The challenges with cycling in Copenhagen

Anyone who has visited Copenhagen soon becomes aware of the bike lanes and the sheer number of bicyclists whizzing by all the time. Athlyn Cathcart-Keays writes in The Guardian that a variety of reasons is affecting the cycling culture. Even with these concerns, one feels confident that the cycling culture is not going to change significantly, if at all.  Now let’s see that culture grow in other cities.


Cycling downhill: has Copenhagen hit peak bike?

It’s 8am on a rainy weekday morning on Copenhagen’s Nørrebrogade street and the stream of cyclists making their way into city centre is already getting jammed.

Cyclists often have to wait through two or three rounds of green lights before they can get past. At Dronning Louise Bridge – one of the busiest cycle routes in the world, with 48,400 bikes crossing each day – newly installed information boards remind riders to pas på hinanden, or be aware of each other.

It is these bike jams that have so many tourists lining up at the lights every morning to take photos – and has made the city a byword for cycling. But recently Copenhagen’s cycling culture seems to have hit a bump in the road.

Over the past two decades, Copenhagen has experienced a 68% rise in cycle traffic, with 2bn Danish kroner (£240m) invested in bike-friendly infrastructure. A year ago sensors clocked a new record, with bikes outnumbering cars in the city centre for the first time.

But after years on the rise, the proportion of people riding to work or school in the city centre has fallen. Its cycle share of 41% is still something many cities would aspire to, but it is a significant fall from the 45% recorded in 2014 and some way off the 2025 target of having half the population commuting by bike. A similar trend is evident in the city’s outskirts, too.

“I’m not really worried,” says Morten Kabell, the mayor of technical and environmental affairs. He points to data showing that while the percentage of journeys taken by bike fell from 2014 to 2016, the number of kilometres cycled every weekday actually rose. “If you look at the overall number of people riding bicycles, they’re riding even more than before,” he says. “The trend only really goes one way, and fortunately that is up.”

But with the city growing – a steady increase in the inner-city population from 600,000 to 715,000 is forecast over the next 10 years – some senior cycling advocates and campaigners are concerned.

Klaus Bondam, the director of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation and former holder of Kabell’s post, blames the fall partly on the sheer number of cyclists jostling for space.

“Crowded lanes give people a lack of security,” he says. “They think, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too wild.’ We need a discussion on how to behave towards one another. If you see kids and seniors cycling – slow down. If you come to a red light, don’t squeeze your way to the front – wait in line.”

While delighted that the bike lanes are widely used, Bondam says the city must do more to tackle bottlenecks. “The jewel of Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure has been that it’s well connected,” he says. “But it’s not so good when you have big broad stretches on some streets and really narrow ones on others. And there has been a tendency to plan for the city we know. Instead, we need to connect new parts of the city with the old.”

When City Hall ran an online consultation last year, respondents highlighted missing links to and from newer areas of the city, such as Nordhavn to the east and Amager Strand to the south. And several developments are springing up across the city, many driven by the construction of the metro’s new Circle Route.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Copenhagen’s streets remains the presence of cars and the space dedicated to them.

A recent survey by the city found major stretches of road where space was undemocratically divided between bikes and cars. On Knipplesbro Bridge, for example, bicycles make up 55% of peak traffic, yet are only allocated a third of road space.

A study for the Cyclists’ Federation found that more than half the candidates in forthcoming regional elections advocate reallocating road space to bikes. Fanny Broholm, a candidate for The Alternative – a green party that launched in 2013 – has made this a central focus of her campaign to run for a seat on 21 November. “It’s an unfair use of scarce space,” she says. “We need to redress this imbalance. Car-dominated infrastructure means noisy, polluting roads and parking still take up a big part of Copenhagen.”

The city’s residents today own 16,000 more private cars than they did in 2010 – and 4,500 of those have been registered in the past year. The government’s recent move to dramatically lower registration tax from 180% to 100% for new cars is unlikely to help.

Squint at Stevenage’s extensive 1960s protected cycleway network and you could be in the Netherlands – except for the lack of people on bikes. So why did the New Town’s residents choose the motor car over the bicycle?

When the 17 new metro stations open next year, cycling numbers are predicted to fall a further 3% as people head underground. Does this all mean that Copenhagen has reached peak bike?

“In the current paradigm, yes”, says Mikael Colville-Andersen, director of Copenhagenize Design Co. “I’ve said from the beginning that we’re never going to hit 50% with the current layout of the infrastructure. And we’re not going to ‘communicate’ ourselves to 50%. It means shit unless we build.”

Kabell, though – who is leaving after a four-year term to take up a new job at Copenhagenize – remains unconcerned. “That the numbers will go down after the metro opens is only natural,” he says. “Whether you’re using public transport or bicycles is not a worry to me – it’s just a small shift from one green transport mode to the other.”


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