Lessons from Copenhagen for Bicycling in the Bay Area

_1.jpgBicyclists — and blue bike lanes and physically separated bikeways — abound in Copenhagen, where biking makes up 37 percent of the trips to work and school. Photos by Leah Shahum

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.

_5.jpgIn an effort to better appreciate and recognize bicyclists, the City of Copenhagen recently added this railing at a busy intersection to allow cyclists to hold on while they wait for the light to change.

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.

Meter.jpgA great idea for Market Street in San Francisco?! This automated bicycle counter is positioned on one of Copenhagen’s busiest bicycling roads and tracks the number of cyclists passing by (in the single direction) on a daily and annual basis. It shows that, as of 10:22a.m. on this sunny Monday morning, 2,572 people had biked by. This street regularly sees between 20,000 and 30,000 bicyclists a day.

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."

Bike_advocates.jpgBay Area bicycle advocates experience Copenhagen biking on a special tour arranged by the League of American Bicyclists. From left, Corinne Winter, Executive Director, Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition; Andy Thornley, Program Director, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition; and Jodie Medeiros, Development Director, SFBC.
Covered_bike_parking.jpgThis new covered bike parking is specially designed to hold cargo bicycles, a growing segment of bikes in Copenhagen during the past five years. Today, 25 percent of all families with two children in Copenhagen own cargo bikes.
  • elizabeth creely

    Nice reporting Leah, and a much needed reminder that we can live in our cities differently. It’s an needed message, esp. after the dismaying arguments against SF Bike Plan at yesterday’s injunction hearing.

    The Danish built bike infrastructure and people used it. It seems so simple.

  • Who would think it, but I just bumped into the SFBC trio (Leah, Andy, and Jodi) on the street in Copenhagen! Unfortunately, with me lacking a bike, and them lacking cell phones, coordinating is a little difficult… but hopefully we’ll bump again, probably at the bike parade tomorrow 😀

    The sight of Andy riding a bike has become so familiar, how could I ever miss him? haha

  • CBrinkman

    This is also a very good reminder that we need to stop prioritizing car driver convenience over bike rider safety. People will ride their bikes more if we build good infrastructure.

    I can just hear Gil – “not because they have honey running through their veins” – classic!

  • Very interesting – looking forward to more reports and information from Copenhagen!

  • Most of the photos depict cyclists wearing helmets. That is very unusual for Copenhagen — perhaps they are the American tourists?

  • Drunk Engineer –

    Unfortunately, they’re probably not tourists – Denmark and the City of Copenhagen have been campaigning some to promote helmet use. Copenhagenize recently discussed some of the fear-mongering goin on by police & the media.

    However, I’d still say those couple of photos overrepresent helmeted cyclists in the city.

  • Shawn Allen

    I was pretty surprised to see so many helmets in those photos, too. I was in Copenhagen for a year ago and saw only a handful of helmeted cyclists in two weeks. It’s already been studied and debated to death around the world, but I’m really curious to know what the effects of an uptick in helmet use will have on safety (and the perception thereof) in a city with such a casual attitude toward cycling.

  • Didrik

    Those photos of helmeted riders where probably carefully chosen to keep those in the American audience who are devout followers of The Church of the Styrofoam Jesus from firing off hate-mail.

  • icarus12

    Ever noticed that there are still plenty of cars on the road in Denmark and The Netherlands? Sharing the road works.

  • leah

    I’ve also been surprised by how many people wear helmets in Copenhagen. I’d estimate that about 1 out of 3 or 4 people I see riding are wearing helmets. It’s very different than Amsterdam, where I’d say 1 out of 300 people is wearing a helmet. As Aaron mentioned in earlier comment, we’ve heard from many Copenhageners here the conference that there has been a concerted effort to promote helmet use within the past few years, so it is a new phenomenon. FYI: the photos were taken randomly & definitely not chosen to lean toward helmet-wearers – this is just a random sampling of who’s riding here in Copenhagen.

