05 April 2014

Copenhagen - Is Cycling Up or Down or What?

SnowFall RushHour - Cycling in Winter in Copenhagen
It's all so confusing. Numbers indicating rise and falls in cycling levels. Although perhaps not as much as we think.

Firstly, back in 2009 I made a bet with anyone who would take it. Cycling levels in Copenhagen had been stagnant for many years. In 2008, a whole new kind of stupid showed up in Denmark. The Danish Road Safety Council (Rådet for Sikker Trafik - or Rodet for Sikker Panik if you like) decided to expand their ideological campaigns by promoting bicycle helmets. They convinced the Danish Cyclists Federation (DCF) to join the parade. To this day, the DCF remain one of the few national cycling organisations in all of Europe who support promotion of bicycle helmets.

Anyway, hardcore emotional propaganda hit the streets of Denmark in January 2008. As usual with such organisations, there was little science involved. An unsuspecting population were subjected to a one-sided view on helmets and not offered any balanced, scientific perspective. The Culture of Fear is powerful when applied correctly. Now, 17% of Copenhageners wear helmets on average. They are usually the ones involuntarily performing Risk Compensation studies. Keep a careful eye when cycling out there with them.

In this article from 2009 - Cycling is booming - just not in Denmark - I predicted that the rash of bicycle helmet promotion would not cause cycling levels to increase - despite the massive political will at the time. As I wrote:

Here's my bet. Because of the intense bicycle helmet propanganda in 2008:
- the percentage of cyclists in Copenhagen - 37% - will not rise. It will either fall or remain unchanged.

Few colleagues believed it. What happened?

Copenhagen cycling levels fell from 37% to 35% by 2010. That's a lot of people who hopped off the bicycle. The people who made that happen have blood on their hands.

In order to explain the drop, the usual suspects will tell you that it was because there were two hard winters in Copenhagen. So we looked at all the different factors involved, including the weather, and compared it all with Amsterdam. Amsterdam, and the rest of the Netherlands, suffered EXACTLY the same hard winters in the same period. Amount of snow, temperatures, you name it.

Cycling levels didn't fall in Amsterdam. They remained steady. Fewer people drove because of the winters, but cycling wasn't affected.

The emotional propaganda onslaught faded away and, as one would expect, cycling levels started to recover. We're now at 36% modal share of people arriving at work of education in the city and have lingered there for a few years.

The news today in Copenhagen is of a massive increase in cycling in Copenhagen. Numbers from travel survey data from Danish Technical University show the following:

- The average trip length for Copenhageners increase by a whopping 1 km since 2012.
- Copenhageners ride 2,006,313 km a day, compared to 1.3 million in 2012.
- Car trips are down 12%.
- Public transport also increased its modal share from 28% to 32% since 2007.

One of the newspapers in Denmark that is arguably the most anti-cycling - Politiken - try to wrap their pretty heads around why there has been an increase in this article, in Danish. They ask all manner of academics who offer up their opinions.

The journalists claim that the City of Copenhagen's focus on infrastructure is a reason for it. They mention, among other things, the bicycle bridges over the harbour but fail to notice that they aren't even finished being built yet. So that doesn't work. There have been infrastructure improvements on certain streets, sure, but nothing on a large enough scale to boost cycling levels this much.

It's all very simple if you want it to be.

Copenhagenize Traffic Planning Guide

Right here, in all its simplicity.

Copenhagen is one massive building site. 17 new Metro stations are under construction all at once. Last year, work was finally completed on the huge network of pipes providing central heating to most of the city centre, which only contributed to the chaotic construction in the city. In the above article, the DCF - to my delight - recognised this as the reason for the current increase.

If you want to encourage cycling and public transport, make driving a pain in the ass. It is the only way forward and the only way we know to get motorists to change their behaviour.

Trip lengths by bicycle are up in Copenhagen - and car trips are down - simply because it's a pain to drive in the city because of all the construction at the moment. That's it and that's that.

If the City wants to maintain these cycling levels, keep the current chaos, albeit in a nicer form, when the Metro construction is finished.

