04 December 2010

Copenhagen: City (full) of Bicycles

The Dutch national bicycle council - Fietsberaad - has published a paper called "Bicycle policies of the European principals: continuous and integral".

In it they compare and analyze the bicycle culture and infrastructure in five Dutch cities and five other European cities. Among the latter, Copenhagen. I've included the chapter on Copenhagen here. It's a long post, but worth a read. As is the entire paper. The link to the .pdf is at the bottom of this post.

It's interesting and curious to read what foreign eyes see when looking at the bicycle life in Copenhagen. There are some discrepencies in the stats and opinions in the paper and I've included my own comments in red.

Most of the paper deals with the CITY of Copenhagen, which is a small city, and not the entire Copenhagen metropolitan area/urban sprawl. It can often be misleading if you've never been here. The text below is an abridged version. Read the pdf for the full text. Off we go:


Unlike most large cities in Europe, Copenhagen has a true bicycle tradition. Bicycle use is widespread among all groups of residents. As usual, part of the explanation is rooted in history, but at the same time the systematic and large-scale bicycle policies of Copenhagen local authorities have been remarkable in recent years.

In 1920 the compact city of Copenhagen had 225,000 inhabitants, by 1950 this had grown to more than 770,000. This strong growth at a time when bicycles, unlike cars, were available to all, is a major element in explaining the high degree of bicycle use. This also marks the start of a true tradition, a lifestyle where cycling is perfectly normal, in a way that is comparable to the Netherlands. Since the 1950’s bicycle use fell strongly, in accordance with overall trends in Europe (as well as the number of inhabitants: back to 550,000), but this trend has reversed from the early 80’s onwards. Presently (2009) Copenhagen has 518,000 inhabitants.

The Copenhagen metropolitan area has over 1.5 million inhabitants, which is particularly high in relation to the overall number of Danes: 5 million. Copenhagen is more or less equivalent to Denmark.
[Ed. Copenhagen Metro area is about 1.9 million. Population of Denmark is 5.4 million. The city has the 3rd largest urban sprawl in Europe]

General and increasing bicycle use

Since the mid-70’s bicycle use in Copenhagen has been increasing, particularly in the town centre and its immediate surroundings. Counts on major routes around the town centre clearly demonstrate this:

Trends in bicycle use in Copenhagen: cyclists towards the town centre over inner city cordon, morning peak hour 1950-2005

The figure clearly demonstrates the essence of the Copenhagen story: over the past 30 years the number of cyclists visible in the confines of the quite compact inner city has quadrupled in the morning rush hour; and doubled over the past 15 years… All data on bicycle use show positive trends only.

The percentage of bicycles in all transportation of Copenhagen residents has grown to 32%, considerably higher than the average in the Netherlands. Significantly higher than bicycle percentages in that other European bicycle capital, Amsterdam, as well (even though that city with its 756,000 inhabitants is considerably larger and therefore less easy to cycle). There bicycles account for some 28% of all transportation:

public transport CPH - 15% AMS - 18%
bicycle 32% 28%
car 26% 27%
walking 24% 24%
other 3% 3%

For sure, several towns in the Netherlands have considerably higher percentages for bicycle use, as much as 40% even. But those are small towns – less than 200,000 inhabitants.

Copenhagen local authorities mainly release data on commuter traffic. And usually not simply the commuting behaviour of Copenhagen residents, but the reverse: the modal split towards jobs in Copenhagen. That is the meaning of the 37% in 2008 mentioned among other data in the policy monitor and in many presentations on Copenhagen.

This number is high anyway for Copenhagen as many employed live in or near the city; much more so than is usual in the Netherlands, particularly in Amsterdam. These circumstances provide part of the explanation. In addition it is still truly remarkable that in 1996 a mere 30% of all Copenhagen employees commuted by bicycle whereas at present this has grown to no less than 37%.

