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

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?

Brent Toderian | March 16, 2009, 3pm PDT
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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.

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