The grey bike lanes are everywhere! Boring grey bike lanes! Does that sound like a insult? It's not! Copenhagen's bike infrastructure is simple, its everywhere, and in summary, a complete network is far more important than planters along bike routes. There is of course more to it, read on for a few more insights...
We had five days in Copenhagen, one of which we spent in Malmo, one day getting our bearings on foot around the centre, two days on rental bikes exploring a little further afield as well as riding in the centre, and one day on foot and on the electric bike share.
Biking is one of the most common modes of transportation in Denmark, but how did this come to be? Some brief research would suggest that during the mid 1900's the car did start to take over the towns and cities, but as there was such a significant amount of the population that liked their bikes, a backlash arose and was successful. That made me ask, are North American cities just too new? Those cities that developed with the car, where residents new nothing else were much less likely to rise up against it, and could be in part why we are where we are today in many places. But as per my last post about Edinburgh, there are many old European cities that don't have the same cycling culture. Could it be simply topography that made the bicycle the best form of transport in the flat lands of northern Europe? It definitely wasn't the weather! This blog isn't the place to get into the history in such detail, this is simply my speculation!
I could explain in detail every part of our tour around the city, but first things first, the best thing about cycling in Copenhagen is the extent of the network. Simply 99% of everywhere we wanted to go, there was a bike lane of some shape or form. I’d say about 90% of bike facilities are separated by small grade changes from both the sidewalk and the road, they are also wide enough to allow easy passing. To look at them, they fall far short of the type of facility being implemented in North America with wide buffers, colourful planter boxes, etc. In Copenhagen, it’s simply a boring grey bike path, that’s it!
The standard Copenhagen bike facility might not offer the same protection as the North American model, but it doesn’t need to. Drivers are amazingly respectful of cyclists, probably because most of them are cyclists. Removing the protected element gives more space for travel, be that for cars or bikes, transit or pedestrians, helping fit more capacity into a finite space, or using the space to allow passing rather than a buffer. Whether that is appropriate in North America is a different debate, and in places, Copenhagen does use planting, trees or parked cars to separate bikes from moving traffic. Interestingly, there is typically no safe door zone between parked cars and the bike path.
Sometimes lesser facilities are used, sometimes there may just be a painted lane, sometimes a shared space with pedestrians, sometimes, they will have to share the road with vehicles. Most often, lanes are one way on each side of the street, in the same direction as traffic.
Back to car drivers, the amount of times a right turning car driver waited for me and the other cyclists around me to pass straight through an intersection before turning, or a driver waited before pulling out of a side street, was an eye opener. It simply wouldn’t happen elsewhere, at least until such time as bike culture reaches a similar level where most people who drive also cycle on a regular basis.
The treatment of bike facilities varies at intersections. Where the lanes are grade separated by a small curb, they typically taper back down to road level at intersections. At major intersections, they will often add blue paint to highlight the presence of the bike lane. Across minor side streets, the sidewalk usually maintains a continuous path and effectively slows traffic down as they also cross the bike lane. Where there are traffic signals, there are often separate bike signals, and in some places separate turn lanes for bikes. Cyclists, for the most part, seem to obey most traffic controls.
On car parking, they are typically adjacent to the bike lane with no buffer zone, you could cycle in the door zone quite easily, but the lanes are wide enough to stay out of it for the most part. Still, cyclists passing other cyclists could quite easily end up in the door zone.
In terms of abuse of the bike lanes, in four days, I saw two vehicles parked on the bike lanes, one only partially blocking it and allowing single file cyclists through, the other completely blocking it and forcing me onto the sidewalk.
The amount of people cycling was less of a surprise, I’ve experienced similar in Amsterdam, where it did surprise me, but barely a day goes by where I don’t see a video on twitter of platoons of cyclists. Yes, I took some of those...
Here's one looking down on a Copenhagen street...