Overwhelming bicycle use – and a particular cycling culture

Observing the Copenhagen morning rush hour is a phenomenon. Even for Dutchmen who
know all about bicycle towns. The numbers of cyclists continuously visible on the busiest routes, are incredible. One thing stands out immediately: Copenhagen truly is a ‘city of bicycles’ – in the sense that bicycle use is overwhelming. On the busiest routes more than 30,000 cyclists a day. These are numbers unknown elsewhere in Europe. In rush hour this provides unique images: continuous overtaking, a kind of bicycle caterpillar slowly spinning round itself. And at every traffic light a queue of cyclists – three abreast.

To a Dutchman these numbers are impressive, but so are the characteristics of the cyclists themselves, as these differ greatly from what is common in the Netherlands:
- highly visible: considerable numbers of cyclists are wearing a helmet; approximately 1 in 6.
[Ed. The intense, propaganda-like helmet promotion of the Danish Road Safety Council and the Danish Cyclists Federation has increased the number of helmets over the past two years. I covered this - and the negative results - in my recent TED c Copenhagen talk.]
- the bicycles are almost without exception nice, well-maintained, new – and often the sporty type.
- the manner of cycling is sporty as well. A considerable number of people pedal at a fierce pace. At traffic lights almost half of all cyclists are actually panting.
[Ed. A fascinating observation. One that I've never experienced myself. Very strange. I think I've documented rush hour in Copenhagen in photos and films enough to be able to say that this postulate is a bit far-fetched. It is true that the speeds are higher than in the Netherlands and in the morning rush hour there are testosterone cyclists muscling their way along, but take this postulate with a grain of salt.]
- certainly the morning rush hour consists nearly completely out of commuters and hardly any children on their way to secondary schools.
[Ed. This is misleading. Makes it sound like kids don't ride bicycles. However, most parents drop off their kids at school in their neighbourhoods and then continue on into the city to go to work. The bicycle traffic at schools in the surrounding neighbourhoods and suburbs is impressive.]
- cyclists obey traffic regulations quite well. In Copenhagen people do not feel this way, as other road users complain in considerable and increasing numbers about cyclists’ behaviour. But compared to cycling in the Netherlands, everything is extremely tidy and disciplined. Over 90% of cyclists stop at a red light. Riding three abreast, with passengers on the back, mobile phone in use – rare occurrences. Choosing your own route across any type of public space, as long as it is a shortcut from X to Y – is compared to the Dutch cyclists’ behaviour almost never to be seen.

Extremely utilitarian
Probably everything is connected to everything else. And an ‘external factor’ like the relatively extremely low risk of theft will certainly be a crucial variable in all of this: better bicycles/other cyclists.
[Ed. Roughly 17,000 bicycles are stolen in Copenhagen each year]

But the most striking feature is that Copenhagen appears to possess quite a specific cycling culture. Maybe basically different from the predominant cycling culture in the Netherlands.

Two catchwords appear to apply to Copenhagen cyclists:
- conscious: the conscious choice of a proud adult.
- rational: a deliberate choice, based on the clear advantages of bicycle use.

There is a good reason for Copenhagen cyclists to say they cycle mainly because it
is fast, simple and healthy.
[Ed. The majority of Copenhagen cyclists say they choose the bicycle because it is fast and easy. 56%. Only 19% say they do so because it's 'good exercise'.]

The word lifestyle may be highly appropriate, since this refers more or less to a conscious decision by individuals, whereas the word culture refers more to an individual’s environment.

The very word lifestyle is frequently used by policymakers and people connected to the Copenhagen bicycle scene. That cycling lifestyle translates into a different street scene when compared to the Netherlands.

Cycling is less of a statement there, less conscious, less emphatic. Cycling in the
Netherlands often looks less utilitarian as well, more relaxed.

Differences in cycling culture between Copenhagen and (for instance) Amsterdam should not be exaggerated, of course. From a European point of view, after all, the similarities are much more striking. With a bicycle percentage of 32% it is almost inevitable that bicycle use is high among all age and social categories. In recent years bicycle use has grown particularly among the elderly. Cyclists are evenly distributed over all income categories, unlike car owners (mainly higher incomes) and public transport users (mainly lower incomes).

