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Copenhagen

In last week’s post I mentioned BikeSnob’s visit to Amsterdam and London, and the differences he observed regarding transportation in those countries compared to the US.  I’d like to add a few of my own observations from a recent trip that I made to Copenhagen.

bike parking at central station

bike parking at central station

Copenhagen is the home of Copenhagenize and the Copenhagen Cycle Chic fashion blog, and the city is renowned equally with Amsterdam as a cycling paradise.  The picture above is one section of bicycle parking at Copenhagen’s Central Station.  Large areas of bicycle parking are available all over the city, at transit stations, naturally, but also just distributed around the city.

My visit was over the Christmas holiday, and the cold, damp weather proved not to be a hindrance to the local cyclists.  After the first snow I was amazed to see that the bike lanes were plowed immediately, just like the car lanes.  This is always a problem with bike lanes and trails in the US.  Many of the roads that I ride are covered in broken glass and debris, it’s difficult to get street sweeping of road shoulders, much less snow removal.  When roads are plowed the snow is often just piled up on the shoulder, making biking extremely dangerous.  After the derecho storm of last summer there were tree limbs and storm debris piled up on the road edges along parts of my regular biking route for over six months.  Seeing the bike lane maintenance in Copenhagen really brought this into sharp relief.

bike lane outside of parallel parking

bike lane (shaded blue) outside of parallel parking

Possibly the most important difference, though, is with the layout of the bike lanes themselves.  The picture above shows a Copenhagen bike lane (shaded blue) outside of the parallel parking spaces and physically separated by a curb.  The sidewalk on the far left of the picture is separated from the bike lane by yet another short curb.  The standard template in the US is to add bike lanes in between traffic lanes and parallel parked cars.  This leads to loads of problems (video at link is from Feb, that bill was defeated) with drivers opening their doors into cyclists.  My guess is that this template is used because it allows for adding a bike lane by simply painting a stripe.  Putting bike lanes outside the parking area would take more work, and therefore, more money.

There are several important benefits of the Copenhagen-style bike lanes: it means bicycles don’t have to interact with buses, taxis, and cars attempting to park.  Frequently when I bike on a road with a bus route I find myself doing an odd and unpleasant dance with city buses.  I pass the bus on the left when it stops to load or unload passengers, and then it passes me, and then I pass it again at the next stop, etc etc.  Far worse are taxis.  The driver sees a fare on the sidewalk and instantly pulls to the curb, right across the bike lane, without so much as a glance at their mirrors.  I’ve had more of these close calls than I care to count.  And cars pulling out of parallel spaces are particularly dangerous because I can’t tell if they’re trying to pull out or just attempting to realign in the parking space.  Of course they rarely use blinkers.  *All* of these problems are avoided by putting the bike lanes outside the parallel parking spaces rather than inside.  It’s such a seemingly obvious adjustment, and highlights how Copenhagen’s traffic planners really integrate cycling into the transportation infrastructure.  It’s a sharp contrast to the cycling infrastructure in the US that literally is an afterthought and totally feels like it.

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Strøget from street level (left) and from above (right)

Walking in Copenhagen was similarly pleasant and surprising.  The Strøget is a pedestrian-only shopping district in the heart of the city that was closed off to cars in 1962 and has been a tremendous business success ever since.  The only pedestrian mall that I’m really familiar with in the US is the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA (Wikipedia informs me there are a great many others).  I love Charlottesville’s mall, but it’s tiny compared to the Strøget and doesn’t attract the same sort of high-end businesses.  Imagine closing off M St through Georgetown to car traffic (oh, to dream), that’s what the Strøget is like.

Copenhagen’s public transportation is excellent, too.  Trains provide links to nearby cities.  Streetcars have a special car with bike racks.  Buses are amazingly quiet.  On some buses the whole length of the passenger side between the front and middle doors is free of seats, leaving space for folks with luggage, grocery carts, or the large pram strollers popular with Danes.  For anywhere I wanted to go in Copenhagen I had multiple options for how to get there.

Any talk of expanding multi-modal transportation in the US seems to spark off “war on cars” diatribes.  But even in fully multi-modal Copenhagen, cars still exist everywhere in the city, and can even cross the Strøget on the numerous cross-streets through it.  Integrating pedestrians and cyclists into the transportation infrastructure doesn’t mean shutting cars out, in fact it makes driving better!  Every person walking, cycling, or riding a bus or train is reducing road congestion and making it more pleasant for drivers.  The DC metro area is ranked #1 for hours wasted sitting in congested traffic, and this is a region where cars are and always have been the nearly-exclusive transportation planning focus.  Car-only transportation models simply fail in dense metro areas.  Arlington County is a fantastic success story of deliberate planning incorporating multi-modal transit options to manage road congestion.  Yet outside of Arlington the Silver Line rail expansion has met continual resistance and the Purple Line remains a pipe dream.  The challenge is to bring about a change in the attitudes that cause people to ignore all of this and cling to their steering wheels.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

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