  • James

    Friends from Denmark visited me last summer. They were excited to take a bike ride from my place in the Inner Richmond out to Ocean Beach. Halfway through Golden Gate Park, they had to stop and rest, they were winded from the hills! Golden Gate Park isn’t even that hilly. But Denmark is FLAT. I wonder how many Danes would cycle if they had our topography.

  • Daniel

    I’m a bit troubled by the SF Bike Coalition’s advocacy of separate bikeways, in part because it seems like there is no debate going on. Has anyone argued that separate bikeways are often dangerous, even if well-designed?

    SF has plenty of examples: the Panhandle bike path creates danger at intersections, as do the paths at Crissy Field and Great Highway. All have been the scene of accidents at traffic junctures. The bike path leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge actually puts bikes on the wrong side of the road. This seems really foolish. Surely someone has pointed this out? (That’s a genuine question–I haven’t been keeping too well informed.)

    Here is an older critical article:


    and the author links to this piece specifically on Copenhagen: http://www.trafitec.dk/pub/Road safety and percieved risk of cycle tracks and lanes in Copenhagen.pdf

    The evidence seems to show that some bike facilities have increased the danger for cyclists.

  • The evidence shows that the establishment of separate cycling facilities – cycling paths – along roads and at intersections, combined with traffic calming are ways to achieve higher levels of cycling. See this research:


    The evidence shows that the higher number of cyclists, the safer cycling is.

    The evidence shows that the current standard American practice of requiring bicycles to ride in the midst of high speed traffic results in very low rates of bicycling (single digits at best.)

    With their spectacular network of cycle paths and bicycle infrastructure, the Dutch and the Danes achieve cycling rates between 35 and 40%. They say bicycle infrastructure is the key. We keep saying, no, that must not be true. Even though their accident rate is a fraction of ours, we insist their bicycle paths cause accidents, and our way is safer. Even though most American refuse to ride bicycles because they believe our roads are too dangerous, we insist bicycles should continue to ride in car traffic because we are sure it’s safer. In the face of all evidence of what works to create high rates of bicycling, we insist on continuing with practices that suit the needs of a small number of very fit recreational riders who like to ride fast and aggressively. Surely anything else is unsafe.

    For all its warts, I would much rather ride on the Panhandle bike path than almost anywhere else in the city. I certainly prefer it to the Three Blocks of Terror that precede it on Fell between Scott and Baker. I find if I slow down as I cross Masonic and carefully double check to make sure no cars are coming even when I have the green light, I can cross without danger. Though there are small dogs on leashes to avoid on the path and bizarrely aimed irrigation sprinklers, there are no cars doors to fling open and hit me, no one suddenly turning left in front of me, no one suddenly pulling out from a parking spot, no enormous vans or RVs parked half in the bike lane, no cars queuing for gas to force me to merge with 45mph traffic, and no aggressive drivers who find it amusing to come within inches of my elbow as they hurl their 5000 lbs of steel past me. In addition, I get a break from the roar of cars and their nasty fumes, I get to see grass and flowers and trees and people picnicking and children playing. I might even be able to have a conversation with the person I’m biking with. Best of all, I get to relax.

    Part of what will attract more people to biking is making it more enjoyable, and that means reducing the stress that comes with having to compete with cars. I know that some people say what stress–riding in traffic is fun! But for most people (women! children! parents! seniors!) bicycling away from cars makes the experience a heck of a lot more pleasant/safe/desirable/enjoyable/happy/less stressful/less terrifying/something you actually might consider doing on a regular basis. When you argue against bicycle infrastructure you are arguing to keep the majority of our populace from ever bicycling. All in the name of safety, of course.

  • mike

    It’s impressive how many cyclists there are here and how normal it feels. But it’s not always relaxing…often feels like driving when you’re riding with so many people on what’s basically a roadway-like network of tracks-paths-lanes. The potential for how large scale cycling can make a great city even better is pretty self-evident here.

