The Copenhagen Approach To "Traffic" Could Transform Your City!

Brent Toderian's picture

Our world and our cities, would be so very different, if all of the Directors of Traffic thought like Niels Tørsløv of Copenhagen - especially if, like Niels, all such Directors were trained as landscape architects. What if the "traffic problem" was about too many bikes, and the "parking problem" was about how to deal with so many bikes overtaking the public spaces and sidewalks?

Thanks to a great event put on recently by the City Program  in downtown Vancouver, and their tendency to web-link such events, every city can watch this video and consider what they can learn from Copenhagen's approach to planning a city of cyclists. Trust me, there are transferable lessons, no matter where you are in the bike-planning learning curve.

Some key insights from Niels' talk:

- Copenhagen has almost 40% of all their overall trips by bike, a staggering figure that is already the best in the world. And yet they're not satisfied.... their goal is to raise that to 50%, and they've got aggressive strategies to do it. This is a lesson to cities that think it's too hard to double their mode bike mode share, from, say, 2% to 4%.

- They calculate that a 10% increase in bike trips translates to a 10 million dollar per year cost savings!

- In Copenhagen, cycling has become "hip" and trendy. This is not accidental. A significant part of the traffic department's work is to promote this trendiness, through awareness campaigns, promotions and branding/ marketing (you can picture the traffic director getting the Crown Prince of Denmark to be out seen more on his bike). They use the media and popular culture vigorously, feeling that "if the media is talking about cycling, then politicians are, and if politicians are, then the media is."

(On a related note, this past week another speaker in town, Thomas Campanella, author of The Concrete Dragon, commented that in China bikes are seen as passé and connected to the poverty of the past, and cars are now trendy. This is a scary thought, and disappointing given that bikes could be such a natural part of China's sustainable future.)

- The average profile of a cyclist in Copenhagen is the same as the average profile of their citizens. In other words, everyone's doing it, not just enthusiasts or "brave people" as in other places. It wasn't always this way - like most cities they started with the enthusiasts and built from there. Now that there's such diversity of riders, there are actual recognizable "biking sub-cultures" that have been forming. Cliques essentially.

-They don't require helmets, as their studies suggest it would significantly affect ridership. They aren't considered stylish or convenient/practical, particularly given many cyclists ride to work (in business suits, skirts etc... they don't need change rooms at the workplace). They feel that the health issues relative to the rate and severity of accidents, has to be weighed against the health and "safety" benefits of a far more fit and environmentally-sound citizenry. Think about how many are affected by heart disease and other health implications, and asthma and other air-quality related problems, and compare that to the real health effects of bike accidents.

- 60% of cyclists ride in winter as well, and the city removes snow from cycle tracks (as they call their paths) FIRST, not last (or never).

- Most of the accidents are at intersections, thus they put the majority of the "cost" and safety-intervention at the intersections. They do, though, believe in curbs separating cars and bikes, as they signal safety and quality, and perception of safety is important in these sections of the system. In the intersection design though, they make it look and feel "a little more dangerous than it actually is", rather than making it feel safe, as the caution that's created prevents most accidents. They mark dangerous intersections with bright blue pavement (no texture), and ONLY the corners/crossings that actually are dangerous (i.e. only one crossing out of 4 in an intersection). This is because they found that marking only the dangerous ones really emphasizes the need for caution and reduces accidents, while doing all four actually led to more accidents.

- They give their cycle routes the equivalent of street-names, as well as stories and identity. People know them and associate with them, establishing sense-of-place, way finding, and mental-mapping.

- They have a major bike parking challenge, with much of the public realm taken up by bike parking (can you imagine North American cities having such a "problem"?) To illustrate, Niels noted that they had installed 5000 new bike racks in just the last three months (at this point there was laughter, and he insisted, "it's true!")

- To make cycling easier and more convenient than other modes, they are promoting a so-called "green wave" system where there are essentially no traffic lights for cyclists.

