Life in the Green Lane

copenhagen bike lane

Copenhagen Bike Lane

How to describe your first time in a green lane? There’s nothing quite like it.

For me it happened on a business trip to Copenhagen. I saw bikes everywhere, beginning with the taxi ride from the airport where I spotted business executives toting briefcases on bikes, wanna-be fashion models wearing high heels on bikes, kids heading to school on bikes, parents pedaling toddlers to daycare on bikes, old folks chatting to one another on bikes.

How do they do it, I wondered? I was a seasoned bicyclist who rode every day for commuting and recreation yet still felt tense wheeling down busy city streets. These riders looked completely at ease, even in the midst of morning rush hour with cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles all around them. I even saw one guy smoking a cigarette on a bike and others absorbed in conversations on their mobile phones.

Then I looked down and noticed that the bike lane was separated from motor vehicles by a divider. So that’s how they do it! I couldn’t wait to try it myself.

The next day I ducked out of a meeting, rented a bike at nearby shop and set forth to explore Copenhagen on two wheels. After pedaling just a block, I thought “Wow!” and began giggling. This was an entirely new experience in biking– almost like the exhilaration of riding without training wheels for the first time.

Liberated from fears of being sideswiped by motorists, I could take in the historic architecture and enjoy the city’s teeming streetlife. There were even special traffic signals for bicyclists, giving us a slight head start through crowded intersections. No wonder half of Copenhagen’s downtown commuters travel by bike.

Cruising through the heart of the city, I realized that these protected bike lanes were good for everyone, not just bicyclists. Without them, pedestrians, motorists and bus riders would be engulfed by twice as much traffic. That, I figured, accounted for the calm courtesy I experienced from people behind the wheel.

We need something like this in the U.S., I told everyone back home. Impossible, many folks would tell me. Special bike lanes are strictly a European thing that would never fit in our newer, auto-dominated cities. You’re selling America short, I answered. We are an enterprising nation, dedicated to innovations that can improve our lives. If we can invent the Internet, we can make biking safe for everyone.

And that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Protected bike lanes (now called Green Lanes) are popping up from Miami to Long Beach, Austin to Chicago. As I ride the new (but short) protected bike lanes downtown here in Minneapolis, I say “Wow!” and then giggle. I can appreciate the handsome old warehouses and enjoy the bustling streetlife. I notice people in suits and in high-fashion outfits on bikes, even some teenagers and older riders. It feels even more exhilarating than the first time Copenhagen, because it’s right here at home.

Jay Walljasper

About Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper—author of The Great Neighborhood Book and America’s Walking Renaissance [which you can download for free:]— writes, speaks and consults about how to create great communities. He is urban-writer-in-residence at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces. His website is:

11 thoughts on “Life in the Green Lane

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Uh. The picture is troubling. Despite its title, it appears to be from Australia, not Copenhagen. (Bike traffic is passing each other on the left, and there’s a Bank of Queensland in the background…)

    More importantly, it is a two-way cycletrack. One of the great triumphs of Copenhagen cycletracks is that they are nearly all parallel one-way cycletracks, allowing the bicyclist to both feel protected and still offer all road users the same level of predictability and visibility.

  2. CelloMom

    Thank you for an inspiring article!
    There are a few other reasons why there are so many bikers on Copenhagen’s streets: gasoline is expensive (3-4 times in the US) and cars are punitively expensive (about $75,000 for a Prius).

    I don’t know about the Danish, but the Dutch are bike-friendly by law: The usually aggressive Dutch drivers have become astonishingly polite since the introduction about a decade ago of a law that, in the case of a bike-car or ped-car collision, puts the liability on the motorist until proven otherwise. This is aiming high, but if such a law could be introduced in the litiginous US, it would cause an explosive growth in bicycle traffic here. Cities and towns would start constructing bike paths without further prompting by bicycle lobbies. My translation of the relevant page from the Dutch automobile association here:

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      CelloMom, what you are referring to is Strict Liability. I agree that a strict liability law would be good and I’d like to see one here. I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have here though. Riding along a road with cars blowing by at close range going 45 mph is just as uncomfortable and scary with or without such a law.

      1. CelloMom

        I suspect that such a law would “inspire” cities and towns to put in physically separate bike paths, so it can’t be said they didn’t do their bit. Stronger yet, I think AAA and other car clubs might help push for safer bike paths for reasons of self-interest. Maybe wishful thinking, but just sayin’.

        Very probably, many American drivers (who are inherently already more polite anyway) would welcome a clear set of rules for bike-car interactions. It would take away 99% of the road rage on both sides.

        1. Walker

          Perhaps it would spur cities on a bit. That would be good.

          There are already fairly clear rules for car-bike interaction, but most drivers are either not informed or dislike the rules. Essentially, a bicyclist on a roadway is a vehicle and is to be accorded the same right-of-way as any other vehicle. A bicyclist on a path or sidewalk is to be regarded as a pedestrian with all of the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians. There are problems with both of these, but that’s another discussion.

          I think Strict Liability had such a big impact in The Netherlands because that was one of the final holes to be filled (NL already had good infrastructure and high bicycling rates by this point). If you have one big hole and a few tiny holes in a bucket, then patching the one big hole has a huge impact. If you have four big holes, patching that one hole won’t make much difference until the others are patched as well.

          BTW, browsed your blog rather quickly this morning. Nice!

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Jay, get thyself to Amsterdam (or Utrecht or Groningen or …). Copenhagen really is great compared to anywhere in the U.S., but The Netherlands is another step up. Copenhagen is the U.S. on steroids with bike lanes and left turn boxes (that personally I really dislike btw) and lights for bikes. The Netherlands provides what is effectively a completely separate infrastructure system for bicycles.

    Great post though, particularly the next to last paragraph. Amazing how often people say things can’t be done. Amsterdam was fairly car—centric in the 60’s and early 70’s and look what they’ve accomplished.

  4. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Great post. Cycling in Copenhagen is certainly an eye-opener (and for the record, I’d hold Copenhagen up against Amsterdam any day…).

    However, I find the term “green lane” quite distasteful and I would urge folks to use a different term (Cycle Track, Protected Bike Lane, etc.). At best, it is a bit confusing since some lanes are actually painted green and others are not. I do not think it advantageous to suggest a vision that all of our bike lanes should be painted green (I am aware of the Amsterdam precedent for all bike facilities being a maroonish color). And use of the word “green” to describe all things environmentally friendly is buzzwordish.

  5. Caligula

    We’ve had them in my hometown of Seattle for a few years now. Honestly, as a serious cyclist they are kinda silly and stink to ride on in the rain, wet paint is sketchy and it does drizzle in Seatown regularly. Anyways, even if Saint Paul ever gets bike lanes much less “green” lanes they won’t be plowed or maintained (like the trails or few existing bike lanes aren’t) anyways so none of this really matters for the capitol city. Just move to MPLS, PDX or SEA and get a life, STP is a horrifying waking nightmare on too many levels.

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