The new numbers are nice today, but if everything just reverts to the car-centric status quo when construction is finished (and remember that the Metro expansion is already projected to reduce cycling levels by 3%), the honeymoon will be over and it will be abrupt and shocking when it happens.
Mark my words.

It's all so easy if you want it to be.
Don't promote helmets.
Make driving difficult, complicated, expensive.

The homo sapiens of a city will always figure out the fastest A to B. We call it A2Bism. We are all like rivers, finding the easiest route. Make that the bicycle or public transport and you are halfway there.


Klaus Bondam said...

Dear Mikael. I do not understand why you need to bash on others to promote your self. The Danish Cyclists' Federation - Cyklistforbundet - has since long before (1905) you where born or even started to think for your self becoming a cyclist-campaigner, been working to create better and better conditions for the Danish cyclist's. We do not 'promote the use of helmets'. We recommend that you use one, but are against making Laws on the subject. In other words; it is entirely up to yourself. Secondly there are all ready some bridges for cyclist and pedestrians finished in Copenhagen (Bryggebroen). The rest is still to come, but you can't blame the city for the collapse of the constructing company. I was - as you know - in my previous career the Mayor for The Technical and Environmental Administration in The City of Copenhagen. I have with high personal costs taken responsibility for the development instead of just sitting pointing fingers at others. I am today the CEO of DCF and I will continue to do whatever I can to promote cycling and better urban liveability. I would love to do it in dialogue and cooperation with you. There is NO NEED to do what you do here. See you on the bicycles tracks in Copenhagen. All the best. Klaus PS/ I heard that the number of seriously harmed brain damages in Amsterdam has been rising dramatically following accidents involving cyclist. Do you know anything about this

Unknown said...

Okay, there is some brain damages.
But whats up with strokes, heart attacks, and many other stuff? The fear is the largest killer the cycling is the life. The helmet - in the city cycling - is a bilboard of danger.
The cycling culture save your life. But the helmet culture kills the cycling culture.

Kuku from Budapest

Glenn said...

Here in the U.S. a very good start could be made by simply _stopping_ all the subsidies for cars. From the way roads are paid for all the way through to "free parking".

user1 said...

@Klaus Bondam
'We do not 'promote the use of helmets'. We recommend that you use one (...)'

So you do promote helmets!
In Poland, where I'm from, virtually no bicycle advocates 'recommend using helmets'. They know (probably thanks to Copenhagenize work) that helmet promotion is one of the things that discourages people most from riding a bicycle.

But there are also other obstacles - like hills, for example. The most obvious solution to this are e-bikes (pedelecs). Yet Copenhagenize is attacking e-bikes in recent days - and thus attacking the bicycle culture.
E-bike 'sceptics' posting articles here are like these helmet advocates - having good intentions and thinking that they promote better safety, but in fact they can make some people cycling less or even not cycling at all.

By the way... didn't e-bikes contribute to increase in cycling levels in Copenhagen? Surely in many cases they can compete better with car than bicycles without electric assistance.

P. S. Yes, it is possible to have mass bicycle use in hilly places without e-bikes, just like it is possible to have mass bicycle use with constant helmet promotion, but you know...

Gordon Inkeles said...

Some sobering comments on the potential cost of riding without a helmet from an M.D.:


tstreet said...

Not to worry. Virtually everyone who bikes in the U.S. uses a helmet, even those on three wheeled recumbents. But honestly, I truly believe that helmets should be encouraged for auto usage, walking, and running. My personal experience is that all these latter activities are more dangerous than biking.

Gordon Inkeles said...

Actually, If that were even close to true, TStreet, the bike accident statistics cited by Dr. Wolf wouldn't be so frightening. You missed the point of the article.

Jason said...

Be wary of MDs (who aren't trained in stats) bearing frightening stats.


Paul M said...

@Klaus Bondam Even the UK's main national cyclists organisation the CTC doesn't actually recommend using helmets. Sure, their culture and priorities probably sit better with helmet wearing and their magazine depicts far more helmeted cyclists than bare-headed ones, but don't go so far as to take apposition on their use. Thank God!

