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.


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