Dissecting the Copenhagen Bicycle Path

Though my fastidious investigation of European bicycling infrastructure was initially inspired by my semester-long residence in Copenhagen in the spring of 2009, after a month of cycling through the Netherlands, I found myself rather underwhelmed at the prospect of reevaluating Copenhagen’s cycling system. In the Netherlands, I had observed elements of bicycling infrastructure far more developed and cohesive than anything I could have imagined while a student in Denmark. Moreover, I felt frustrated that, despite boasting a rather less developed system than the Dutch, the Danes had touted the cycle track as a “Copenhagen path” and branded themselves as the bicycling ambassadors to the world at large. (This also contradicted everything that I had been told about Danish humility in my language and culture classes.)

My first day in Copenhagen did little to sway my opinions regarding the Dutch versus the Danish cycling path. Whereas the Dutch cycle tracks had by and large been separated from the street by a generous median, ubiquitously painted (or paved) red, and well-signed at decision points, the Danish paths felt closer to the bustle of traffic, were only painted blue at  certain intersections, and consistently lacked signage at major decision points. Though I observed some novel experiments in the creation of bicycle highways threading through the city center and its periphery, the traffic realities of these routes often conflicted with their loftier goals.

Setting out on day two, however- albeit a fresher, sunnier morning than the one previous (winter comes early in Copenhagen)- the beauty of the Copenhagen cycling system unveiled itself to me once again.

Below I describe the basic tenets of what makes bicycling in Copenhagen special, and those things that the city needs to improve before staking a claim to the title of world’s greatest cycling city.

1. Danes ride fast: A city of smooth paths and skinny bikes

In contrast to the Netherlands, where the hefty “grandma-bike,” or Omafiets, is the ride of choice, the Danes bike around Copenhagen on thin, sleek, fast, and fashionable bikes. Even more noticeable and significant than these svelte bikes, however, are the smooth paths that they race over. Unlike paths in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, almost all paths for bicycles in Denmark are paved with smooth asphalt. The result is a faster, more seamless commute.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use an anecdote. On my last night in Copenhagen, my host family and I went to the city of Ballerup in the northwest metro region of greater Copenhagen. One of the family’s boys decided to cycle the 5 or 6 miles back home since there was no room in the car, offering jokingly to race us back. He set off a few minutes before the car and I looked out the window for some time along the ride home, convinced that we had long past him. After driving almost halfway home, meanwhile having fully taken for granted that we’d left him in the dust, I was shocked to see him riding ahead of us from the back seat window. Stunned, I look around to check if the rest of the family shared in my amazement. They did not.

A typical cycling path in Copenhagen as seen from above. The paving of the sidewalk and the cycle path are distinguished. The asphalt paving of the bicycle path makes for an incredibly smooth ride in and out of the city. Car traffic can be heavy in both directions, causing a nuisance.

A close up of a typical Copenhagen path. Smoothness and a slight change in elevation are the distinguishing markers. Color could be used to better distinguish the bicycling areas from the street and sidewalk (and bolster the overall presence of the cycle path).

2. Fashion and Branding

Copenhagen’s foremost success in the world of cycling has been its ability to brand bicycling, to render it “in” and fashionable. I don’t know whether or not it was the golden-haired, leather-booted Scandinavian maidens bicycling (floating) beside me, but cycling in Copenhagen felt distinctly cooler than elsewhere. In Copenhagen, your bike is as much a fashion statement as your jacket, shoes, pants, or bag. Indeed, this fashion, which I believe takes certain cues from early 20th c. posters popularizing the bicycle, responds with conscious grace to the bicyclist’s motion. As a result, nowhere does the appeal of bicycling, the cool factor, loom larger and lure more youth and elders alike to ride routinely.

Cycling in Copenhagen. Cooler (more attractive) than anywhere else.

3. The Intermediate Curb

Considered as an architecture, one of the most incredible facets of the Copenhagen’s bicycle path is its visual subtlety. Most Copenhagen paths are distinguished by a simple intermediate step in between the elevation of the sidewalk and the street. This strip can be as wide or wider than the sidewalk (or in the outskirts, a shared-sidewalk model) and is sometimes separated by parked cars as well.