Cycling is simply ‘socially accepted’. In Copenhagen it is pointed out that it is not unusual to see ministers and local authorities cycling to work.

Effecting a bicycle lifestyle
Nevertheless, there are differences in cycling culture and lifestyle at official and political levels in urban cycling policies that should not go unmentioned.
First of all: officially cycling policies are a mature and particularly independent issue. Copenhagen possesses a bicycle team of currently 6 people. Projects are implemented everywhere in the organisation; the bicycle team is a clear and well-known information and co-ordination point. And within the bicycle team cycling culture, lifestyle and promotion of Copenhagen as bicycle town is an important issue.

Witness the presentations, among them by manager Andreas Røhl, on cycling in Copenhagen: mainly dealing with the position of the bicycle in Copenhagen – and much less with the details of cycling infrastructure. The main emphasis is on what cycling means for the city and its inhabitants. External champion is Gehl Architects, the bureau of the famous Jan Gehl, strongly contributing to positioning Copenhagen as ‘a people approach’: urban design specifically for people. Gehl Architects uses to this end the striking images of streets full of cyclists versus empty streets or streets full of cars. And catchy slogans: A city full of bicyclists is a friendly city – a people city.

The Copenhagen bicycle team is also involved in more theoretical foundations of promotion: ‘mainstreaming’ bicycle traffic.
“A mainstream bicycle culture needs to be flexible enough to embrace both mass culture and individual sub-cultures in order to be thoroughly successful. Cycling
being as mainstream as it is, there is need for a common debate on the positive aspects of everyday cycling . (...)

To meet these demands, the City of Copenhagen has set off a new campaign based on the brand “I bike CPH”. This brand communicates positivity, participation and
ownership - and a sense of community that is as flexible as the bicycle culture out on the streets. The campaign includes happenings on street level as well as an interactive web 2.0 community.”

Pro-cycling politics
Secondly: in local politics cycling policy is very much an item. To a certain degree it was a political issue in the latest local elections. And it is generally assumed that pro-cycling choices of nominee politicians were truly effective in those elections. Andreas Røhl provides several reasons for political support for cycling. The well-known social advantages (less congestion, environmental concerns, health, urban life) but he also mentions the possibility of some more inherently political motives: projects can often be implemented within a single term in office;
bicycle policies are relatively inexpensive and highly visible. And finally, emphatically: 60% of voters have a bicycle as their main mode of daily transport.

This stronger political drive behind local bicycle policies goes with radical and clear objectives that are communicated as much as possible, too: 50% share of cycling to work and school (previous target 40%); 50% fewer casualties; 80% of all cyclists to feel comfortable. And that in 2015, an emphatic and major element in a larger ambition: becoming the world’s eco-metropolis.
[Ed. Unfortunately there is little sign or hope that these goals will be reached. Cycling levels have fallen since 2008.]

Perfect monitoring
The attention paid to interaction with the inhabitants in Copenhagen cycling policy is matched by heavy monitoring of that policy. In the Bicycle Account biennial developments in bicycle use and safety have been recorded since 1996, as well as
facts about the immediate results of municipal cycling policy. However, the most important and most frequently used part of the Bicycle Account is a standard bicycle satisfaction survey. There cyclists award scores on eight essential elements of cycling policy.

The overall judgement of the cyclists (Copenhagen cycling city) is high and has been rising since 1996. Nevertheless there is a clear gap between the very high appreciation of the general issue of Copenhagen as a cycling city and the verdicts on actual bicycle facilities.

There is hardly a positive trend there, on the contrary. The greatest decline is in the width of Copenhagen bicycle paths. This appears to be a direct consequence of the policy’s success: increasing numbers of cyclists on the same infrastructure – leading to crowding. The numbers in recent years may actually now lead to congestion on bicycle paths along certain stretches of roads and in rush hour.