What did blow my mind was the bike parking. Bikes are rarely locked to anything! They are locked with a rear wheel lock, which means the rear wheel can’t turn in the frame. You could in theory steal any bike by picking it up and carrying it off. It raises the question of why everyone is comfortable doing this? My thoughts are that it comes down to the type of society, high employment, high wages, high taxes paying for education and health care. Also, everybody already owning a bike meaning there is little market for stolen bikes may all be contributing to this comfort in leaving your bike freestanding. Despite how common place this is, I found it really difficult to be comfortable leaving our rented bikes (with no insurance) alone. We did leave them for five minutes while buying some snacks, and I was extremely happy to see them still there when we came out. Even leaving them in a locked bike room overnight in the building we were staying felt wrong.
We used two types of bikes while there. We rented regular city bikes for two days, and used the electric bike share bikes another day. These are upright 3 speed bikes, with coaster brakes. The latter of which led to a few moments whilst forgetting you can’t just reset your pedals like most modern bikes. For a city like Copenhagen which is relatively flat, such city bikes are ideal. I wouldn’t look forward to the prospect of riding one up the hills in North Vancouver.
I was really looking forward to trying the electric assist bike share bike. With e-bikes becoming increasingly common, and with no experience of them, I was really looking forward to this opportunity. As we set off and the assist kicked in, this was cool, completely unnecessary in a flat city, although, I could see it helping into a strong headwind. The joy soon wore off, the motor seems to create drag when coasting, so you have to keep pedalling which is annoying, maybe I got a bad one. The weight of the bikes is also ridiculous, I’d estimate 80lbs+ or about two city bikes, or three regular bikes. Not really an issues as the assist helps, but getting started from a stop line was an effort. I’d have liked to try it on some hillier terrain, but there was barely an incline in sight. The GPS unit on the handlebars was useful as an unfamiliar tourist, and saved my usual reach for my phones GPS every five minutes. I’ve read the locals don’t like these bikes too much as it makes you look like a tourist, they’re probably right!
Copenhagen is famous for its bridges built just for pedestrians and bikes, something I’d like to see more of in North Vancouver where numerous creek crossings greatly restrict the number of routes traversing the City and District.
Regarding helmets, most don't wear them, a few choose too, I always wear mine riding around Vancouver, but felt it unnecessary here. Each to their own.
Accommodating pedestrians and cyclists during construction is a common complaint in North America. We frequently came across construction and in all cases space was made for cyclists and pedestrians, in some cases they would share space, but there was always some form of accommodation.
Traffic is still very much a part of life in the city, there is congestion, on street parking is common, there are few underground parking spaces in established or historic places, so there is no alternative, but there seems to be less aggression. Local roads cross the sidewalk, not the other way around, some streets feature home zones or play zones – look up term – where streets are very narrow, and tight chicanes or even picnic tables make appearances in the roadway to control traffic speeds and repurposes the road spaces.
This trip was all about bikes, I don’t have much to say about pedestrians, they get much greater respect from cyclists than in Amsterdam. There are a few pedestrian areas in the centre like many other European cities. Sometimes such spaces work, sometimes they don’t, Copenhagen has the population to support such a space.
We didn’t use transit a lot while there, we took the train to Malmo, and then bus and metro back to the airport when leaving. Like in Edinburgh, real time information is readily available at stops and through an app, tickets can be purchased through the app, services are frequent, every few minutes for buses, and I believe the train to Sweden is every 20 minutes or so. Fares were reasonable considering everything else is very expensive. Yes... I’m still shocked at paying the equivalent of $10 for a coffee.
Once home, everyone asks how was it? It was hard to describe many positives as a visitor there, other than its a very nice city. It's not really that different from any other European city though with the exception of the bike facilities. My lasting memory, other than the bike lanes, is that a coffee costs $10. It was painful, and it sounds stupid, but it took the shine off the city a little. I think it would be better to live there than visit... I'll leave you with some final photos...
All of my photos can be found on my flickr album here...