Cyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark pedal an estimated 1,440,362 kilometres per weekday, not just for environmental reasons, but because it’s the easiest way to cross the city. Assisted by the city’s naturally flat terrain, officials have built an infrastructure that encourages and rewards cycling.
The city has 380 kilometres of dedicated bike tracks, which are a minimum of 2.2 metres wide in each direction (three metres is the standard on the busier streets) and separated from the road and pavement by a kerb on either side.
Traffic lights are synchronized with the average speed of cyclists to keep cycle traffic flowing and have a “pre-green” light to give cyclists a five-second headstart over cars at junctions or crossings. Cyclists also benefit from cyclist-only bridges and superhighways that provide traffic-light-free travel between the city centre and neighbouring municipalities. “Our main principle is physical separation; paint is not enough,” says Marie Kastrup, head of Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program. “You have to put yourself in the mind of someone who is not a confident cyclist.”
City planners elsewhere are looking to Copenhagen as they encourage cycling in their fight against congested roads and carbon emissions. In 2019, New York passed legislation requiring 400 more kilometres of protected bicycle lanes (bike lanes that are physically separated from traffic) to be built over five years, and London’s protected cycling infrastructure has doubled in size since 2016.
Oslo has uprooted large sections of the city to replicate Copenhagen’s design in accommodating cycle lanes, and, despite the heat, bike trips in Seville, Spain, multiplied 11-fold after city-officials laid down 80km of protected lanes in the early 2000s. Lisbon has shown that cycling can even work in hilly cities, thanks to carefully planned routes and electric bike rental.
“The bike is not an over-hyped, new technology like the autonomous car or hyperloop, and we are seeing more cities making it work in different contexts,” James Thoem, an urban planner at Copenhagenize Design Co., says.
For people to cycle, Thoem says, they must feel “safe across the whole journey—not just corridors here and there.” He describes some current cycle schemes as like a subway network with disconnected lines in different areas of the city. “Nobody would use this, because it wouldn’t take them anywhere,” he says. “It’s not until you have a connected network that people will see that as a legitimate option.”
Objections are often raised to the installation of cycle routes because they are perceived to be reducing the finite amount of road space for drivers. Isabel Dedring, global transport leader at design and engineering giant Arup and former deputy mayor for transport in London, says that a cultural shift within agencies may need to happen to encourage cycling. “For public transport agencies, people moving on buses and trains is a source of fare revenue, whereas walking and cycling can be seen as a direct threat because it’s free and hence doesn’t generate fare revenue,” she says.
Covid-19 may expedite the transition to cycling. To maintain the reduction in air pollution and lessen crowding on public transport, France has been subsidising bike repairs and Paris has been building cycle routes along its three busiest Metro lines. The UK government hopes to do the same by investing £250m in pop-up protected bike lanes across England, while also fast-tracking e-scooter legalisation; and Brussels is transforming 40 kilometres of car lanes into cycle paths. “I have no doubt that this is where we will end up,” Dedring says. “The question is the pace and the trajectory that will get us there.”
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