Copenhagen’s Cycling Craze

The EU BICI series travels to Denmark’s capital city–Copenhagen–the location for other perspectives presented within streets.mn.

Upon arriving in Copenhagen, I was immediately struck by three observations:

  • An intersection on the east edge of town carrying 36,000 cyclists per day.
  • A feature spread in the daily newspaper highlighting cycle track rage—not between car drivers and cyclists—but between cyclists.
  • Public officials informing me of their desire to widen the cycle track standard from 2.5 meters to 3 meters (formerly it was 2.2).

Cycling has an extraordinary presence in this city—almost an “in your face” kind of character. Around 40% of commuters come to the central city by bike; hence, many bike facilities here are wider than the auto lanes I have been living among for the past year in Italy. The ‘maturity level’ of transport-related discussions here is exceptional: discussions aren’t about whether to build a bike path. Rather, they revolve around which of a dizzying array of treatments is most appropriate given the context.

Most people know that cycling facilities are exemplary here and cycling is a ‘way of life.’ But such a way of life in Copenhagen is promulgated by two seldom-acknowledged and important factors:

  • Car use is astronomically expensive. Car tax is pegged at 180% and owing to space and other issues, the cost of parking in Copenhagen is relatively high for commuters[1].
  • Transit’s attractiveness is less than it could be. The oft-lamented poor transit service makes cycling that much more attractive[2].

Those from other ‘elite’ cycling towns (cities across the globe claiming cycling superiority) claim these two factors combine to “coerce” cycling (you are ‘semi-forced’) rather than “providing choice” (because you prefer to cycle). The threshold is personal and depends on your perspective.

The bread and butter of the cycling system here is what the Danes affectionately refer to as ‘cycle tracks.’ To the outsider, cycle tracks have at least three distinguishing characteristics; they are: (1) along the right side of an auto travel lane and in one direction (parked cars are usually on the outside), (2) between 2 and 3 meters wide, and most importantly, (3) raised by a few inches from the auto lane and always separated by stone curb (and not much more).

The first cycle track in Copenhagen came in 1905[3], ever since cyclists claimed the need for a path absent from abandoned horseshoe nails and/or a smoother ride than what the cobblestones provided. According to the Danish Cycling Federation, a decade later they served as protection from “our new enemy, the car.” Almost half of the present-day cycle tracks existed in 1950. But despite being at it for almost a half century, cycling here entered some extreme dark years thereafter. Cycling rates plummeted here (similar to other ‘developed’ countries) post WWII with the car boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The hit came hard here and a bit later than other places. The city trams were dismantled in 1972 and it was not until the 70’s oil/energy crisis that change started to kick in. Via various demonstrations, people started thinking differently about traffic; these changes seeped into political mindsets. It was not until the early 1980s that cycling in Copenhagen really took off again—a momentum that has been building steadily and formidably[4].

Counting the cycle tracks on both sides of the street, the city is now up to an impressive 350 km of them. Local planners will tell you they are 40 to 50 kilometers shy of their wish list, which would then bring the system to completion. The most heavily used ones are clearly the four or so radial routes heading out of the city. The standard is currently 2.5 meters (up from 2.2 meters a few years ago). The desire is to widen the standard to 3 meters to better accommodate ‘social cycling[5]’ as well as space for a third cyclist to pass—clearly a luxury that is foreign to most other places for urban cycling[6].

Funding decisions are made annually and the cycle track ‘wish list’ is now competing with other projects such as green cycle routes[7] (a separate initiative to provide a recreational cycling network through parks and open spaces), problematic intersections, and maintenance. Interestingly, while there appear to be more than a dozen different types of cycling treatments ‘on the books[8]’ and referenced in conversations[9], the traditional (and usually raised) cycle track is what dominates everywhere. A mere 18 km of cycle lanes–separation only via paint—exist in the entire city. Surprisingly absent are woonerf type treatments[10]. The Danish way prizes separated thoroughfares for different vehicles. An emerging (and unresolved?) emphasis has focused on intersections; where to end the cycle tracks. The raised cycle track usually ends a few meters prior to an intersection where the route (formerly referred to as a cycling lane) is often demarcated with blue paint. Treatments employing bike boxes and advanced green lights are seen as well.

Cycling’s success here presents challenges; good challenges—especially considering cycling’s virtuous characteristics—but challenges nonetheless.

  • Carrying bikes on the trains appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon here; designated bike cars on the trains are heavily used, leading to access and egress issues. It is crowded, chaotic, cluttered, and confusing. I hear of times when all the cyclists cannot exit prior to the doors closing, thereby having to stay on until the next stop. Given the externalities created by such cycling-transit users, one has to wonder: maybe a charge for allowing such is not such a bad idea?
  • Rumor has it that every 5th bike in Copenhagen appears to be some sort of cargo device. The size of this fleet is growing and so therefore are the demands for bicycle facilities to accommodate these larger vehicles in the right-of-ways and for parking[11].
  • The aggressive onset of cycle tracks also seems to pair with two phenomena. First, the physical separation between cars and bikes provides a refuge for cars to travel at faster than harmonious speeds. Most speeds in the city used to be 60 km/hr—now down to 50 km/hr. But still, the cycle tracks possibly provide an excuse (and refuge) for 50 km/hr traffic to exist. Second, wider cycle tracks come at the expense of increased and unwelcome crossing environments for pedestrians.
  • Not surprisingly, bike-sharing is not really taking off here. The old system (aka white bikes) went kaput in 2012 and is being replaced with a third generation. There are only a 100 or so bikes and most of the use is generated from tourists; each bike is reportedly used a dismal 0.86 times per day.

