Supe Kim, SFMTA Get Tips From Copenhagen on Creating a Bikeable City

Supervisor Jane Kim (left) rides in Copenhagen with SFMTA officials. Photo: People for Bikes

Supervisor Jane Kim and SFMTA officials took a trip last month to learn about best practices from two leading bike-friendly cities: Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmö, Sweden.

“I’d assumed that [Copenhagen] always had a bike culture,” Kim told Streetsblog. “I was surprised to learn that they also had a cars-first culture through the 60s and 90s. They’ve actually spent the last 25 years working to shift that.”

Kim joined a delegation including SFMTA Chief of Staff Alicia John-Baptiste, Communications Director Candace Sue, Livable Streets planner Mike Sallaberry, and board member Gwyneth Borden. The trip was organized by the national advocacy group People For Bikes.

“Not only are senior citizens getting around in a healthier way,” noted Kim, “they feel safe doing it. And that’s exciting.”

The delegation met with Copenhagen planning officials and a former mayor to learn about how the city made bicycling the most convenient way to get around.

Photo: People for Bikes

Copenhagen has one of the world’s highest rates of bicycling, and growing. According to the city’s 2014 Bicycle Account [PDF], about 30 percent of all trips that start and/or end within the city are made by bike. Among trips to work and school start and end within the city, 63 percent are by bike, and that figure increased from 52 percent in 2012.

“The average person uses a bike to get around,” said Sallaberry. “If you ask a person, ‘are you a cyclist?,’ they’ll just look at you kind of strangely. It’d be like asking if you brush your teeth. Well yeah, of course.”

The streets are also some of the world’s safest. Sallaberry estimated that if SF were as safe as Copenhagen, the city would save about 15 lives every year. Copenhagen has cut traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 70 percent over the past 20 years, he said.

Even with ten times the bicycling rate of SF, Copenhagen has had fewer than four bicycle fatalities each year since 2009, with only one each year in 2011 and 2012, according to StatBank Denmark. The average person could cycle 2,800 years in Copenhagen before having a collision, statistically speaking, according to Copenhagen’s Bicycle Account.

“We spend so much time and money cleaning up the aftermath of traffic fatalities here,” said SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire. “A trip like this, to send a few people who are in a position to effect change to see with their own eyes a city like Copenhagen, to me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s such a great investment — it’s inspiring.”

SF’s bike lanes are typically unprotected and end suddenly, unlike Copenhagen’s, which are usually physically separated, often by a raised curb, and reliably link to safe routes.

Our 2010 Streetfilm, “Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes

“They acknowledge that bikes are not cars, and they’re not pedestrians,” said Sallaberry. “It only makes sense to have intuitive and continuous networks for them. We have continuous sidewalks, but you wouldn’t drop a sidewalk and expect pedestrians to walk in the roadway,”

“With some really good investment and policy changes, we can get there,” said Kim. “We’re probably 15 years behind them — that’s a rough guess.”

SF plans to break ground on its first raised bike lanes on Masonic Avenue this year, with Second Street and part of Polk Street to follow next year. But since this type of infrastructure is new to U.S. cities, the SFMTA will install one-block “demonstrations” this year to test it out on Market Street (at 12th Street) and Valencia Street south of Cesar Chavez Street.

Those projects will test what types of curbs work best, Sallaberry said, especially in allowing people with disabilities to reach the curb from vehicles. “Before we build miles and miles, we want to do these smaller projects to determine what standard we should use.”

Sue, the SFMTA’s communications director, said the most important lesson she learned in Copenhagen was about “asking the right questions and creating solutions that work for real people…  rather than coming up with prescriptive approaches.”

Sue noted that Copenhagen’s transportation planners approach street design from a philosophy of “observing what people are doing,” then testing solutions tailored to the safest and most intuitive behavior. “People will do what makes the most sense to them.”

“Traditionally, we’ve tried too hard to regulate human nature,” said Sallaberry. “Of course we need rules and laws. But if large numbers of people are breaking a law, then that’s saying something. We need to at least understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

“If you provide a system that makes sense, and serves people well, they’re more likely to follow the law and be predictable.”

SF officials have taken several trips in recent years to study bike-friendly cities, and Dutch planners visited SF in 2011 to help design major bicycling streets. After a trip to the Netherlands that year, then-Supervisor David Chiu proclaimed that SF needed to “stop crawling and start running” in creating a bike-friendly city.

