Get ready for a week of great ideas from Copenhagen

June 07, 2016

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Afternoon traffic on one of Copenhagen's ubiquitous protected bike lanes.

Like every city, the capital of Denmark has plenty of problems. But like every successful city, Copenhagen has found that solving problems requires making choices.

For eight years, we've been leading study tours for local officials from around the U.S. who want to help their cities make choices that are informed by Copenhagen's best lessons. We're here this week with a delegation of officials and community leaders from Northwest Arkansas, Denver and Portland, and we'll be posting lessons from the trip as we go.

Today, many people around the world know Copenhagen as a city worth learning from: it's one of the world's safest, greenest, most prosperous and most egalitarian. But few know the remarkable story of how the city has evolved.

With just over two million people in its metro area, greater Copenhagen has about the same population as greater Columbus, Ohio. And 45 years ago, its problems would have been familiar to many U.S. cities: it was an industrial port town, with plenty of history but little international reputation to speak of. Assuming (like most every city) that cars were the way of the future, Copenhagen had torn out its historic streetcar system to make room. Parking, too had become scarce, so the city dedicated large amounts of its streets and historic plazas to storing and moving cars:

From 1945 to 1970, bicycling rates in Copenhagen plummeted. The city crowded with cars. The auto-oriented streets encouraged speeding; in 1971, 24 out of every 100,000 Danes died in traffic, about the same as the 25 in the United States

Then the 1973 oil crisis hit Denmark hard. On Sundays, to conserve fuel, the government blocked all auto use. People hauled out their bicycles to get around instead — and, gradually, Copenhageners started to wonder whether bicycling could be a tool of modern urban life alongside the car.

So (like many cities around that time, including parts of the United States) they started creating bike lanes. But unlike most cities, Copenhagen followed the lead of the Netherlands and (a bit later) southern China. Instead of just striping bike lanes on some streets, Copenhagen began to build a connected network of raised, protected bike lanes between foot and auto traffic. Eventually, after many years of incremental progress, the network included almost every major street.

To help people reach these bigger streets, Copenhagen used speed bumps and posts to create a sense of calm and enclosure on lower-traffic residential streets:

Eventually, some neighborhoods simply began using benches and tables to move people onto the street:

Among other things, bike use began to climb back up. Meanwhile, the city began to reopen its historic plazas to people:

When Klaus Bondam moved to Copenhagen in 1982 to study airport customs, the change was still very much incomplete.

"It was a completely worn-out city with a lot of two-room flats," he said in an interview Monday. "It was full of students and as a student your only ambition was to get out of Copenhagen and move to the suburbs."

"There was no places you could sit outside," Bondam, who served as Copenhagen's mayor for transportation policy from 2009 to 2012, recalled. "People would say, 'We are not Italians.'"

Over the next 30 years, the city replaced passing and parking lanes with protected bike lanes and parking lots with public cafes. Traffic speeds fell, and parking became more difficult, and that annoyed many people. But in exchange, other things happened, too. The city became quieter and cleaner, even as it added residents and jobs. Increasingly, it became a tourist destination, and also a place where people became eager to live and work.

These days, fewer than three out of 100,000 Danes die in traffic each year, less than a third of the U.S. rate.

But even better, thanks to these and many other social policies, Copenhagen has one of Europe's strongest urban economies and (thanks in part to an unusually young, educated and entrepreneurial population) is a significant hub for creative and digital startups. Denmark is also the world's second-most egalitarian country by after-tax income and its residents are the most likely in the world to describe themselves as happy.


Tovehellarne, a Copenhagen food market built on a former parking lot. Photo: Premshree Pillai.

Sitting in his office Monday, down the block from the Tovehellarne public market that has inspired imitators around the world, Bondam said that many Copenhageners were upset or confused by the changes at first. But once they saw the payoff, it was obvious to them which city was better.

"My generation, we all remember when there were parking spaces over there," Bondam said of Tovehallerne. "We all see, OK, this is what we got in exchange? I mean, I'd much rather have that."


Copenhagen's Harbor Bath has no parking lot.


The public seating at Paper Island, an international street-food court with little on-site parking; almost everyone arrives by bike.

To spend time in Copenhagen is to understand that the point of a connected high-comfort bike network isn't just to get more people on bicycles. It's to make an entire city better by creating business districts and entertainment spots that don't have to be surrounded by vast parking lots. It's to have streets that can carry 30 times more people per square foot, because a personal vehicle takes up far less space (especially while moving) when it's a bicycle. It's to make streets safer for driving, biking and walking alike. It's to live in a city full of people who are happy and healthy. 

That's why we're spending time in Copenhagen this week with delegations from a few ambitious U.S. cities. And that's why all this week, we'll be using this blog (along with our Twitter and Instagram feeds) to take you along on our study tour.

"The swan is the national bird of Denmark," Bondam said. "And that of course is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling — which turned out to be a beautiful swan."

The Green Lane Project helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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