Parking

Twenty years ago I visited Copenhagen and learned of the city’s legendary strategy to reduce parking in town: chip away by removing 2-3% each year, primarily from the public squares. “Taking just a little bit each year,” I distinctly remember Jan Gehl telling me, “people notice the loss less and the city once again becomes a livable center.” As best I could discern, the legend might still be alive but it seems to be a bit cloudy. Public squares (where they exist; they are seemingly less seldom in Denmark relative to Italy) have little if any parking. And, installing cycle tracks helps a certain amount because a lane of parking is usually sacrificed. But in other highly visible projects, parking is not going away; rather some of it is going underground via new and costly garages. The discussion of available auto parking, I am told, is alive and well and endless, even here. Inner city residents feel a right to own and park a car at a reasonable cost. The provision of underground garages and angled parking on streets appear to be primary bones of contention.

Where the system in Copenhagen suffers

Copenhagen prizes itself in thinking it is the big city cycling capital of Europe (and arguably of the world). However, matters are still far from ideal. Here are at least 3 areas to refine further action:

  • Cars dominate too many streets. Within a kilometer of the city center, there are countless examples of major car thoroughfares. There is mounting pressure to decrease the number of lanes but even here in the land of cycling nirvana, political decisions are all about compromise.
  • The Danes appear to prefer not to mix their modes. The harmonious co-mingling of modes you find in neighboring Holland is largely absent here. As a result, in my opinion, the walking environment suffers and cars are relegated to a happy existance in their own demarcated corridor.
  • Cycle parking around rail stations and the process of carrying bikes on trains is a complete mess. Local planners appear to know this and are directing attention to devising new solutions.

Whatever difficulties the city is continuing to struggle with, the overall fabric is serving the city well. Along with Amsterdam, Copenhagen’s place as the best big city[12] for cycling in the world[13] is well enough deserved. This visibility, however, has helped press the need of some people to place “Copenhagen” as an adjective preceding many cycling associated nouns (e.g., the Copenhagen “left,” “bike lane,” “Greenwave,” and even the Copenhagen “wheel”). It’s unclear to me if things have gone that far. Next month’s post on Odense (Denmark) might suggest why.

Thanks much to Niels Jensen, Anne Eriksson, and Claus Nybro for their help in better understanding the cycling scene in Copenhagen.

[1] For commuters/visitors, parking seems to be around $5 / hour. Interestingly, for residents who own a car and park in their neighborhood, parking is relatively inexpensive (~$120 per year).

[2] The relatively new metro lines are changing that. There is enormous construction, especially in the center, to enhance metro service all throughout the area.

[3] Jensen, Niels (2013). Planning a Cycling Infrastructure – Copenhagen – city of Cyclists (pages 127-138). In: Cyclist and Cycling Around the World: Creating Liveable and Bikeable Cities. Editors: Juan Carlos Dextre, Mike Hughes, and Lotte Bech. Fondo Editorial (Universidad Catolica).

[4] For a much richer description of Copenhagen’s cycle planning history, read: Jensen, Niels (2013). Planning a Cycling Infrastructure – Copenhagen – city of Cyclists (pages 127-138). In: Cyclist and Cycling Around the World: Creating Liveable and Bikeable Cities. Editors: Juan Carlos Dextre, Mike Hughes, and Lotte Bech. Fondo Editorial (Universidad Catolica).

[5] Those riding two abreast and conversing.

[6] In some locations along Norrebrogade, the cycle track is already 4 meters wide.

[8] for example, see: Focus on Cycling. Copenhagen Guidelines for the Design of Road Projects (December, 2013).

[9] These are, for example, green routes, cycle lanes, reinforced cycle lanes, cycle super highways, cycle streets, pedestrian streets, and the sort.

[10] Reportedly, there are less than 1 km of woonerfs, where auto traffic is limited to 15 km per hour.

[11] Certainly, a typical planner would rather have problems dealing with the size and number of bicycles rather than the size and number of cars, but such issues nevertheless need to be addressed.

[12] The city itself is over ½ million people (and if you include the 20 or so suburbs, the metro area expands to roughly 1.5 million).

[13] See, for example, “The Bicycle Capitals of the World: Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Fietsberaad Publication number 7A. Special Velo-city 2010 congress edition.

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3 Responses to Copenhagen’s Cycling Craze

  1. mplsjaromir August 29, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    Jeez, with all of the Northern European idolization on Streets dot mn I almost feel compelled to inform the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    Doesn’t anywhere else on Earth have anything going on other than Scandinavian countries?

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell August 30, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      It’s spreading out. Slowly. The Netherlands (not Scandinavian) is the epicenter (10 points?). Denmark (7?) is not too far behind. Finland (5?) is probably next with Sweden (4?) and Germany (4?) following. Much of the rest of the developed world is catching up a tiny bit at a time.

      Seville (4?) and Montreal (4?) are a couple of good examples.

      • Erik September 18, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

        What about the less developed world? How do Beijing and Bogotá compare?

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