Bicycle paths with a width of 2.20 metres can only handle approximately 2,000 cyclists an hour. Whereas rush hour numbers are approaching 3,000 cyclists on the busiest routes. Widening to 3 metres is advisable on the busiest routes and is being considered by local authorities.

Raised adjoining bicycle paths
Remarkable cyclists, remarkable numbers of cyclists - but certainly also remarkable bicycle facilities in Copenhagen. The range of facilities is severely limited. Where many other towns demonstrate a wide range and combination of bicycle lanes and bicycle paths, depending on time of construction and local circumstances, Copenhagen has almost no bicycle lanes separated from car lanes by markings only (18 km of bicycle lanes compared to 338 km of bicycle paths). Standard the bicycle paths, on either side of the road, are at least 2 metres, often 2,5 metres wide. A typically Copenhagen phenomenon is that these are usually ‘(raised) adjoining bicycle paths’, according to Dutch terminology. The Dutch ‘separate bicycle paths’,
with a clear distance/verge between car lane and bicycle path, are rare in Copenhagen. And ‘solitary bicycle paths’, with their own route, can occasionally be found, but then emphatically as part of a specific network, the green routes (see below).

The raised adjoining bicycle paths are a success in Copenhagen. No one is advocating
fundamentally different types of facilities. Which is remarkable, particularly when combined with high numbers of cyclists. In the Netherlands it might be a cause for concern: no more than a kerb between the bicycle path and motorists; a great risk of falling when overtaking and landing among the cars. Not so in Copenhagen, maybe partly due to the fact that people seem to be cycling 2 (or 3) abreast relatively less often.

Highly similar bicycle facilities along highly similar roads. Because that is certainly also a factor: the Copenhagen bicycle network is concentrated along heavy radials, meant for motorists as well. Which leads to situations along stretches of road and at intersections that are or may be more or less similar. The best standard solutions are looked for in intersections, just like along the stretches of road (with raised adjoining bicycle paths). Where ‘best’ usually translates into ‘safest’.

Since the bicycle path is so close to motor lanes, the most logical and common mechanism is essentially turning inwards at intersections. Making cyclists more visible. Copenhagen bicycle paths usually change into bicycle lanes a few metres before an intersection, lead straight across the intersection (since the 90’s often marked in blue with white bicycle symbols) and change back into bicycle paths beyond the intersection.

Experiences with the blue intersection markings are positive. Studies show an increase in safety. In particular the number of accidents between cyclists going straight ahead and on-coming left-turning motorists has clearly fallen.

The search for the best solution is however still on regarding intersections with lengthened or shortened raised-adjoining bicycle paths. The solution for some of the conflicts is clear: cyclists meeting a red light should be positioned somewhat closer to the intersection than motorists waiting as well. Problems are caused by cyclists arriving at the intersection when lights are green. And that happens a lot, due to the huge numbers of cyclists on those radials and the long green phases on those radials for bicycles and cars (together). That makes right turn lanes for cars highly advisable anyway. At the busiest moments, however, the situation is visibly ‘wrong’. Motorists will eventually use even the tiniest gap in the rows of fast bicycles.

In this respect it seems inevitable that increasingly a decision is made in favour of conflict-free solutions between cyclists going straight ahead and cars turning right.

Implementation of the bicycle network

Bicycle facilities in Copenhagen go back a long way. Initially these were mainly recreational bicycle paths along arterial roads. The first bicycle path dates from 1920. By 1930 this had already grown to 130 km of bicycle paths. After 1945 the main issue was segregation of traffic types on the busiest main roads. Many bicycle paths were constructed particularly along new main roads. Presumably thanks in part to these facilities bicycle use stood its ground, even in the decades of decline and minimal attention by policymakers. The network of bicycle paths has since been almost completed - almost one hundred years of bicycle path construction bears fruit. Overall there is approximately 340 km of bicycle path nowadays (2009). And although this is by and large complete, there is still some degree of expansion every year.
[Ed. The oft quoted length of bicycle infrastructure - 340 km - is only in the municipality of Copenhagen. Gehl Architects have counted 1000 km of bike paths in Greater Copenhagen. In addition, the claim that the first bicycle path dates from 1920 may not be correct. Here is a photo of bike paths being marked out from 1915. And here's a photo of building a bike path in the 1930's]

In 2008 another 5 km of bicycle path was added (and 4 km hugely improved). According to local planners there is still some 50-60 km to go.

