I recently got the opportunity to travel to Copenhagen for a brief trip. The weather was beautiful, which facilitated a lot of walking and biking around. Here are some thoughts and photos, with some context relevant to Minnesota.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: there are bikes. Oh how there are bikes. They’re everywhere, thick on the streets and leaned up against every wall (most people don’t use locks). I took a ride at rush hour going out of the city, and it was almost overwhelming. Nearly every major street seems to have a cycle track on both sides of the street. One bridge alone carries 40,000 (!) bicycles per day into the central city. A city official told me that 60 percent of residents use a bicycle to get to school or work, and metro-wide their commute share is close to 40 percent. They’re not satisfied with this number, so they’re collaborating with neighboring municipalities to build cycle “super highways” far out into the burbs.
- They don’t ride purely for the love of bicycles. Cycling has a long history in Denmark, but gas is also pretty expensive (in the $8/gallon range), they have a strict vulnerable road user law (also called strict liability), the metro is the cleanest and smoothest I’ve ever ridden, and structured parking seems non-existent in downtown. Their transportation transformation began as a result of the energy crisis of the 70’s, in particular they were concerned about Denmark’s near total reliance on imported energy.
Natural features also support cycling. Copenhagen is flat as a pancake, summer highs average in the mid-60s and winter lows are in the 30s Fahrenheit.
- Oh yeah, there are no freeways into downtown Copenhagen.
- Sidewalks are way too narrow. By western standards, and compared to what “urbanists” might advocate for, the sidewalks are mostly tiny. Cafes frequently spill into the walking area, forcing pedestrians into the street. In most places, walking two abreast is the max, with many places only allowing one.
- Sidewalks are an ADA nightmare. Almost every sidewalk I traveled (many) in Copenhagen was cobblestone, with two concrete tracks down the middle (for baby carriages and shopping carts, I was told). Many streets are still cobblestone.
Related, cyclists don’t like you walking/standing in the cycle track or bike lane. Locals seem to respect the bike lane most of all, assuming cars will stop for them but staying well clear of walking in front of a moving bicycle. Cyclists don’t seem to take kindly to tourists blocking the track, but the Danish seem very polite and mostly just ring their bell.
- Copenhagen is a very walkable city. The fine mix of shopping, food, workplaces, parks all along short blocks makes it a pleasure to stroll. Buildings are also limited to six or seven stories (based on a historic height limit), which keeps things at a more human scale. Every day we were told “that’s about 15 minutes away”. Even when this time doubled, we didn’t seem to notice.
- Before there were bikes or cars, transport by water was very important to Copenhagen. Even today, when a new development goes in, the City often digs a new canal to give residents access to their beloved canals.
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