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Riding in bike commuter heaven

A welcome side benefit of attending the UN climate talks in Copenhagen earlier this month was the chance to see and experience the city’s legendary support for bicycling. Even in the dead of winter when daylight lasted only seven hours and snow settled over the streets, cyclists of all ages were out in force (see my Biking in Copenhagen photos).

My most striking impressions were the public places (e.g., outside of train stations or at major city intersections) where hundreds of bikes stand parked. A frenzy of metal frames, wheel spokes, and racks dominated my views as I traveled by foot and public transit to the Bella Center, site of the UN climate conference. What makes bike commuting so easy in Copenhagen is a vast infrastructure of bike lanes and bike-friendly trains and subway cars.

I tried out the system one snowy morning on a two-mile ride from the home of my Danish hosts to a popular bakery. I cruised along in a dedicated lane between the sidewalk for pedestrians and the parking spaces for cars – aided by special traffic lights for bikes that helped me navigate even the busiest intersections. Once at my destination, I could leave my bike unlocked with others while I went inside to sample the famous Danish pastries.

According to city authorities, collectively people cycle 750,000 miles every day in Copenhagen. An estimated 37% of commuters ride to work or school – a figure the city hopes to get to 50% by 2015. Bikes get priority over cars in traffic planning. In some areas, coordinated traffic lights during rush hour enable riders to move at 12 miles per hour without having to stop. When stops are necessary, the lights turn green for cyclists as much as 10 seconds earlier than for cars, so bikes can get a safe and visible head start. Grooved tracks on the stairs leading to subway stations make for easy transitions for bikers going from road to train. We’ve highlighted other Copenhagen biking innovations in previous posts.

I picked up a brochure on Copenhagen bicycle life and read these poetic lines:

> Cycling in Copenhagen brings us closer to the life of the city and the people who inhabit it. Your fellow citizens are right there next to you, propelling themselves effortlessly through the urban landscape. We are one with our town on our bicycles.

Later, I met a Danish mailman on his delivery route in a specially outfitted bike for carrying letters and packages. At another spot, I saw an enterprising crepe-maker moving his kitchen equipment with bike pedals. I also visited a retail store that featured designer bike helmets conceived to mimic the appearance of classic hats. Now that’s cool!

I marveled at the bike-friendly atmosphere in Copenhagen and sometimes wondered if I was in a dream. But it’s all real, just waiting for other cities – especially those in the U.S. – to copy the good ideas.

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