As the New York Times reported with much praise – and unprecedented levels of RTing, if my Twitter stream is any indication – the city of Copenhagen continues to set the global pace for urban sustainability, particularly as regards two-wheeled, self-propelled transportation. But as is too often the case when the Times picks up on a story I started reporting three years ago (I’m not getting rich at this gig, so at least let me humblebrag), the paper’s coverage of Copenhagen’s bike-driven transportation revolution goes for flash and novelty over substance. Allow me to explain, in listicle fashion.
Herewith, the three key reasons why Copenhagen is the global model for sustainable urban transport, in ascending order of importance:
1. Bicycle Superhighway!
This, of course, is the piece of the puzzle the Times chose to focus on, because no headline writer in the history of journalism has ever passed up an opportunity to use the term superhighway. As the Times reports, the city of Copenhagen has launched the first of 26 planned suburban commuter arteries built exclusively for bicycles: long, well-paved, carefully maintained bike paths to link its suburbs with the inner city, up to 14 miles long and requiring the cooperation of 21 separate municipal governments.
These are the numbers the Times reports. Remarkably, the story makes no mention of the extraordinary figure for cycling’s modal share in Copenhagen, so I will: fully 37 percent of Copenhagen residents — and 55 percent of downtown dwellers — use bikes as their primary mode of transportation. Which points to another key Copenhagen innovation ...
2. The Green Wave
As I first reported back in 2009 (always double-down on a humblebrag, I say), the most innovative piece of cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen is a technique, not a physical thing. It’s the “Green Wave” — a rejigging of the traffic lights along a primary downtown commuter artery so that the green lights are synched to the pace of the average cyclist.
Here’s a short film (set to a stellar track called “Jeg savner min blaa cykel” – “I miss my blue bicycle" - by Denmark's own Ibens), in which Copenhagen cycle evangelist Mikael Colville-Andersen rides the Green Wave:
This isn’t technically innovative, of course. Every city in North America synchs up its lights like this for cars on main drags. The reason Copenhagen is the world’s cycle infrastructure leader — and possibly its most livable city — is because it’s the first to prioritize bikes (and, in other parts of the city, people) over cars. It’s really just that simple: Put people first in your transport planning, and bike lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares (and great mass transit and abundant public spaces) naturally follow. Which brings us to Copenhagen’s real innovation . . .
3. Cities for People
“Cities for People” is the title of Copenhagen urban design guru Jan Gehl’s most recent book and the core of the city’s whole philosophy. Notice it doesn’t say “Cities for Bicycles.” Bikes aren’t the point; they are a tool, one of many means to the end of a sustainable city. Copenhagen’s real revolution began in the early 1960s, when the main downtown shopping street, the Strøget, was so clogged with cars that the city considered banning bikes from it. Instead, they banned cars. And they began a half-century of people-centered planning that led, in its latest chapter, to innovations like the cycling superhighway.
The point, though, is not to exalt the bike. It is to make the city work for everyone. One of the cities that has most fully embraced this philosophy is New York, which pedestrianized Times Square, built real bike lanes and otherwise rethought its entire street system after Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired Gehl acolyte Janette Sadik-Khan as head of the Department of Transportation.
Here’s Bloomberg just last week, summing up the Copenhagen approach to city building in a concise sound bite: “Our roads are not here for automobiles. Our roads are here for people getting around.”
Cars aren’t people, and their needs are not only not the same but often stand (and move) in conflict. This insight — not superhighways for bikes — is Copenhagen’s greatest contribution to the global conversation about urban sustainability.
To talk about people-friendly cities in 140-character bursts, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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