Gordon Inkeles said...
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Gordon Inkeles said...
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Gordon Inkeles said...

Paul M

I'm an agnostic on the question of mandatory helmet wearing. If you choose not to wear one I assume you would be willing to carry a medical waiver, absolving society from the burden of paying for your recovery if you do fall on your head.

john said...

"If you choose not to wear one I assume you would be willing to carry a medical waiver, absolving society from the burden of paying for your recovery if you do fall on your head."

Only if you carry one while driving, walking, taking a shower with without a nonslip flooding, eating fatty foods, going outside at all, ect. It think you get the point. Everything has an element of risk and this idea that everyone must shield themselves from even the smallest danger is asinine.

And I proudly ride helmet free. Don't buy the fear mongering.

Tallycyclist said...

Gordon Inkeles

I'd be more willing to agree with your statement if all motorists and pedestrians should also have to sign a medical waiver when they choose not to wear a helmet. In fact for motorists that should also include choosing not to wear a fire retardant suit and 5-piece harness. There's an incredible amount of inconsistency when it comes to discussions about traffic safety gear/expectations/behavior and what not.

Gordon Inkeles said...
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Gordon Inkeles said...


As you would know if you'd managed to read Dr. Wolf's article, cyclists are far more likely--nearly certain-- to sustain a head injury in an accident then pedestrians or motorists. For more, read the data on head injuries and helmets cited in the Minnesota studies.

Tallycyclist said...

Gordon Inkeles

Maybe you can provide a link to the specific study that you mention. As someone with a scientific background, I don't just accept any study or publication for face value. I'd like to see the methodology and data analysis to decide for myself how well the whole experiment/argument was constructed and undertaken.

I can kind of see where pedestrians MIGHT have less likelihood to suffer head injuries upon being hit by a car, in that they are not utilizing extra appendage (i.e. the bicycle). But the injury is often going to be the legs, torso or the portion of the body just above that. It'd be ridiculous to expect peds to wear all kinds of protection gear to

In my first message, I mentioned the scenarios about peds and motorists because there's a lot of inconsistency in expectations and blame for one group of traffic users vs. another. The overarching issue is having 4,000 + lb machines being operated by people of all skill-levels, many of whom should probably not be allowed to drive a car. We can try and make the vulnerable users bubble-wrap themselves as much as possible, or we can do something about the actual dangers (from cars). The act of cycling in itself is not inherently dangerous. Which is why I don't wear helmets, gloves or knee/elbow pads. If I wasn't confident about my own ability to cycle with falling, I would probably voluntarily wear those things.

I don't know where the study you mentioned was conducted as of now, but most likely not in the Netherlands, which has the safest cycling stats, the highest rate of cyclists and also some of the best infrastructure (not just for cycling) in the world. And most cyclists there do not use helmets.

Jason said...

"I'm an agnostic on the question of mandatory helmet wearing. If you choose not to wear one I assume you would be willing to carry a medical waiver, absolving society from the burden of paying for your recovery if you do fall on your head."

Wanting to deny people medical attention is hardly agnostic is it.

A few miles down the road from me in Brightlingsea, UK a motorcyclist hit a cyclist and tried to argue contributory negligence because the cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet - the case was rejected because the expert evidence was that a bicycle helmet (which are designed to absorb impact from a stationary 6ft drop) wouldn't be expected to provide protection from a vehicle collision.

All of which is a red herring.

Bicyclsists are fine. You don't need to worry about them (the 'stats' your doctor friend quoted are a confused nonsense mish mash and entirely misleading). You don't need to wrap up in a helmet and hi-vis PPE to ride a bike to the shops or the train station.

You do need to worry about motorists. Sedentary lifestyles and the missed opportunity for exercise from taking the car rather than walking or cycling to the shops is the #1 public health issue for the US, UK and elsewhere.

Jason said...
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Jason said...

ooops - double post :(

lagatta à montréal said...

I suspect that if there has been a significant increase in serious accidents among cyclists in Amsterdam, it is in large part due to the presence of motorbikes and scooters in the cycle lanes. Many of these have been boosted to go much faster than they are supposed to.