Network choices: traditional radials versus park routes
The bicycle network of raised adjoining bicycle paths covers to a large degree exactly the same routes as car traffic. The busiest bicycle routes are the traditional radials that are also preferred routes for motor vehicles. This decision in favour of ‘convergence’ has a number of consequences. Cycling in Copenhagen means cycling in the noise and pollution of motor vehicles. At the same time it is also a very direct route - and cyclists are relatively little bothered by traffic lights on the radials themselves, as they are carried along in the long
green phases for the neighbouring motor vehicles.

Huge numbers of cyclists do this on a daily basis, as the radials are so attractive – both to cyclists and motorists. Just look at the map: the busiest routes in Copenhagen are the last 3-4 km of five clear radial routes. As well as the route along Langebro and Hans Christian Andersen's Boulevard, slightly less typically radial.

The convergence of bicycles and cars on those radials also explains most of the emphasis in Copenhagen bicycle policies. The large amount of attention to safe bicycle infrastructure on intersections is closely linked to the large numbers of intersections on those radials and their heavy load. And it is no more than fitting that Copenhagen should be one of the first cities to introduce green waves for cyclists. The first route where this was realised was a 2200-metre stretch of road with no fewer than 12 traffic lights.

Green Wave on Nørrebrogade (2004)
Nørrebrogade is the main bicycle axis in Copenhagen. Near the town centre at the time 30,000 cyclists a day, alongside 17,000 cars. A little over 2 km further along there were 15,000 cyclists and 16,000 cars. The effects of the green wave along 12 traffic lights (with considerable green phases in the main direction anyway) with a standard speed of 20 km/h, could easily be demonstrated. In the morning rush hour towards the town centre the advantage to cyclists was 2.29 minutes (6 stops less); in the opposite direction 1 stop was gained as well as 35 seconds. Effects in the afternoon were more difficult to gauge, as there is no clear rush hour. The effect (out of the town centre) is smaller, but still clear: 1.13 minutes advantage thanks to 3 stops less.
[Ed. See a film about Riding the Green Wave in Copenhagen.]

Green routes
All attention has gone, both in the past and the present, to the bicycle facilities along these busy radials. The alternative has been positioned radically different in Copenhagen. Alongside or in contrast to the adjoining bicycle paths along arterial routes there are no routes with the same function through residential neighbourhoods, along low-traffic roads. There are only ‘green cycle routes’. Literally green: to a large extent winding through parks and complete car-free areas. There has been a distinct search for routes over longer distances and complete routes; even a complete network. There are some 22 green routes planned, each on average 5 km long. Of the overall 110 km some 41 km have been realised at this time. The speed is not impressive: in 1995 there were already 29 km in existence.

The network of green routes is emphatically not meant to be utilitarian. Copenhagen states:
“The green cycle routes are for recreation, bicycle exercise, running, walking, skateboarding and other games on wheels. In addition, they offer anybody cycling to their place of work or education the opportunity to cycle all or part of their daily journey through peaceful, green, car-free and bus-free surroundings.”

Inevitable network choices: low(er) car traffic

Few direct routes, only to a slight degree aimed at the major destinations, slow to be effected – it will be clear that in this way there will not be an alternative for the functional ‘convergence’ routes for a long time. And therefore the inevitable problems on the convergence routes will have to be addressed on their own. There are various solutions possible–- and the beginnings can be discerned in Copenhagen as well:

- if the numbers of cars and bicycles become prohibitive at the busiest intersections, the time has come for the best but also most expensive solution: different levels. Copenhagen has more or less started on this road.
- The numbers of bicycle bridges and tunnels are still quite low, but increasing. As well as the realisation that this is necessary.
- if the numbers of cyclists on those busy radials outgrows the available room, additional room will have to be found. At the expense of motor vehicles.

