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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.