- To make cycling, which can be a somewhat solitary experience, more social, they have schedules posted along the routes for unplanned biking groups to meet and cycle together, like a bus schedule.... A "cycle-bus" of sorts. This is fascinating, as I've often heard in North America one of the perceived attractions of cycling over transit is that it is seen as "individual" and at your own schedule, and thus closer to the "freedom" of the car than transit. The Danes, though, apparently will wait to commune with strangers on bikes, once again illustrating how much more social they are than we. Niels is quick to point out that it wasn't always this way though, and that any city can achieve it if the will is there.

- Copenhagen strongly believes in "traffic trials" to test what would happen to traffic under different circumstances. They do such trials frequently and very inexpensively, often just by simulating construction ("putting out a few traffic cones"). For example, Niels spoke of when they closed down the medieval part of the city to traffic for a month, to see what would happen. A great way to test and challenge assumptions about what will happen to traffic, often showing it "just disappears".

I've been thinking about Niels' talk a lot the last few days, as I find myself again in Copenhagen (here to talk about climate change and sustainability), cycling around the city on my hotel-provided bike.

Watching urban professionals during the day biking to work dressed impeccably, "beautiful people" heading out at night to the bars and nightclubs on bikes (I can't tell you how many high heels on bikes I've seen the last few nights) - its easy, too easy, to think of this city as odd, and thus assume its successes would be impossible to replicate. But as Jan Gehl has told me, it wasn't always this way. When the city first put in bike lanes for example, people would still bike on the sidewalk.... It took several years and a lot of work for things to get more "natural". For that matter, Jan says that not too many decades ago, Copenhageners also would say they could never change. For example, when it came to putting in cafes on streets and squares, something that people now assume was always a natural thing here, the public at first would say "we're not Italians!" Something to remember before you assume your city can't change, before you say "we're not Copenhageners".

As you can imagine, Niels talk created quite a buzz of discussion and debate in Vancouver, including in our own Transportation Department (who I consider to be very progressive by North American standards, and quite keen and open-minded to try more... And yet I'm trying to picture them run by a landscape architect). For background on Vancouver's own approach to making our city more "pedal-ready", perhaps North America's city of cyclists, see my earlier post on the subject here.

Vancouver's new Mayor, Gregor Robertson, has challenged us to work to become "the greenest city in the world by 2020." Really achieving this will mean benchmarking against, and learning from, the best cities at every aspect of sustainability. When it comes to this critical component of sustainable city-building, there's no doubt Copenhagen is the true "city of cyclists". Thus if we really want to be the greenest, we would have to think about traffic like Copenhagen does.

Many thanks to Niels, a very unusual traffic guy, for inspiring us with how much further we could go.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



Mike Lydon's picture

Great Post!

Thanks for the great post Brent, and I am glad you all will be taking bicycling seriously up there in Vancouver.

I think the key aspects of your post relate to the incremental nature of progress in Copenhagen. Indeed, it doesn't happen over night. However, the slow and steady transformation, along with the "traffic trials" are essential in proving that conventional traffic engineering dogma can be revealed as just that, dogma, when tested physically in the built environment.

Helmets for Cyclists

I received a lot of criticism for suggesting in a 2007 Vancouver Sun story that by making cycling safer, riders might not have to wear helmets. So I am delighted to read in this story support for this concept by the Danish. As an aside, most of the people who disagreed with me gave me tales of how a helmet saved their life when riding at great speed down a answer, don't ride so fast!

Is there a focus on pedestrian planning?

"Copenhagen has almost 40% of all their overall trips by bike, a staggering figure that is already the best in the world. And yet they're not satisfied.... their goal is to raise that to 50%, and they've got aggressive strategies to do it."

Your post did not mention it either way, but I hope that they are explicitly trying to reach that goal by capturing mode share from motorized vehicles (private and public) while simultaneously working to increase walking alongside cycling. For all its virtues, cycling is still not as environmentally efficient (requires more infrastructure, a manufactured vehicle, and a parking space), sociable, or public-space-friendly as the original mode of human transportation.

“In Copenhagen, cycling has become "hip" and trendy. This is not accidental.”

