Opinion | Copenhagen, Copenhagenize yourself

Denmark is known as a leader worldwide when it comes to biking, and few places in the world have as many bikes as Copenhagen does. The capital’s success promoting biking has become a model for other countries, and Danish engineers and architects are busy helping other cities to help them ‘Copenhagenize’ their streets. One of the most recent cities to adopt the Copenhagen model is New York.

Copenhagenization has become another of Denmark’s selling points when it tries to promote itself as an environmental leader. Denmark’s cycling culture, however, is not the product of a single, visionary policy. It it is the result of a long tradition of biking that traces its roots to the early 20th century, and it is a part of our national history that the emergence of the car in the 1950s was unable to knock down. Danes are still biking, but how are things here in the land of the bike?

I’m certain that anyone who has tried to bike in Copenhagen’s rush hour traffic will agree with me that one thing we shouldn’t be trying to export is our behaviour on the bike lane.

During a ride in the Copenhagen bike rush you can be given the finger. You can see cyclists illegally turning right on red, or riding on the pavement or pedestrian crossings. You can see riders not signalling when they are turning or stopping. And you may not see them until it’s too late, but beware of the aggressive types who wait until they are a little too close before overtaking. No doubt about it, riding a bike in Copenhagen is an exercise in chaos. The City Council does what it can to profile the city as a green, progressive place well on its way to reaching its ridership goal of 50 percent. It doesn’t take a traffic engineer (all it takes is the average commuter) to tell you that fitting more bikes in central Copenhagen requires radically rethinking the way we look at urban bike commuting.

Being progressive requires leadership, and it requires drive. Copenhagen will never emerge as the ‘environmental metropolis’ it’s aiming to become unless it thinks differently and challenges habit. Copenhageners’ bad cycling manners have nothing to do with moral decay. They are the product of a lack of foresight by the City Council. There’s just no place for all those bikes if you also want to leave room for buses, lorries, cars (lots of cars) and pedestrians. Unless Copenhagen does something new, it’s biking morale will only continue to decay.

Our nation’s capital is already being overtaken by more proactive cities abroad. Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, for example, have come up with an infrastructure that leaves Denmark’s in the dust.

If we in Denmark want to keep our cycling culture vibrant, we need to move out of the 20th century and come up with a modern city that people actually want to live in.

We in Aarhus are in the process of encouraging our residents to ride more. But, we’re not looking to Copenhagen for our inspiration. For us, our role models are cities in the Netherlands, Germany and the US of all places. These countries dare to make the changes that can once and for all elevate biking’s status as a way of getting around.

Aarhus has built the country’s first cycle streets – normal city streets that are converted to bike lanes that are open to car traffic, but where bikes have the right of way. Cycle streets are especially effective in the convoluted streets where building bike lines is impractical or even impossible. The cycle streets Aarhus has established have made it easier for cyclists to get around while at the same time making it more attractive to be outside. Aarhus was also the first city in the country to permit right turns on red, though still on a trial basis right now. We’ve also got the country’s first parking lot for bikes. Similar to parking lots for long distance commuters, these lots make it possible for people to park their bike safely at a facility near the motorway. People can park, hop on their bike and continue the rest of the commute into the city on two wheels, gliding by the traffic jams they would otherwise be waiting in if they had driven. Parking lots would have been useful in Copenhagen, had it been able to establish its congestion ring.

Aarhus still lags well behind Copenhagen in terms of the sheer numbers of cyclists, but when it comes to coming up with new ideas, we’ve managed to find new ways of doing things that ‘the City of Cyclists’ should have come up with a long time ago.

You can’t rest on our laurels, Copenhagen. Get on your horse and revamp your bike infrastructure so that you can again rightly call yourselves a world leader when it comes to urban cycling. Whatever you do though, you need to start making more room for the bikes that are already ther.