But when it comes to removing car parking, which occupies most of SF’s curb space, it takes political leadership from elected officials to stand up for protected bike lanes. When SFMTA proposed applying Dutch-recommended protected lanes on Polk, Chiu yielded to car-first merchants and endorsed a heavily watered-down project.

Kim said an important lesson for her was that Copenhagen presents bike-friendly streets “within a larger vision of the city.”

“It’s not just about bikes,” said Kim. “It’s all interconnected — that was really helpful for me.”

  • Mesozoic Polk

    Actually trying to learn from international best practices? Not a good look, Jane/SFMTA, not a good look.

    Still, hopefully nothing at all will come of this ill-advised excursion, and we’ll be back to cars-first, no-change business as usual.

  • Ion Feldman


  • M.

    Details like curb design on raised cycleways have been figured out already but we wouldn’t just go ahead and do something continuous without permission and a feel-good media scrum for a day that just a coupla blocks gets us.

    Travel to the Netherlands did wonders for Chiu’s leadership skills. We know very well how to create safe streets; no trip to anywhere will make a difference until our politicians communicate the urgency and finally lead on doing it instead of cowering under the spectre of litigation. SF has an ace legal team and maybe if they got the go-ahead from on high to craft a pre-emptive legal defense, we’d have infrastructure on a par with…Salt Lake City.

  • murphstahoe

    I find it very interesting that Supervisor Kim gets all these great tips from Copenhagen, but when hundreds of people plead for Townsend Street – in her district – to get simple fixes… she goes to Copenhagen.

  • I’d be scared if I thought going to Copenhagen and riding a bike around town would change any of the streets in SF.

  • gneiss

    There is simply no urgency from the SFMTA and our elected leaders to make changes to our city streets that would create a safe, protected, and continuous bicycle network in our city. So, we end up with a disjointed system where every block is contested by the local neighbors and businesses and we lose out on the benefits of a network of a safe bicycle infrastructure that would create better outcomes for all road users. Remember, the Oak and Fell bicycle lanes were first approved in 1997, and work on them was finished in 2015. In that time, Copenhagen finished building out probably a good quarter of their bike lane network. And despite the multiple community meetings, we still cannot execute on a even a relatively small plan to make the wiggle safer because a handful of drivers don’t want their commutes from one direction in the city disrupted.

    It is striking how slowly and expensively San Francisco executes on the bicycle plan, and how badly the public process has been perverted on the most dangerous streets by LOS and other DPW rules to prevent a network from being created. They don’t have any problem with the easy stuff, like crowing about the non-protected bike lanes and better cross-walks on Ellis where there was no parking or travel lanes removed, but nothing will get done on the highway like dangerous stretch between Geary and Ellis on Masonic where people get killed getting into our out of their cars or crossing to Trader Joe’s, and there are no bicycle accommodations because that’s “out of the scope” of the Masonic redesign project! So, yet again, there’s no connection from one piece of the network to another.

    And what about the bike lanes slated for Division? Currently, there’s only talk of adding one additional block in only one direction while this street will remain an unpleasant death trap for pedestrians, bicyclist, and motorists, because god forbid we remove too much parking or slow down commuters here.

    Until the city gets serious about executing on their plans rather than holding yet more community meetings where all the resident cranks can play bike lane bingo, I have no confidence that we will see anything more than the block by block changes we are by now used to seeing and the associated barely incremental changes in mode share and injury and death reductions that will come from that approach.

  • The problem with the SFMTA is that their “data driven”
    approach only builds improvements one block at time after there’s been enough
    blood spilled, and after years of studies and public hearings. Other cities in the US are able to design and
    build miles of protected bike lanes in months while the SFMTA takes years to build
    just a few blocks. While I applaud the
    SFMTA for looking at how other countries are building their biking
    infrastructure, those countries would have never been able to build what they have
    if they were crippled by the same flawed design process the SFMTA uses. The
    SFMTA should be designing bike Infrastructure like roads and transit are
    designed; figure out where people need go and create a means for them to safely
    get there. Studying accidents and
    putting bandage improvements only to those areas will never make our streets
    significantly safer or convince more people to switch to biking. We need a comprehensive design approach with
    thoughtful connected routes, not piece mail Improvements that end every few

  • gneiss

    The state has been passing legislation over the last couple of years that in theory should make it harder for people to litigate over adding bike lanes without an EIR. However, I don’t think anyone has tested the validity of the new laws in court, which is probably why the city is still gun shy when it comes to pursuing a legal remedy.