  • James –

    Your question can be answered by looking at the rest of Denmark. I think you meant “Copenhagen is flat” – Jutland, the largest part of Denmark, is a peninsula much like the one San Francisco is on (though not as extreme). I just left from a semester in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, which is quite hilly, and the cycling rate there is about half of Copenhagen’s at ~20%. But I think it also has to do with the planning being a little more sprawled and more forgiving for cars, resulting in higher volumes of car traffic which making cycling less pleasant and seem more dangerous, even with separated facilities.

  • Daniel –

    You said “even if they’re well designed”, but aren’t the examples you provided all badly designed ones?

  • gibraltar

    “Has anyone argued that separate bikeways are often dangerous, even if well-designed?”

    Of course, but why should anyone expect that you will actually do your own research, right?

  • Nick

    Despite SF’s hills, you can strategically use them to your advantage if you know the terrain.

    There’s so many spots in the city where a short detour will allow you to coast for a mile or more downhill.

    And a lot of streets are flat and fast- ex: the Oakdale bike lanes. You can ride a mile in about 2 minutes with little energy expended.

  • Daniel

    Taomom–Thanks for the link. It looks like a good article, and I’ll read it more carefully this weekend. I have no doubt that separate cycling paths can get more people on bikes, and that’s a good thing. But it seems like the devil’s in the details: the abstract mentions “traffic education of both cyclists and motorists”–*that* is something I can definitely support.

    But if the paths are poorly designed, and people aren’t educated about how to ride safely, particularly at intersections, I’m leery. I’ve seen one brutal accident, and read about more than enough, to not want more facilities like the Panhandle path. But again, I’ll have to read the article. And I didn’t mean to argue against bike infrastructure. I’m all for it! It’s just that I haven’t seen anyone even mention the risks of separate facilities, and, as the articles I linked to point out, they are significant. It’s great that people feel safe, but it’s not great to have a path that has them entering traffic where even drivers who are paying attention don’t expect to see them. On the Great Highway path, bikes traveling south enter the intersection at Sloat on the wrong side of the road.

    There is also the risk that paths support the belief that bikes don’t belong on the road and that it isn’t safe to ride in traffic. I’ve been yelled at to “get off the road” going up to the Golden Gate Bridge, even though I am riding *safely* and visibly on the right side of the road (which is also the law!).

    Aaron–Good point–I didn’t mention the good paths. I have no problem riding the Mill Valley-Sausalito path. It is wide enough to accommodate different users traveling at different speeds and doesn’t intersect with major traffic. Maybe that’s good design, or maybe just luck. But if we are going to have more paths, let’s have more like that, or at least let’s talk about how to achieve maximum safety, not just the perception of maximum safety.

  • Tallycyclist

    Sharing the road only works WELL on roads that have low speeds and volumes of cars.  On medium and large arterial roads, they always have separated cycling paths.  Sure any cyclist can ‘share’ the road space on any road that does not prohibit cycling (i.e. highways), but not many people would want to ride with cars traveling 45-50 mph on lanes that are barely wide enough to accomodate SUV’s.  

  • Tallycyclist

    Most of Denmark is flat, but Aalborg and Aarhus both have some hills.  Even Copenhagen has a few little hills that a novice cyclist would find difficult to ride on. The weather is also not very good there:  overcast most of the time, rainy and generally cold.  It’s also windy most of the time.  At least with hills one side is downhill.  It’s possible to get headwinds in more than one direction.  

  • Tallycyclist

    If intersections are not well done, then ANY infrastructure has the potential to increase accidents.  But if the roads don’t feel safe enough so that only 1% of people ever cycle, then drivers are not going to be use to cyclist being on the road.    If segregated paths are a bad idea, then Denmark and Netherlands would not have them all over cities on large and medium sized roads, and they wouldn’t have cities where 30, 40 or 50% percent of trips are made by bikes.  


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