As a lesson to any place considering the development of a cycling infrastructure on a budget, the intermediate step path is significantly more minimal than most of the tiled paths in the Netherlands or Germany (depending on comparative costs of digging up and replacing piping and drainage), and takes up less space on the street. It is a simple, beautiful operation because it provides just enough space for bicyclists without placing them on a street lane that compromises safety and comfort.

Small cues such as this slight change in elevation (and paving of course) need to be appreciated by street designers and engineers. Pedestrians and cars do notice even slight changes in elevation and material consistency. The Copenhagen path demonstrates the perfect kind of minimal operation, cue and street element that can alter the way engineers design and people perceive rights of way on the street. The change is simple, but the effect resounds tenfold.

A slight, subtle, and extremely effective change in elevation between the street and the sidewalk provides adequate space for bicyclists.

A minor architectural element separates the bicycle path from the street.

4. Paint it Blue: A Copenhagen intersection

Boosters of Copenhagen’s cycling prowess have made a great deal of fuss over and done much research into which color of bicycle path is most effective for recognition by cars and bicyclists alike. Not surprisingly, they have deemed Copenhagen Blue to be the color of choice. All this is well and good, except for one fine point: a large part of what makes any color scheme successful for a bicycling network has not to do with the color itself, but its scale of use, material, and frequency. In Amsterdam, where red asphalt paved cycling paths are a fixture (not only at intersections), and, for that matter, in Strasbourg, which has painted a huge number of its intersections green (with marked white borders), the choice of color is secondary to its frequency. Light blue may be the easiest color for cars to recognize on the streets, but without the appropriate frequency and continuity along the actual pathways, this is a fruitless debate. Moreover, a path that is painted blue is automatically inferior in quality to one that is paved a distinctive color. A separate colored paving creates a discernible layer of permanence that outrivals even the brightest of painted paths, which are doomed to fade more quickly.

A second strategy for bicycling at intersections not as frequently employed in Copenhagen as in the Netherlands is the conversion of intersections to roundabouts. Though not always feasible in busy, inner city areas, roundabouts permit more eye contact between cars and bicyclists, minimized wait time, and flexibility for bicyclists, and can even ease car traffic in certain situations as well.

The famous Copenhagen blue at an intersection. Though the Blue is instantly recognizable, it still needs more presence in the system overall. The Dutch have converted many intersections into roundabouts, something that can help ease transitions for bicycle traffic.

5. The Green Wave

In Copenhagen, one of the marked, though subtle features of its cycle system, are its green waves. Green waves allow cyclists traveling at an ideal speed of 15 km/hr to hit every traffic light on certain main routes. I recall the first time I noticed this while bicycling in Copenhagen. I would race out in front of every girl and granny on the path, and then watch dumbstruck as they caught up to me like clockwork at the intersections. When I finally realized that I either had to ride 30 km/hr or 15 km/hr, I decided, for the sake of my already sweat-soaked shirts, to opt for the latter.

The green wave, moreover, demonstrates how a large part of what can make a bicycling system fast and efficient- to create highways and routes- is a matter largely invisible to the naked eye- traffic signal timing. (This issue, moreover, can have a major impact in making streets pedestrian friendly or not as well. I noticed this in Hamburg especially, where wait times for pedestrians and bicycles at intersections are interminably long, a fact compounded by the Germans’ aversion to jaywalking.)

An approaching green wave along one of the main routes outside of Copenhagen is instantly recognizable.

6. Traffic Calming

One of the ways which I noticed the Dutch are far ahead of the Danes is in the area of traffic calming. Though the Danes have an abundance of 30 km zones and speed bumps, the articulation of residential zones is less nuanced, while there seem to be more two or three lane streets in high bicycle and pedestrian traffic areas (without under or overpasses) in general.

The Danes, however, just as they have branded bicycling, have also been major proponents of the shared street concept, which advocates for streets designed to enhance different transit mode users’ awareness of one another in order to create streets that can be as friendly to bicycles, playing children, and local traffic, without necessarily creating individual, separate infrastructures for each. The Danes have employed this theory with measured success on certain streets in Copenhagen and other smaller cities and communities.

A traffic calming measure in the suburbs of Copenhagen to make a thru-street less attractive to cars.