Here, I am surprised that you did not mention the blog

Helmets Not Required But Advisable

Notice that is says "They don't require helmets" - not that they discourage the use of helmets. In the United States, I have never heard of any city that requires bicycle helmets.

But I think people with common sense do wear helmets, and the article's arguments against helmets make little sense:

--"They aren't considered ... convenient/practical, particularly given many cyclists ride to work (in business suits, skirts etc... they don't need change rooms at the workplace)."
Please explain why you can't wear a bicycle helmet with a suit or a skirt, and why you need a change room at work to remove yhour helmet.

--"They feel that the health issues relative to the rate and severity of accidents, has to be weighed against the health and "safety" benefits of a far more fit and environmentally-sound citizenry."
Yes, it's better to bicycle without a helmet than not to bicycle - but it's even better to bicycle with a helmet.

--"They aren't considered stylish"
This article is about changing what is considered stylish. The Crown Prince should be wearing a helmet when he bicycles to encourage other people to do so, just as Obama wears a helmet when he bicycles. I don't consider people stylish if they are dumb enough to ride without helmets (and, in fact, in California, the more affluent, more stylish bicyclists are the ones who wear helmets).

I also would not require bicycle helmets. But I think people should have the good sense to wear them.

Charles Siegel

I love it!

after hearing several news stories about the problems with bike sharing in Paris I was discouraged
but what you describe in Copenhagen sounds wonderful

after we build our new lane-way house here in KCC and we had to provide two on-site parking spaces when we don't even need one felt like a big wast of resources. I starting thinking, what our community would be like if it was designed around the bike instead of the car

the image of women in heals going out for the evening on bikes totally shatters my North American perception of the only person in a suite on bike is peewee herman ;-)

Mike Lydon's picture


Not to get sidetracked from this thread, but the problems with Velib in Paris are largely overblown according to this Streetsblog report:

It seems that the ad agency --JCDecaux-- paying for the shelters is making noise in order to get a sweeter deal with the city.

Paris - Velib Problems Apart From Theft


-> According to a Mar. 4th TIME article, "The 60-something woman moves swiftly down the Rue de Rivoli, gray hair pulled back, looking like an iconic grandmother or retired grade school teacher. But as she runs a red light and speeds into a crosswalk filled with people, the woman slaloms her large bicycle between startled pedestrians -- barking at them to stand clear despite their having the right of way. 'Degagez!' She shouts the order to give way. 'Why are people so stupid?'

"Welcome to the cruel downside of Velib' -- the enormously popular bike-rental scheme offering Parisians a cheap, environmentally friendly form of urban transportation. Since its introduction in July 2007, Paris' Velib' program has facilitated 42 million rentals by 177,000 people with annual subscriptions to the system and countless others who have rented bikes on a one-off basis..."

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Charles Siegel

Very informative

I really enjoyed the post and your summary of the presentation Brent. I agree that helmets are not a necessity if you have a safe environment for cyclists with separate infrastructure etc. This is clearly the case in the Netherlands as well, where mothers and children all ride together without helmets and even share seats on the bikes (with little dogs riding in the basket), with much lower fatality rates than we have here in North America. If you are biking at high speeds it would probably be smart to wear a helmet, but in urban areas it should be no different than jogging or running (with the right infrastructure).

If Vancouver can put some of these ideas into practice it can hopefully lead other cities in Canada to copy some of the same ideas. Programs like the 'Greenways' show Vancouver is already a leader in this area.

Interesting Read

Thanks for the great summary Brent. It will be interesting to see how some Lower Mainland examples will build on this, such as the efforts made with Line No.3 in Richmond or revisiting the '99 bike plan in light of new direction and emphasis.

Pedestrian life makes a city

Pedestrian life makes a city more vital because when people are at a walking pace, you are in contact with your fellow human beings. If everybody’s in their cars, or even if everybody’s on their bicycles, you’re going at high speeds. You’re not making eye contact with people, and there is no chance for those random encounters that add so much to the life of the city. But this is just what i think.

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