    That being said, the bike plan the city created in 1997 and approved six years ago in 2009 did have an EIR associated with in, and any changes the city makes to streets under that plan cannot be litigated under CEQA, because those projects were approved by the BOE. There is absolutely no reason why they cannot do every single project outlined in that plan without fear of litigation. I think the bigger fear is political. Our BOE members have aspirations beyond their current positions and none of them want to alienate the powerful donors in their districts, primarily merchants and property owners on the various neighborhood groups, who are loathe to change anything that might be construed as alterations to the “character” of their neighborhoods.

    I would encourage everyone to read this plan to understand how badly the city leadership and bureaucracy has executed on their bicycle infrastructure goals.

  • Easy

    Thank you to People for Bikes for organizing this!

  • voltairesmistress

    To Supervisor Jane Kim: It is pretty obvious that most parents are not going to let their children ride bikes in our city, unless and until there is a system of continuous, protected bike lanes. Further, most adults not already experienced in city riding will stay away from commuting through San Francisco by bike. Build that network, and you will revolutionize how residents experience their city. Build that network, and I will finally get to ride with my family, not just alone as I do now.

  • Supervisor Kim has spoken up in favor of a fully protected bike lane along Polk street, and urged the SFMTA to not randomly end the planned northbound-only protected bike lane at Pine street. I was there at the Polk street hearing when she spoke. She and everyone else who spoke out wanting a fully protected bike lane along all of Polk street were largely ignored by the SFMTA board, who favored the watered down bike improvements to appease car-first interests. Until there are real political consequences for our elected officials prioritizing cars over people, we’ll continue to have these piecemeal bicycle improvements that are little more than political bones thrown to bicycle advocates to keep us from complaining too loudly.

  • voltairesmistress

    Thanks for bringing up Kim’s support on PolkStreet bike lanes. Always good to have relevant background facts.

  • Jimbo

    SF is way too focused On bike lanes for the 3% of people who commute by bike. What they should be looking at is the 100s of cities across the world that have better public transit and make needed transformations there to serve all San Franciscans. Not just the elite 25-45 year old males who cycle

  • murphstahoe

    no kidding. We spend .0001 percent of the city budget on these damn bike lanes.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    The point of protected bike lanes is that they are safer and encourage more people to bike. Did you even look at the photos at the people in Copenhagen who are biking? None of them fit your idea of who bicyclists are. Just about anyone can ride a bike when bike lanes are separate and protected from cars and trucks. Mass transit improvements are great but they’re expensive and take decades. Biking improvements cost a tiny fraction per user of what road and mass transit improvements cost. Most trips in this city on transit or by car are less than 4 miles; an easy distance on bike. I gave up driving and Muni 2 years ago when I bought my first bike. I’m now healthier and happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’m determined to do everything I can to encourage this city to make biking safer and more viable for everyone. Cities all over the world are realizing that biking infrastructure is the most cost effective, space effective, and environmentally friendly way to move people.

  • Gezellig


    1) under-construction protected intersections coming up (which have still not been built even in Copenhagen, which actually often falls behind best-practice infrastructure)

    2) and pretty comprehensive low-stress bike networks

    3) all within allowable CA road standards (none of this “well that’s nice for those Europeans, but our laws would never allow this” nonsense).

    SF supes and other Californians in leadership may greatly benefit from a trip to an equally exotic and far-off place. Ya know…Davis.

    They’ve been at this stuff for years. Decades, even:×768.jpg×718.jpg×691.jpg

  • SFnative74

    Im pretty sure they removed all their parking protected bikeways, including the two shown in your post.

  • helloandyhihi

    I fully support trips like this. I became a transit activist because I know that other cities do it much better than San Francisco.

    I learned about what was happening with bikes and public transit in cities like Montreal, Tokyo, Paris and even in developing countries by traveling with an urban planner.

    Our elected officials need to experience places that have enacted progressive transportation policy the right way. If you’ve never seen these things in action and you have angry constituents freaking out losing a few parking spaces, it’s , it’s critical that people who make these decisions really “get it” on a level deep enough to take political risks.

  • M.

    It’s not a zero sum, it’s both/and. If you take an unfiltered look around, right now in SF cycling is not only preferred by 25 to 45 year old males. The point that’s been made repeatedly (8 to 80 meme) and that’s illustrated by these other cities (many of which also have excellent public transit) is that many more people would cycle if the streets were safer and if it was not a blood sport.

  • M.