7. Network identification: Building the Copenhagen Bicycle System

The final element of Copenhagen’s cycling system that I will address is its quality as an integrated, legible network. Copenhagen, like the Netherlands, has a multi-modal system design meant to encourage people to bike to and from regional train stations. By and large, the quality and iteration of the city’s paths is consistent and recognizable. Where Copenhagen falls short, curiously enough, is in the realm of signage. Not only does Copenhagen not even begin to compare with the Netherlands signage-wise, but the city does not even really compare to Munster and other cities in Germany. Where signage is more prevalent, as in Odense (Denmark’s third largest city), those signs are placed too low and not at all major decision points.

Signage helps those unfamiliar with a bicycling system to know their whereabouts and potential destinations and reassures experienced local commuters of the quality, permanence, and logic of the system they use daily. Although Copenhagen has a dearth of signage at present, I noticed along specific routes throughout the city a series of new marked Green cycle routes that strive to illustrate the structure of the city’s main bicycle routes and junctures (stops). This initiative even includes an abstract visual diagram that approximates how bicyclists might visualize Copenhagen’s structure by bike.

The pathway example pictured below follows an old rail right of way that has been converted to a bicycle path. For planners in the United States and elsewhere, using a pathway spine (or a series of spines) of this quality which links different paths, destinations, and communities can create a legible highway for both bicyclist and pedestrian movement. This type of system could even be bolstered by placing consistent bicycle parking, city maps, water fountains, tire pumps and bicycle share stations at these locations. If a bicycle system can attain these qualities- to begin to emulate the reliability and wayfinding qualities of subway or roadway design- commuters will begin to realize the place of bicycling infrastructure as a piece of essential, permanent, roadway infrastructure.

Though Copenhagen may not have as developed a system as the Netherlands, examples like this new path development indicate a consciousness of the potential of the bicycle to define and structure their city. This self-consciousness, or even pride at times, will work to Copenhagen’s favor as a global cycling city highly touted by both locals and foreigners, and should continue to encourage Danes to view cycling as an essential piece of their national identity.

Signage placed on a partially completed bicycle road along an old rail right of way. This route is one of a fledging system concept envisioned by the city's planners.

A diagrammatic representation of Copenhagen's green cycle routes. These even show certain stops or checkpoints where signage and intersections with important streets or destinations are located.

A fast cycle highway along a main car highway leading to the outer suburbs of Copenhagen.

Part of Copenhagen's regional signage system. These signs typically point toward recreational paths leading between cities and towns. They are not frequent and generally more catered to recreation or touring purposes.

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7 Responses to Dissecting the Copenhagen Bicycle Path

  1. kdt says:

    An excellent post – very well done, very thoughtful! Great work!

  2. Iestyn says:

    Great article. Cycled Copenhagen last December the best thing was the calm and the lack of day-glo colours! I wish Cardiff would catch up some time soon.

  3. Pingback: Links of the day – November 23, 2010 – Cycling Embassy of Denmark

  4. Andreas Hammershøj says:

    always good to read about an outsiders view of Copenhagen. Good points too.

    Just three points from me:

    1) Change in elevation and the Copenhagen model of bike lane:
    The change in elevation, which is not really visible in the photos, is typically about 10 cm.

    2) Blue paint in intersections:
    As far as I know, the city has elected not to put in blue paths across all crossings, as to avoid drivers becoming ‘blind’ to them. They are only used where they are deemed necessary. Furthermore research apparently shows that intersections with blue crossings in only one direction have been shown to have less accidents than if implemented in both directions. Unfortunately I do not know why this is so, or remember the source. Might be worth investigating, though.

    3) Roundabouts vs. regulated intersections:
    I recently looked into the research which has been done in this field in Denmark. Put shortly it turns out that comparable roundabouts and conventional intersections have about the same number of accidents involving bicycles. (which is very low. In Cph 3,2 million km are cycled between each serious accident. Source: http://www.google.com/search?client=ubuntu&channel=fs&q=copenhagen+bicycle+account+2008&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8 page 6.)
    In roundabouts, however, there is a tendency towards a smaller percentage being fatal. On the other hand cyclists will tend to feel less safe in roundabouts and there are some unanswered questions about the safety of children and seniors in roundabouts, which tend to be more complex to navigate. I draw these conclusions on a number of sources, all in Danish. I don’t have the links here, but can find them if anyone is interested.

