Lessons in Danish Urbanism: Part 1 - Cycling as Transport

SmithGroup, urban planning, urban design, urbanism

Street infrastructure in Copenhagen makes room for everyone.

Travel is the best way to experience urban environments distinct from what we have grown accustomed to in our daily lives. Examples from abroad can be especially insightful, helping us reconsider how we have structured our urban realm and whether it serves us in the most optimal ways. I recently returned to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Copenhagen, Denmark and I brought back some lessons in urban design and urban living to share. First up: Cycling as Transport.

Cycling in Copenhagen is almost effortless and eminently practical. It is not limited to those brave souls who are excellent cyclists and don’t fear riding in the streets alongside fast-moving automobiles. As thoroughly described in Mikael Colville-Andersen’s wonderful book, Copenhagenize, the bicycle is a core form of transport that takes people of all ages and cycling abilities to and from their daily destinations because it is easy and safe to do so. Simple as that. This fact is further reinforced in Melissa and Chris Bruntlett’s excellent new book about the Netherlands, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality.

As Colville-Anderson describes, in the mid part of the last century, after the car began to dominate the urban landscape, Copenhagen suffered from sprawl conditions like we have had in the U.S. In the 1970s and 1980s, and based on citizen demands, city leaders made a powerful decision to reverse this trend and put money and political will behind reducing the car’s dominance and making their city work for its people. Cyclists are treated as equivalent to pedestrians, not as equivalent to cars, in terms of transport needs.

“In Danish and Dutch planning, cyclists are regarded as a species of the same genus as pedestrians in the unwritten taxonomic hierarchy of urban dwellers transporting themselves. In other parts of the world, where traffic engineering dominates, cyclists are wrongly lumped together with cars and trucks and are separated from pedestrians.” (Colville-Anderson 33)

Most roadways now have separated and/or raised cycletracks. These keep cyclists physically separated (raised by a few centimeters of height or separated by physical barriers) on their own infrastructure, not shared with cars on roads or pedestrians on sidewalks. The cycletracks are typically situated on both sides of the street and are wide enough for two cyclists to ride side by side and for cargo bikes to carry goods or people. Many roads have traffic signals for just for bikes, which helps maintain order, flow, and safety at intersections. This video by StreetFilms shows what it feels like to travel in this manner, as viewed through North American eyes. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen without many trials and errors first.

Lessons in Danish Urbanism, Cycling2
Copenhagen has separate signals and separate infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians, and cars.

The results are phenomenal: According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark’s New Bicycle Account,  among Copenhageners, 63 percent of residents choose to cycle to work and education, whereas only 9 percent take the car1. This is not because it is environmentally friendly (a 10-mile bike commute five days a week for a year, saves 1.3 tons of CO2, based on a mid-size car2); not because it is great exercise (cycle commuting is associated with a lower risk of cardio vascular disease, cancer, and mortality3); nor because it is less expensive (according to AAA, the average cost to own a vehicle in the U.S. is $8,469 in car cost, gas, maintenance, and insurance based on driving 15,000 miles/year4). They do so because it gets them to and from their daily destinations easily, quickly, and safely -- and they get all those other great benefits as well.

Of course, Copenhagen is known for cold, wet winters. Surely people must return to using their cars then? Not really. While some will take public transit or cars instead, 75 percent of the cycling population continues to travel by bicycle in winter.6 The city has made it a priority to keep cycling infrastructure clear on snowy days. In addition to cycletrack sweepers that keep paths clear, a lovely partnership was created. Farmers with their plows are brought in to help clear the bikeways as soon as snow starts falling. Cycling continues.

U.S. cities are making great strides in encouraging urban cycling through bike share programs and integrating more bike lanes into the street network, but cycling must become more than yet another thing to accommodate within our car lanes. For cycling to appeal to many more people as a form of transport, and for bicycle-car conflicts to be reduced to a minimum, wide, separated, protected cycletracks must be part of our street (re)designs.

Copenhagen provides many urban design lessons worth studying and applying in the U.S., and cycling infrastructure is one of the most important. As cities continue to transform, it is essential to plan for their sustainable and equitable growth and revitalization. In addition to robust transit choices, cycling is a vital element in ensuring that people of all ages, abilities, and economic circumstances can travel to and from their destinations easily, safely, and economically.

Next time: Harbour Swimming

Works Cited:

Colville Anderson, Mikael. Copenhagenize, The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism. Washington DC: Island Press, 2018. Print.

1 ”Copenhagen, City of Cyclists. The Bicycle Account 2016” Cycling-Embassy.dk. 2017. Web. 6 Sept. 2018

2 “Environmental Benefits.” Youcanbikethere.com. 2018. Web. 6 Sept. 2018

3 Celis-Morales et al. “Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study.” Thebmj.com. 2017. Web. 6 Sept. 2018

4  Strepp, Erin. “Cost to Own a Vehicle”. Aaa.com. Web. 6 Sept. 2018

5 ”Copenhagen, City of Cyclists. The Bicycle Account 2014.” Cycling-Embassy.dk. 2015. Web. 6 Sept. 2018