar through the rear wheel only. The locks used in Amsterdam are much more serious.

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