Riding in bike commuter heaven

Written by astern


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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  1. Tracy

    We’re pretty bike friendly in Seattle and as a former bike commuter I am all for making it much friendlier but as any other bike commuter knows, a hilly area makes it tough especially in winter. Copenhagen is flat as a pancake. Unless we want to bulldoze the 7 major hills in our city, we will always be at a disadvantage as will other similar areas.

  2. Dave

    I’m commuting by bike on similar snow and ice covered streets here in central Ohio. I do appreciate the relative flatness of this area, which resembles Copenhagen terrain. My Nokian studded winter tires from Finland make almost anything possible (albeit at lower speed, close to the stated 12 mph).
    It is inspiring to hear of the good traffic signalization, separated bikeways on the street, and other innovations that have taken root in Copenhagen. If you build it, they will come– just might be true. Building sustainability takes open minds and a sense of urgency to its priority over the unsustainable status quo.

  3. Rob

    Interesting that they bike a lot in the winter over there. I live in South Boston, work in Cambridge, and commute via my bike most of the year, except in the freezing months. The two things that keep me off the road are black ice an narrower streets.

  4. gatcheson

    Glad you included the link to picasa album with photos of the classic hats. I wouldn’t wear any of those but piqued my curiosity.
    Very interesting they keep biking even in the snow. I commute by bike some, but I must admit I have not been on my bike since the snow started falling (mostly for Holiday busy-ness).
    “Bikes get priority over cars in traffic planning” Modifying US infrastructure for bike commuting will take a big commitment like that. New urbanists have been struggling to get planners to think about pedestrians in addition to cars and have only made fitful progress. But every baby step is important and perhaps they have opened the door for bikes.
    Here in Pittsburgh we have a lot of new bike trails but they are oriented for leisure not for commuting (unless you happen to both live and work along the rivers). Terrain has been mentioned in the other comments, and the only flat areas are along the 3 rivers so that is where most of the bicycle trails go.

  5. John in Easton

    For more photos and comments on the excellent bicycle culture and infrastructure in the fairy tale country of Denmark, here is a link to the album I posted after my May 2008 visit to relatives in Odense, the home of Hans Christian Andersen.