This is a guest post by Marita Hunt.
The cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen is, as we all know (well, we transport and urban design nerds), fundamental to the city’s transport system. Bikes are treated as a completely normal and sensible way to get around, and space is made for cyclists in every corner of the city.
Over a couple of rainy weeks this October, I explored Copenhagen on several hired bikes, becoming familiar with the ways in which the built environment facilitates and responds to the city’s cycling culture. What follows is a brief taxonomy of Copenhagen cycling infrastructure, based mostly on my own observations.
The typical ‘Copenhagen Lane’:
A simple asphalt platform usually about 2-3m wide, above the carriageway and below the footpath, with a concrete edge beam to the road. On big arterials, there’s one of these on both sides of the road, and you find this kind of lane on secondary streets as well.
Buses stop in the traffic lane, and there’s often, but not always, a narrow strip of cobbles separating embarking and disembarking passengers from the cycle lane. Bus stops are a negotiation point: passengers usually have to cross the cycle lane, and cyclists have to slow down for them. I was surprised at how little infrastructure is provided for bus stops – often just a sign, and not even any road markings. The priority is clearly maintaining space for pedestrians and cyclists.
At big intersections:
The cycle lane drops to road level and is articulated by road paint, with a bright blue band painted across the intersection connecting to the cycle lane opposite. At smaller intersections cyclists might be sharing the lane with right-turning traffic. There’s usually a separate traffic light for cyclists, timed slightly differently to the lights for cars and pedestrians.
A lot of small roads have an asymmetrical design, with a typical raised Copenhagen lane on one side and a narrow, painted lane between the footpath and a row of car parking on the other. Car parks only exist on one side of the road. There are plenty of gentle speed bumps.
Very quiet roads, lanes and side roads don’t have any painted or built infrastructure, and cyclists share with cars. These streets sometimes have parking on both sides.
Most of the time when a minor street meets a street higher in the hierarchy, the minor street is made secondary to the footpath, which continues, slightly raised, along it – similar to the new raised pedestrian crossings on Ponsonby road. These street ends are low and subtle, and they make the street read a bit like a dead end. It seemed like they served two functions – to both give pedestrians a right of way, and to give a sense of enclosure to the quiet street, sending a clear signal to drivers that they’re in a different traffic environment once they turn off the larger road.
If you look closely, you notice that simple little ramps are provided all over the place, just a few buckets of hotmix poured against a kerb. They’re a subtle expression of desire lines when a dedicated crossing isn’t provided.
In the new development in Nordhavn (masterplanned by COBE), the street network is closed to cars in places, and you get streets that look like streets but are just for bikes and pedestrians. Elsewhere, there’s a two-way separated path under construction that has been designed to help shape the landscape.
Through public spaces:
The cycling network is more fine-grained than the traffic network because most public spaces have two-way cycling lanes built into them, often designed to look like a miniature road, with a centreline, pedestrian crossings, and markings at intersections. Occasionally, it’s just a simpler shared path, but you almost always see something, like a change in surface material, indicating a separate space for pedestrians.
In these public places, the cycleway design tends to be playful, curving through the park, forming the edge of play areas and landscape elements, rather than cutting a straight desire line from one side to the other.
This is Copenhagen, so bikes are flung about everywhere, leaning against walls, clustered on corners, and overflowing from parking areas. There are cycle racks everywhere too, in all shapes and forms, but the vast majority were very utilitarian long strips of racks that the front wheel of the bike slides into. One benefit of these is that if they’re empty, they don’t take up much space in the street – but on projects I’ve worked on NZ, feedback from cyclists has usually been that they prefer the ‘n’ shaped bike stands to the front-wheel-rest style.
That could be to do with security and the locking system. Most Copenhageners ride bikes that have a lock attached to the back wheel, and they don’t usually fix it to anything, whereas we like to be able to thread a chain round the frame and one or two wheels and then rope the whole thing to something solid.
The fun part! Copenhagen has many, many bridges. I took a free running tour with an enthusiastic Dane called Ole (highly recommended, if you’re in Copenhagen), and he’s figured out a 7km running route that has 21 different bridges in it. Bike and pedestrian-only bridges massively increase the accessibility of the city, and the way they are designed makes them playful, joyful moments on your journey.
Many of Copenhagen’s cycle and pedestrian bridges are beautiful pieces of architecture and engineering, from the sinuous, once-bright-orange Cycleslangen (it doesn’t seem to be as diligently maintained as Auckland’s pink bridge, but that bridge profile certainly is familiar…), to Olafur Elliason’s whimsical, bubble-shaped Cirkelbroen, to the low and elegant Inderhavnsbro bridge on the end of Nyhavn canal, which has kinks, cutouts and pockets. Nyhavn is Copenhagen’s most touristed area, so the bridge gets lots of ambling, distractable tourists on foot and bike, which might explain the way it’s been designed: it creates a safer environment for pedestrians and cyclists, slowing the bikes down and providing lots of safe pull-over areas.
In a few of the more refined and urban public spaces, cycling infrastructure is gently integrated into the space, with a tactile or paving type change to indicate where cyclists are supposed to be. In places you see strips of flattened cobbles providing cyclists with a smoother ride.
The infrastructure creates behaviour:
It does get a bit messy! I came across gaps and faults in the infrastructure, but because it makes so much sense everywhere else in the city, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers are really well practised at moving around each other, and the rules and habits that make the whole system so effective help plug the gaps when the infrastructure isn’t there. The only real weakness is people like me, wayward tourists with their phones out, trying to capture it all en route.
So, in the end…
For an urban cycling enthusiast, it’s exhilarating to discover Copenhagen by bike. Cycling was usually the quickest way to get places compared to walking, driving and public transport. Copenhageners are tough, too: the weather’s reliably terrible most of the time, with lots of rain and plenty of wind (there’s a reason their harbour is populated by wind turbines), but they put on their Rains raincoats and carry on. Despite the potential exposure risk, it is the best way to get around. I covered distances I never would have on foot, and had the luxury of pulling over or changing direction like a cycling flaneur (sorry, people behind me!) whenever I spotted something interesting.
Copenhagen is an incredibly civilised city, with welcoming public spaces, slow streets, sidewalk cafes, big trees and friendly people. The constant, quiet slide of bicycles rolling past you is an essential part of its peacefulness. You can sit on a sidewalk table and overhear a child in the front of a cargo bike chatting to their parent, or the conversation of friends cycling somewhere side-by-side.
A fortnight in the bike lanes of Copenhagen got me wondering about the potential effects the normalisation of cycling might have on a community and a city. When the way you get to work, take your child to school, pick up groceries, or meet friends is by bike, always safe and protected, winding through parks, and flying over the canals on beautiful bridges, then a good chunk of your day has become an act of play and freedom. And that, it seemed to me, would surely have a powerful effect on your values, and your sense of being being an active participant in city life.