Prior to a 2 month hiatus, the EU BICI series travels to (arguably) Northern Europe’s best cycling success story: Odense.
Denmark and the Netherlands have the best cycling culture and infrastructure of anywhere in the world. The “big city” stars in each, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, shine bright. Outside of these high profile centers, however, exist dozens of other communities, many of whom have bike planning contexts that are equally impressive, if not superior. Odense, Hans Christian Anderson’s birthplace and a city of less than 200,000, is perhaps the most impressive bike planning effort I have found.
What’s so impressive? Its status in my mind is informed by what the city has accomplished over recent years which has led to an exemplary environment—all within a vital and conveniently sized town (the third largest in Denmark).
Bike planning hasn’t always been easy here. My understanding is that close to the end of the last century, Odense was like most other cities across the country (or Northern Europe, for that matter): reasonably good cycling culture and infrastructure (relative to US settings), but nothing outstanding. Just in the last two decades, however, the city has turned from good to great. What magic was in the potion? Being denoted as the country’s “national city” for cycling probably had some effect. Being home to the Danish cycling embassy didn’t hurt. But the real tonic appears to be a mixture of:
(a) simultaneously chipping away at countless different initiatives,
(b) attention to detail in applying these initiatives,
(c) patience, and
(d) compromise in the political process.
Cycling initiatives here are well documented, including the standard list of separated bike paths and other infrastructure treatments. But what separates Odense is the variety of treatments/initiatives and their attention to detail in application. Cycle planning in Odense appears to be the antithesis of “one size fits all.” Specialized right turn treatments in 40 intersections provide cycling shortcuts (via pork-chops to prevent “right hooks”). High quality medallions are placed in the pavement to indicate a cycling route barring sufficient space for a path. Countless intersections have preferential and specialized signal treatments for cycling. Furthermore, there are more than a handful of carefully thought-out promotional initiatives. Oh, we cannot forget the laser measurements to assess pavement quality along some routes or the clever applications of bicycle parking.
All of this is on top of the whopping 540 km of 2.2 meter wide cycle tracks. Bike planning in Denmark is extremely wedded to the “power” of the Copenhagen—rather, Danish—cycletrack. At least two characteristics distinguish such: (1) an approximate 5 cm elevation change between the auto travel lane on one side and the pedestrian walkway on the other, and (2) an approximate 10 cm wide stone curb separating it from the auto travel lane. Both of these precise characteristics are important. But the planning process in Odense seems to recognize that other treatments might be cheaper and even superior in certain circumstances. It is not all cycle track all the time. What I appreciated seeing were the varied treatments used in some of the 300 zones where auto traffic was calmed using any number of approaches. Cycling treatments are applied in a very context-dependent nature. Standards and uniformity is great; but they sometimes create problems for implementation.
The biggest cycling news for this city was the roughly six-lane auto thoroughfare that swiped the center of town that was imminently being shut down. This historic change was apparently more than five years in the making. The “closing ceremony” for such—comprised of bicycle advocates setting up lawn chairs (aka Times Square style)—was eagerly anticipated the weekend after my visit. In a kind of long term horse trading scheme, this formerly auto-laden corridor is now set to be redeveloped in exchange for increased enhanced auto-accessibility on the out-skirts of town.
What overarching factors help separate Odense from Denmark’s signature cycling city, Copenhagen? Car travel is cheaper here; owing to more dispersed settlement, car travel generally has higher time-savings than cycling; car travel is overall easier here. Despite these factors, almost a majority of all trips are via bike. Residents are not mere “forced” into cycling here via inconveniences and pricing in the same way as in Copenhagen. From what I understand, residents here are largely lured into it because of personal choice and culture. Combined with the quantify and precision-quality of cycling infrastructure treatments, Odense is as good of a cycling success story as you will find anywhere.
Thanks much to Troels Andersen for a 4½ bike tour of Odense and sharing insights into their planning processes.
 For example, see: http://www.friefugle.dk/poland/odense_ta_en.html