    The problem with SF’s ‘data-driven approach’ is it’s not. That is, it’s enunciated until it hits a roadblock, then crashes. Pine to CA on Polk is one clear example where the crash data for peds and cyclists and the width of Polk on that stretch all mandated the raised cycleway – or better – and then…Other, way smaller, speed bumps have similar effects on data driving anything more than intentions.

  • M.

    I’ve met with the Mayor’s Vision Zero Liaison, a nice fellow, several times. I informed him that *any* crash in Hiura Optometry’s self-designated territory is on them and the Mayor and that I will personally do everything possible to ensure they’re personally accountable for it. Unless, of course, we manage to get that block back.

  • M.

    Be afraid, Bobby.

  • Gezellig

    Yes, due to a confluence of reasons. One was that on that stretch they found the initial design problematic at intersections/driveways, as did the Dutch with similar designs in the Netherlands.

    However, this is where Davis and Dutch design began to diverge by the 70s. Rather than toss out the whole concept of protected bike lanes altogether just because of problems at intersections, the Dutch sought to improve the intersections. Even on stretches with frequent driveways/intersections in the NL these improved treatments have proven very successful.

    Meanwhile, the Forester et al. crowd was successful at the state level in terms of lobbying against further separated infrastructure or, in many cases, any infrastructure at all.

    Of course the irony is that now 4 decades later Davis is now recognizing the value of protected infrastructure even at intersections and is more or less copy-pasting Dutch-style protected intersections.

  • Jimbo

    they spent oodles on increasing bike lanes in Portland and it did not increase bicycle use there. It basically flatlined after the increased protected lanes.

  • Gezellig

    Portland overall has very few protected bike lanes, and they generally do not form a cohesive low-stress network. Compare to a typical Dutch network–protected bike lanes are still very much in the numerical minority but they connect at crucial points:

    Portland’s network looks nothing like this. The great majority of bike lanes Portland *does* have are conventional bike lanes or Neighborhood Greenways, which are not necessarily bad in and of themselves (if they formed a part of a larger cohesive network that didn’t relegate people to backstreets), but which Portland’s own research has confirmed only attract the Enthused & Confident:

    Remember, way too many of Portland’s streets still look like this:

    Portland is no bike Mecca:

    In fact, some people there are even pushing for its bike status to be downgraded:

  • Gezellig

    Not just the elite 25-45 year old males who cycle

    By your logic we should also have never built the Golden Gate Bridge because only a few elite 25-45 year old males were the ones who’d bother swimming the crossing.

  • I have a couple friends who’ve moved to Portland in the past year.
    One lives and works with a convenient bikelane in between and now rides all the time–I’m not sure if he even owned a bike in SF or Oakland when he lived here.
    The other used to ride from Ocean Beach (Ortega & 46th Ave) to 7th & Townsend for work and after riding with some 35+ mph traffic blowing past him in Portland said screw that noise.

  • Gezellig

    Sounds about right. The Enthused & Confident seem more or less ok with conventional bike lanes as long as they’re not too blocked, doorzoney or indirect.

    Unfortunately, that’s at *best* 5-7% of people. Is it any surprise that 93%+ of people take a hard pass at the tenuous in-between position conventional bike lanes put bikes in?

    ^from Portland, btw. Long way to go before it’s Bike Mecca.

    As for the 35+mph arterial stuff, yeah, that’s also a big problem in Portland. Portland still has way too many glaring gaps in its bike network to ever be referenced as a model city for biking.

    ^ also from Portland. Definitely not Bike Mecca.

    The point of this post is not to rip on Portland per se. SF has similar gaps. But it’s wildly inaccurate and disingenuous to play the “well even in model Portland they only have 6% modeshare” card. Yeah! Cuz they’re not doing nearly enough!

  • NoeValleyJim

    How many times are you going to repeat the same tired old lie? You have been refuted many times.

  • murphstahoe

    And seriously – you don’t care about MUNI or public transit. You are just pulling out this trope in order to beat back bike infrastructure.

    Next year when they want to rip out some parking spaces to improve MUNI run times, you’ll tell us we need to focus on bike lanes.

  • Justin

    None of these trips to other cities learning about cycling infrastructure will be useful if we can’t turn those ideas into reality. And certainly none of these trips to other cities that have good PROTECTED cycling infrastructure will be useful or helpful because most of our elected leaders and SFMTA don’t have the BALLS and courage to implement them where it’s needed in a timely efficient manner!


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