Cycling culture across the pond

I have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make: I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was 18. My neighbor had given me her childhood bike when I was 15, and for years, it simply sat in my parents’ basement, untouched, collecting dust. Until I came to college, it hadn’t made sense to learn– because of the heavy traffic and suburban layout of my hometown and surrounding area, cycling seemed both unsafe and impractical. Even after I finally learned, I never felt comfortable enough to ride it on a road where there was nothing separating me and a car.

My ambivalence to bikes and cycling culture completely turned around after spending a semester in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before I arrived, I’d heard plenty about the high percentage of cyclists, but the reality still shocked me– according to the city of Copenhagen’s 2010 Bicycle Account, in 2010, 35% of people regularly cycle to work or school, and 67% of these people felt safe. “Rush hour” meant cyclists riding shoulder-to-shoulder, back-wheel-to-handlebars at 8 am– not streets full of cars! And when I asked a local Dane if they kept cycling in rain and snow, he simply laughed.

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Cyclist in front of Copenhagen harbour. Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/squillzy/

Sustainability buffs love to talk about increasing cycling networks because it has the potential to take cars off the road, thereby decreasing carbon emissions and fossil fuel use generated by vehicle use. But the sustainability benefits of cycling go far beyond the environmental impacts– it can vastly improve the quality of life for people who live in a city. By designating road space for cyclists and not cars, you’re allowing more people to move through a small amount of space– so assuming people ride their bikes instead of cars, you’re decreasing congestion but still increasing mobility. And if, like me, thinking about traffic congestion is enough to strike fear in your heart, that’s something you’re happy to hear.

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“Rush hour.” Image from http://www.visitcopenhagen.com

See anything else interesting about the above image? When you’re tucked away in cars, you’re literally shielded from the people around you by metal and glass– but when you’re in a city of cyclists, you’ve got a better chance to interact with the people around you. And, as is obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to ride a bike on the hilly terrain of Charlottesville, you can get a pretty good workout just by going about your day– so cycling also has the opportunity to improve public health, leading to populations that not only live longer, but are productive longer.

How did Copenhagen promote cycling culture so well? Here are four practices or design changes that helped them make the switch from four wheels to two:

1. They integrated biking infrastructure into the existing transportation system.

Starchitect Norman Foster recently proposed a system for above-ground cycle tracks in London— to the protest of many architects and planners. One problem with such a proposal is that by not integrating the track into the current roadway system, cyclists have fewer route options for their daily commutes. Instead of making large investments on a completely different road structure for their cycling routes, Copenhagen designers allocated small strips of existing roads for bikes. They piloted bike routes merely by painting lane dividers, and when cycling popularity grew, some of these lanes were converted to elevated tracks or lanes with different grading. Copenhagen also incorporated ways to take bikes onto buses or trains to allow cycles to take their bikes all over the city.

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Cycle parking inside S-trains. Image from http://www.howtoliveindenmark.com

2. They maintain bike lanes as well– or better than– car lanes. 

Like I said– someone laughed at me when I asked if Copenhageners still cycle in the winter.  After the recent snowstorm in Charlottesville, most of the bike lanes near where I live weren’t clear of snow until the temperatures were warm enough to melt it. Like most Scandinavian countries, Danish winters are cold and often very snowy– but since they take so much pride in their cycling culture, the cycle lanes are oftened cleared before car lanes to ensure cyclist safety and convenience.

3. They changed traffic signals and added bike boxes to intersections. 

Most intersections in Copenhagen have a separate set of traffic lights just for cyclists! One of the most helpful changes to the traffic light system is that the lights not only change from green to yellow to red, but the other way around– that way, when a cyclist sees the light turn yellow after it’s red, they have enough time to hop back on their seats before taking off. The stop line for cyclists is also usually placed ahead of the line for cars– this not only gives cyclists a bit of a head start when the light turns green, it gives a visual cue to drivers to let cyclists take off before turning.

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Cycle traffic signals. Image from koonceportland.blogspot.com

4. They made it harder to use cars.

This move is perhaps the most controversial since it involves taking something away instead of merely adding infrastructure. In the 60’s and 70’s, when Denmark was struggling to provide an adequate gas supply for vehicles, people began to look for alternative modes of transportation simply because it was too expensive to drive. After cycling systems proliferated more throughout the country, especially in Copenhagen, a tax to purchase and own a car— on top of a gas tax– was introduced. The city also started reclaiming parking lots for other uses– if you can’t park, you can’t drive.

Cycle parking outside train station. Image from www.spacing.ca
Cycle parking outside train station. Image from http://www.spacing.ca

Obviously, not everything about Danish cycling can– or needs to be– transferred to the US. Geographical and historical differences– such as the flat terrain, older and smaller cities, and denser building layout– make riding a bike in Denmark easier and more practical. However, if American city and transportation planners start making small changes to our current infrastructure and take advantage of the growing cycling population, perhaps we too can develop a mode of mobility that’s healthier, more pleasant, and lets us create beautiful, green spaces to live and work.

If you’re curious and want to read more, check out:
http://denmark.dk/en/green-living/bicycle-culture/
http://www.copenhagenize.com/
http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/06/16/danish-architect-jan-gehl-on-good-cities-for-bicycling/

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