Best biking cities
It’s Friday morning in Copenhagen, and Nørrebrogade and Dronning Louises Bro are packed with as many cyclists as a Tour de France peloton, heading towards Nørreport and Strøget along the four-meter-wide cycle lanes. Over 35,000 cyclists pass here every day, most dressed in everyday clothes and riding normal road bikes. But the peloton also includes tandems, electric bikes and the popular Christiania cargo bikes, carrying kids, dogs or parcels.
“People from Copenhagen love cycling and these days there are more cyclists than cars in the city center,” says Mikael Colville-Andersen, a Copenhagen cycling ambassador, as he takes me on a pedal tour of the center. After heading past Tivoli, Strøget, and Nyhavn, we stop for morning coffee at a small café as cyclists pass by just a couple of meters from our table.
The wide cycle lanes have reduced road space for cars and with traffic lights tailored to turn green for cyclists, you rarely wait long at a red light. If you do have to stop, there are comfortable footrests and railings to lean on at crossings. Colville-Andersen’s days are busy. He is the brains behind the Copenhagenize Design Company, a consultancy that campaigns to re-establish cycling as the natural mode of transport in big cities around the world. Dublin, Barcelona, Winnipeg, Sao Paulo and Bangkok are just some of the places where he and his colleagues have advised decision makers.
“We don’t discuss cycling as such,” Colville-Andersen says. “We are not so much cycling fanatics at Copenhagenize, more a group of individuals who want to cycle rather than drive in a city. And we know from experience that the more people cycle, the higher the quality of life becomes for everyone who lives in the city.”
For the last ten years, Colville-Andersen has run the blog “Cycle Chic” that has a clear and concise stance – never dress in tight-fitting, garish Lycra cycling apparel.
“I’m against all forms of cycling haste and encourage people to adopt an upright stance, cycle at a modest tempo and with clothes to match. Most cyclists here in Copenhagen today seem to agree with that. We’re individualists and to a certain degree, good anarchists,” he says with a smile.
Colville-Andersen travels regularly to major cities to persuade city planners and politicians to make their cities more cyclefriendly.
“Pretty much all the big cities in Europe were cyclist zones until the end of the 1940s, when up to 60% of the population commuted to work by bike. By the end of the 1960s though, that figure had fallen to 2–3%. That’s how bad it was. However, in the early 1980s, decision makers in Copenhagen woke up and the city has slowly but surely established itself as one of the leading cycling cities in the world."
Copenhagen locals don’t make such a big thing about cycling; they simply pedal because it’s quick and easy. This is thanks to good urban planning with over 400km of cycle lanes, the fact that it’s OK to cycle the wrong way down a one-way street, not to mention the cycle bridges and especially the cycle superhighways for commuters.
In 2017, five new cycle superhighways were opened, covering a total of 110km in the capital city region.
“The idea is to be able to travel long distances quickly, with the fewest possible obstacles along the way. There are wind breaks, bike service points and a smart transfer system to switch to public transport,” Colville-Andersen says.
“Another successful project is Cykelslangen, a vibrant orange cycle route that links Vesterbro and Islands Brygge, totally separated from cars and pedestrians. The route cost in the region of DKr30 million. Four new cycle bridges are also being built.
Havneringen is the latest bike-friendly addition. This 13km route opened in May 2016, which means you can now walk, run and cycle around the inner port area. Unlike in Stockholm, most cyclists don’t wear helmets in Copenhagen.
“The indications are that the more cycle-friendly the city, the fewer the helmet-wearing cyclists. And I’m not a fan of the proposed helmet law being discussed. This would significantly reduce the number of cyclists,” Colville-Andersen claims, adding that this is a very controversial issue in Denmark.
Numerous surveys clearly show that the average Copenhagen resident chooses to cycle for three main reasons – it’s quick, cheap and good for your health. The environmental aspects come way down the list.
Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki are a long way behind Copenhagen, according to Colville-Andersen.
“Stockholm is mainly known as a car-friendly city, where fewer than 10% of residents cycle to and from work. It’s still an inner city for car drivers, where both cyclists and pedestrians are the exception rather than the rule,” he says.
In a dissertation a few years ago, Lund University researcher Till Koglin surveyed cycling in these two Scandinavian capitals. Over 70% of cyclists in Copenhagen said they had priority in traffic. The comparative figure for Stockholmers was just over 35%.
Pretty much everyone in Copenhagen cycles on a daily basis, while in Stockholm the corresponding figure is four in ten. Malmö is the Swedish city most similar to Copenhagen when it comes to cycle-friendliness, closely followed by the nearby university town of Lund.
Helle Søholt, of Gehl Arkitekter, an urban design consultancy, is a passionate cyclist and urban planner who believes in the livable cities concept.
We meet her at the Copenhagen cycle bridge spanning Åboulevarden, one of the most busy thoroughfares in Copenhagen.
Søholt explains that it was largely the oil crisis in the 1970s that persuaded politicians in Copenhagen to make it quick and easy to cycle in the Danish capital.
“At Gehl Arkitekter we are heavily involved in the theme of Cities Built for People and we develop proposals for sustainable urban development models based on pedestrians and cyclists.”
Gehl have been long-term consultants to the Municipality of Copenhagen and have also traveled to the likes of Mexico City and New York to advise on cycle strategies. Søholt is also a member of the Swedish Transport Administration Architectural Board as a representative on these issues.
“Safety is an important factor. The more cyclists there are, the safer the streets,” she says with conviction. “When you’re in a car, you’re sealed off from the world without any proper contact with your surroundings, while you move at a different tempo on a bike. You have eye contact with other road users, which makes for greater trust and tolerance.”
“Then there’s also the health aspect, where surveys show that we save around €1 per cycle kilometer in welfare costs. A pretty important reason to continue this work,” Søholt says, before pedaling off to her office.
Text: Cenneth Sparby