It is quite remarkable that this is already occurring in Copenhagen, and without too many problems: parking spaces are being sacrificed in favour of raised adjoining bicycle paths. All over the town the desire to decrease the number of lanes for car traffic will be growing. By now there is a precedent: Nørrebrogade has been closed to through traffic since 2008. This caused 40% fewer motor vehicles in rush hour, which pleased 67% of the local residents and added aprox. 5000 cyclists to the aprox. 30.000 that daily passed the most popular part of the street before the redesign.

Nevertheless Copenhagen – cycling capital in numbers of cyclists – is remarkable for the room still afforded to cars very close to the town centre. Heavily-used car routes at a distance of less than a kilometre from the town centre. Remarkably short car queues outside rush hour. The most extreme example: the intersection Gyldenløvesgade/Søgade: the radial route has 9 lanes for cars, at 900 metres’ distance from the market (Nytorv). There Copenhagen appears to be a true car city!

Indirectly, without much ado and very cautiously, steps have been taken towards a kind of alternative network along low-traffic roads. Nørrebrogade is a first instance: closure for motor vehicles has shifted this route to some degree from the ‘convergence-radials network’ towards a ‘low-traffic network’. The bicycle bridge in a green route across the busy Ågade/Åboulevard (2008) makes that route much more functional and to a certain extent radial as well.

The bicycle bridge Bryggebroen across the harbour at Islands Brygge (2006) created a new functional route - and attracted 3,000 cyclists from the very first day, a number that at the latest count (2009) had increased to 8500.

What makes them cycle so much?
When all is said and done, it is still confusing to see the huge numbers of cyclists on the cycling axis' in Copenhagen. In part this is some sort of optical illusion, a result of the strong clustering of all cyclists on those radials. Nevertheless Copenhagen is still the cycling capital of Europe, even in percentage of cycling. The quality and quantity of the bicycle infrastructure clearly match this. At the same time, however, the quality of the cycling network does not appear to be the cause for the numbers of cyclists and their rapid increase. In bicycle infrastructure Copenhagen is far less of a capital. And by no means is Copenhagen the car-free capital.

So after all still a ‘culture’ or ‘lifestyle’ – whatever that may be? To a certain degree this may be so. But some more tangible factors can be discerned, particularly when compared to Dutch towns:
1. the low numbers of car ownership in Denmark, in particular Copenhagen, due to high purchasing costs (almost twice as high as in the Netherlands). In the Netherlands car ownership per head is 21% higher than in Denmark. Amsterdam has 42 cars per 100 inhabitants, Copenhagen 22 – although it is not sure the data are comparable.
2. few opportunities for parking cars in the Copenhagen town centre. Of course this holds for visitors in many other towns as well. But Copenhagen appears to be exceptional: even employees struggle to find parking space. Major companies do not have private parking garages to a much lesser degree.
3. Low numbers of bicycle theft. Even in the Netherlands we know the spiral may be upward or downward: less theft, better bicycles, nicer to cycle, cycle more often, et cetera.
Yet it remains hard to explain. And the reality remains overwhelming: Copenhagen is indeed a city (full) of cyclists. And because it is so hard to explain and in several respects it appears the cycling climate may be improved a lot, a continued increase of bicycle use seems to be likely.
- provided cyclists will demand their rightful place, even in traffic behaviour...
- provided Copenhagen will reduce the role of cars near the town centre, as dozens of other towns in Europe have done...
- provided cycling will be even nicer and more relaxed by additional improvements in the network.
[Ed: Copenhagenize agrees wholeheartedly with these recommendations. Let's hope someone is listening.]

Link to the paper as .pdf: The Fietsberaad - Bicycle policies of the European principals: continuous and integral