    Cheers from Cph

  5. Pingback: Links of the day – November 23, 2010 – Cycling Embassy of Denmark

  6. That intermediate curb may be a nice architectural touch, but thinking in terms of bicycle operation rather than architecture, it is a trip hazard — see longer discussion here.. It creates a risk when entering the path from across the street, and confines bicyclists to the path by making it unsafe to return, leading to congestion when a slower bicyclists and particularly cargo tricycles are ahead.

    So, really is it advantageous? Really?

    • dev2103 says:

      Mr. Allen,
      Thank you for your feedback and insight into this issue. I do see and understand your point about the Copenhagen model cycle track and can say from experience that congestion and entrance can both be somewhat hazardous in certain situations. Here’s my response.

      First, a quick analogy:
      There is a road in Boston, where I am from, called the Jamaicaway. It’s a beautiful, undulating road, landscaped by F.L. Olmsted, and was built for carriages and equestrians in the 19th C. It really would be quite a lovely thoroughfare if not for its insane traffic. When I was first learning how to drive, I used to think to myself–Wow, I don’t think that this road is safe. I am really uncomfortable using this road, etc. because people go twice as fast as they should on it and it is full of tough left turns and short stops. Eventually, though, after driving on the road for a significant measure of time, I forgot that fear and felt safe enough driving twice the speed limit to get to school on time.
      When I first started using the Copenhagen cycle track, I thought something similar. I wanted to pass children and old ladies, but couldn’t. Since I hadn’t been on a bike regularly for a few years, I would occasionally fall too close to the curb and almost fall off. In heavy (bicycle) traffic, these paths could be a tight squeeze. With experience, however, came grace. I came to appreciate the Copenhagen path, and the Copenhagen bicycle system, not on my own terms, but on theirs.

      The Danes of Copenhagen do not find the curb to be a problem because, like drivers in Boston or New York, they are accustomed to their design and hazards. Because most pedestrians and drivers are bicyclists, people respect the path-space and delivery trucks do not hop the curb to park there. Since cycling is a commuter activity (and traffic signals bias those going 15 km/hr on main routes), most people are not striving to get ahead. The path is not perfect, but then again, transit rarely is.

      The curb itself does do a number of things that a painted lane at grade withe street cannot.
      1. It provides a dedicated space for cyclists separated by a real change in elevation. Drivers must consciously move over the barrier, and will be parked at an odd angle once they do. In my opinion, this change in elevation is an essential component that distinguishes the success of a bicycle path from a bicycle lane. Minor changes in elevation are generally under-appreciated.

      2. The lane limits and directs bicycle traffic. In other words, maverick cyclists, who would like to go extremely fast or enter the cycle track mid street, are prevented from doing so. This prevents weaving and forces cyclists to deal with one another (and sometimes pedestrians) rather than autos.

      3. A dedicated cycle track, whether elevated, distinguished by bollards, or separated by pavement and/or a raised median, relies on the willingness of bicyclists to to act as safe, conscious commuters in a space designed for the safety and comfort of all users. In a simple operation, the Copenhagen cycle path achieves this. The apparent flaws of its design, are, like any roadway configuration, lessened by the experience and flexibility of its users, as well as the clarity and directness of its overall system.

      As we begin to experiment with more European style bicycle infrastructure in the United States, the Copenhagen cycle track may be a difficult design to import for the basic reason that the US is full of inexperienced or timid cyclists at this point- cyclists that are keenly aware of the potential of falling or imbalance or being passed or trapped. Such conflicts are an important first step toward making this infrastructure work, and without the recognition that experimentation and failure are key to this process, many will never be understand that bicycle infrastructure means more than fading, painted lanes. These hazards are real, yes, but unless we venture to stake a longer-lasting and more accommodating space for cyclists in the future, the architecture of our bicycle paths may never surpass the impermanent inadequacies of the painted, on-street lane. The Copenhagen cycle track does work. The failure is not in its design, but in importing that design without incorporating the lessons of culture and policy that promote cycling and make it a natural and easy form of transportation in Copenhagen.

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