Lessons from Copenhagen for Bicycling in the Bay Area
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of dispatches from Copenhagen and Amsterdam from Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition who is on sabbatical in Europe.
More than 1,000 bicycling leaders from nearly 60 countries are gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark to oooh and aaah, share and compare, and, above all else, challenge ourselves to step it up back home.
For a dozen of us from the Bay Area, the Velo-City Global Conference is a chance to experience the much-praised Copenhagen bicycling environment and to bring home ideas and inspiration at a time when our own region could be on the cusp of awakening to the benefits of great bicycling cities.
"In the Bay Area, people are starting to realize that this is the future, in terms of our development. And cycling is an integral part of that," says Corinne Winter, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.
In presentations from biking advocates from Europe, North America, South America, and Asia, it is clear that cities are now considered the most vital frontier for increasing and improving bicycling, particularly as more people move to urban areas.
"Cycling is the most obvious way to encourage more mobility no matter which corner of the earth you come from," says Bo Asmus Kjeldgaard, Copenhagen’s Mayor of the Technical and Environmental Administration, who spoke to the eager crowd. "Copenhagen is just a drop in the ocean…but the power of our example is not to be missed. Cities need to look beyond their national borders and raise the bar worldwide."
Copenhagen clearly takes its role seriously as a pioneering bicycling city and wants to serve as a model for the rest of us. The numbers are impressive: 37 percent of Copenhageners ride bicycles to work and school, though the city’s leadership is not satisfied with this and aims to increase that to 50 percent by 2015. More than 350 kilometers of physically separated bikeways grace the city’s streets, and plans are underway to expand the already-impressive bicycling network with more dedicated bike space and improved intersections.
More convincing than the statistics, though, is simply stepping outside the conference doors to see why Copenhagen is lauded as one of the best, if not the best, bicycling city in the world. The impressive number of people bicycling for transportation is immediately noticeable as a literal sea of people pedaling moves like a wave down major streets.
Even more compelling than the high numbers of people bicycling here is the normalcy of it all. A huge number of families with small children are riding, elderly people are riding, well-dressed professionals are riding. This is a country where Nobel Laureates and the Crown Prince ride bicycles for transportation.
The mainstreaming of bicycling is another prominent theme – and much-needed – theme of the Velo-City Conference. Along with the importance of great, on-the-ground bicycle facilities, conference goers from around the globe are highlighting the need to build the culture of bicycling in our communities so that riding is "as common as brushing your teeth," as Kjeldgaard describes Copenhagen today.
Andreas Rohl, Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Manager, is clearly not resting on the laurels of his city’s impressive reputation, though, acknowledging that they need to do more to respect bicyclists. "We see you. Every cyclist counts," Rhol says. "It’s very important for the city to show you are trying to promote bicycling."
Or, as Mikael Colville-Andersen does in his popular blog celebrating bicycle culture, we need to re-humanize urban cycling, or Copenhagenize it.
Recent efforts in Copenhagen include an extensive, citywide "I Bike Copenhagen" campaign celebrating people who bike. Even more fun to see live is their addition of a new railing at a busy intersection for bicyclists to rest on while waiting for the light to change – either with a hand on the higher bar or resting a foot on the lower bar. (See photo). Taxis are required to have bike racks. They are even adding biking-level trash cans for people to easily dispose of garbage while pedaling.
Copenhagen’s "green wave," which times traffic signals for smooth, easy bicycling is hugely popular among those who ride. On one street where the green wave was implemented, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 bicyclists riding each day. And there is even an automatic, electronic counter to show of the daily and annual number of riders on the busy stretch.
One of the biggest challenges today in Copenhagen, says Rohl, is congestion in the popular cycle tracks. So, what’s their response? The city of Copenhagen is widening busy bikeways, replacing auto lanes with double-wides.
Most encouraging for me to learn at the conference so far is the fact that Copenhagen has not always been this good for bicycling, but rather, something they have worked at, particularly during the past 30 years. According to Rohl, bicycling numbers peaked in the 1950’s but then backslid for decades as the car became more dominant and city planning paid less attention to two wheeled transportation.
In the early 1980’s, grassroots activists demonstrated and demanded better bicycling conditions in Copenhagen, ultimately winning support from the decisionmakers who directed planners and engineers to re-focus on biking.
This is not dissimilar from where many American cities are today, particularly San Francisco. We have a solid base of people who bicycle, as Copenhagen did in the 80’s, and we also know we could – and should – have so many more people choosing bicycling if conditions were improved. Today, politicians are starting to listen to us too, and transportation planners and engineers are stepping outside of their usual box to prioritize bicycling environment.
Copenhagen has not been without their challenges since then. Even though car ownership has increased a whopping 50 percent during the past 15 years, according to Rohl, bicycling is still the predominant way people move around the city, thanks to the investments in Copenhagen’s welcoming and comfortable biking environment and promotion of bicycling as the fastest, easiest way to move around the city.
"Why the Danish people bike is not because they have honey running through their veins," says Gil Peñalosa, Executive Director of the Canadian nonprofit organization 8 – 80 Cities. "No. It’s because they have a great infrastructure for biking. We do need the infrastructure more than anything else."
One of the conference’s keynote speakers, Peñalosa travels the world advocating for more bikeable, livable communities and visited the Bay Area recently. He says he hopes the Velo-City Conference is a reality check for those of us in North America, pushing our Mayors not to compare ourselves with Atlanta and Houston, but rather to raise our standards by using Copenhagen as our benchmark.
"I hope people realize that there has never been a better moment to promote bicycling than now," he says. "We need to take bold steps, not baby steps…It’s time that cycling grows up in North America."
Using an analogy of the U.S. soccer team playing against England in the World Cup match a few weeks ago, Penalosa says: "They [U.S. team] realized they could play. They went up that notch."
"In cycling, we have to go up that notch. I do think the U.S. has the capacity. We should stop coming up with excuses."