Everyone Here Cycles!

Learning from Copenhagen, Post #6

After a few days in Copenhagen, I'm a convert: I've seen for myself that people in a wealthy nation can happily use the bicycle as their primary way to get around. “The never-ending flow of Copenhagners on bicycles is like a symphony of human power …. The morning rush hour is graced with such poetic motion,” is how a deliciously literate city brochure puts it ...

That's how it felt, too, cycling around Copenhagen with our guides, becoming part of the great flow of cyclists all over the city. Pedaling alongside such a tremendous volume of cyclists is unlike anything I've ever experienced. It transforms urban cycling into something that feels quite mainstream, social, exhilarating and fun.

Click on "Open Image Gallery" on right, to see more photos.

Our guide, Lise Bjorg Pedersen (a full-time lobbyist for cycling interests), told us that when she went into labor with her first child, her boyfriend delivered her to the hospital in the cargo bin of a bicycle. A militant statement? Not at all. The cycle was simply how they got around.

“In Copenhagen we have managed to prove together that the bicycle is the modern metropolis’ preferred mode of transport,” declares Mayor Klaus Bondam. So it makes perfect sense that all city transportation and urban planning here starts not with the car, but with the carbon-neutral bicycle.

If you build it, they will come, explains Copenhagen Together: “The vast network of safe, segregated bike lanes criss-crossing the city has encouraged us to choose the bicycle.” They even run along major roads out to suburbia and beyond. On our cycling tour, we asked our hosts at Dansk Cyklist Forbund which came first: the city and Danish state’s investments in safe, dedicated bicycling paths and other infrastructure (35,000 official city of Copenhagen bike parking spaces, for instance) or the volume of cyclists?

The answer: They’ve continually fed one another. The more Copenhageners cycle, the safer it feels and becomes, and the more investments are made in the network of dedicated cycling paths. Kvetching citizens are the same all over, we heard. Every time the city has considered investing in new paths or bridges, people complained that no one would use them (or too many people would intrude their neighborhood because of them). Yet every time new bike lanes and paths have opened, they’ve been a resounding success, and quickly fill with people and bikes. The network now includes 350 km of bike lanes, which has attracted more and more regular commuting and daily-use cyclists.

If we build that kind of infrastructure in Austin, would huge volumes of people become cycling commuters? What does it take to hit that cultural tipping point as a city?

How Copenhagen Did It I wondered: How did this intense cycling culture evolve – and what would it take for Austin to get there from here? Our guides from the Danish Cycling Federation (Dansk Cyklist Forbund), founded in 1905, filled us in on how Copenhagen's cycling culture has evolved over time. During and after WWII, when cars and parts and petrol were scarce, the bicycle was the only practical means of transport in Copenhagen for most people. In the 1960’s, as in the U.S., car ownership and traffic exploded, and bike lanes were eliminated. But in the 1970s, and continuing through the 1980s, a constellation of forces favored cycling culture again. Those influences included the ‘70s energy crisis and recession, and an overall progressive culture with a raised environmental consciousness. Politicians felt pressured by massive demonstrations, so they voted to fund cycling infrastructure.

In the 1990s, Denmark established the world’s first national bicycle route network. Bike-share programs, car-free Sundays, and cycle taxis and messengers emerged and became commonplace. While a more conservative regime recently in power slashed bicycling infrastructure investments, the current administration is now funding them again. Most recently the Danish state has dedicated $200 million for a matching-grants program, over 10 years,in which cities can participate.

Despite being a top city internationally, Copenhagen isn't resting on its cycling-infrastructure laurels. The city’s 2008 Bicycle Account defines current goals for improvement, including more and wider cycling tracks, and increased disincentives to drive, including “road pricing.” In the report the city pledges to “promote urban development in ways that consistently incorporate and give high priority to cycling.”

More fascinating facts about one of the world’s most advanced cycling cities:

• Some 55% of permanent resident Copenhageners bicycle to work. About 37% of everyone studying or working in Copenhagen (including those from suburbs, other cities, and immigrants) uses a bicycle; that puts about 150,000 cyclists on the road each morning. The city of Copenhagen has set a goal of increasing that to 50% by 2015. That means adding another 55,000 cycling comuters. Compare that to Austin’s goal: If memory serves, it’s to increase our percentage of cycling commuters from 1% to 3%.

• On the major cycling routes (which have dedicated off-road bike lanes) more than 30,000 cyclists pass by daily. At that volume, cycling has proved a potent tool for relieving vehicular traffic congestion. The most crowded lanes are now the bike lanes at rush hour – even on rainy or snowy days.

• Most Copenhageners say they cycle for transportation because it’s the fastest, more efficient and cheapest way to get around. While they’re likely to cite fitness as a benefit, just 1% cite environmental reasons. Almost no one thinks of cycling as a political stance or a lifestyle statement – everyone cycles because it’s practical, common, efficient and safe.

• The “Green Wave”: To prioritize cycling, traffic lights on major bike routes during rush hours are timed and coordinated for cyclists, not cars. A commuting cyclist traveling at 20 km/h can ‘surf a wave’ of all green lights on the way to work; a car moving faster continually hits reds.

• The medieval layout of the older parts of Copenhagen was laid out for walking originally, so it still works much better for pedestrians and cyclists than it does for cars. That inherently favors a cycling culture, not a freeway culture.

• The rate of accidents is low; but 121 cyclists were seriously injured in 2008. Based on observation, only about one-third or fewer of city cyclists wear helmets. Many major intersections have been redesigned to give priority to cyclists and their safety. At some, cyclists get a separate green light four to twelve seconds before cars do, giving them a head start and greater visibility in traffic. Copenhagen’s 2015 goals include 50% fewer serious accidents, and having 80% of cyclists say they feel safe while riding. (Just over 50% say they feel safe in traffic now – but a bit of risk doesn’t seem to stop them.)

• Green Cycle Routes: These separated “cyclist motorways” are broad, dedicated paths where riders have minimal contact with traffic. We rode on one during off-peak hours; we shared the paths not just with other cyclists, but with joggers, skaters, mothers pushing baby carriages and elderly people in motorized wheelchairs/scooters or tricycles too. Many parents transported babies in infant seats that were loaded in front cargo bins. Guess a mother considers that perfectly natural, if she was delivered to the maternity ward in one herself!

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