When you go to Copenhagen, it's easy to get blown away by the sexy bike bridges and cycling superhighways, but the really important things that make cycling so successful are far more subtle. Chris Turner wrote about this in his post on 3 reasons why why Copenhagen is the world leader in urban sustainability but in the end noted that there was really one main one:
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.
I just got back from my second trip to Copenhagen, and while I did tour those sexy bridges, I spent most of my time trying to understand the attitude toward cycling, both from the point of view of those who design the system and those who use it. My most shocking experience happened in the photo above: It's a T intersection where one road ends. In Toronto or New York City, nobody would stop at this. In Paris, they just changed the law so you don't have to. T intersection stop lights are designed for cars, and in the absence of pedestrians, there would be no reason to stop.
But in Copenhagen, bicycles are considered an important and integral part of the transportation system. The streets and intersections are designed to accommodate them. The signals are timed for them. The municipality respects the cyclists and you know what? When cyclists are treated with respect, they tend to do the same back. So in almost every case, cyclists were stopping and waiting.
It's true that the big initiatives that get all the ink and pixels. It's also true that the bicycle bridges of Copenhagen are knitting the city together as it expands across the harbor to Christianshavn, the formerly industrial and military complex of islands that's being converted to urban uses. That's what this fancy and expensive bridge will do starting this fall.
But they also spend money just on convenience, like the wondrous Bicycle Snake, a giant gorgeous ramp that's the most fun you can have on a bike in Copenhagen. It's not a bridge that shortens commuting distance or opens up new islands for development.
In fact, the big fancy Bicycle Snake is replacing a stairway like this, with a little ramp to push your bike up. When I first saw it, I was impressed that a city actually put something on stairs to make it easier for a cyclist. But to spend millions to turn it into a great ride and to just make it easier for people to use? That shows a special attitude.
Wherever you go in Copenhagen, you see respect for cyclists and pedestrians. In North America, if there is construction going on, the bike lane becomes a convenient loading zone. In Copenhagen, they have to build diversions for the bike lane plus provide protection for the pedestrians. This costs serious money, but they are serious about their cyclists.
I am stuck in a crowd. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)It's not perfect and it can be intimidating. I was riding around in rush hour, and when you have a 6-foot wide bike line with this many people riding junkers and racers and cargo bikes and who knows what else at all speeds, it can be as nerve-wracking as driving on the superhighway in my old Miata. At one point coming out of a mid-block art gallery, I had to wait about five minutes until there was a large enough gap in the bicycle traffic to merge in.
I'm also totally cool with the "Cycling is normal" attitude that promotes casual cycling as part of every day life (it's no different from walking to the corner), and do not believe that helmet promotion is good for cycling because it scares people off bikes, but really, riding and texting and not looking where you're going is not a good idea. One can be too relaxed.
They have also made some design mistakes. This expensive reworking of Vester Voldgade next to City Hall is so subtle that you can't tell which is the bike lane and which is the sidewalk. Given that the area is full of tourists, it's no surprise that they were all walking down the slightly darker, slightly depressed bike lane.
The bike-share system is a total bust. I have quoted cycling evangelist Mikael Colville-Andersen about how misguided it was from the start, but seeing a totally full bike rack right outside the central train station confirmed that the citizens of Copenhagen don't need it and that tourists find it too complicated.
However these are failures of commission, not omission. Instead of not doing anything, they try everything and build on what works. The result is instantly obvious: huge numbers of cyclists, who reduce the burden on car traffic and public transit. A fit and trim and seriously healthy looking population where people of all ages are getting exercise every day. A beautiful city where you can breathe the air. There are a lot of things that make Copenhagen wonderful, and bikes are a very big part of it. And it all comes down to respect.