Copenhagen to Build “Superhighways” for Bikes

November 30, 2010
By: Nick Engelfried

In Copenhagen, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, 500,000 commuters travel to school or to work by bicycle every day.  This equally nearly 40% of the commuting population, with the remainder split almost evenly between those driving in cars and those who take public transportation.  Copenhagen’s success at persuading people to adopt low-carbon forms of transportation has already made it an international model for cities that want more people to get around by bike.  However the city is aiming to go even further.  To increase the percentage of individuals who commute by bike even more, Copenhagen is looking at designing bicycle “superhighways” that make it easier to commute from the suburbs to the city.

By the year 2015, Copenhagen officials hope fully half the commuter trips in the city will take place on the seat of a bicycle.  To accomplish this goal Andreas Roehl, bicycle program manager for the Copenhagen area, is working to address the needs of bicyclists commuting to and from the city from the suburbs.  Because suburb commuters must travel a longer distance than those who live and work in the inner city, supplying them with good bicycling options can be particularly challenging. 

Bicycle superhighways—safe and well-kept streets for bicycles that travel from city to suburb in the straightest possible line—might turn out to be the solution.  In addition to keeping the roads clear of ice, leaves, and other hazards, advocates of the superhighway idea plan to provide bicycle maintenance stations along the route, which will allow cyclists to repair or pump up a tire should one of their wheels sprout a leak.  Another step that could make cycling on the superhighway convenient is to time traffic lights so riders traveling at twenty kilometers per hour will encounter almost all green lights and seldom have to stop.  This “Green Wave” concept has been implemented successfully on three bicycle routes within the city of Copenhagen already.

Concerns about global warming and oil dependence have prompted planners and local government officials from around the world to look to Copenhagen as a model for low-carbon transportation options.  In fact there is even a word for city planning that seeks to replicate the Danish city’s successes: “Copenhagenization.”  Results achieved so far in Copenhagen show that when alternative transportation is made easy, large numbers of people of all ages and from all walks of life become willing to give up their cars. 

However Copenhagen has not become a biking capital of the world by accident.  Rather a history of policy decisions that prioritize bicycles and alternative transit over cars has contributed to making the city the success story it is today.  During the 1930s and ‘40s, a tax on cars gave Copenhagen residents an incentive to use bicycles or public transportation instead.  This contributed to the city’s population staying focused on bikes through the ‘50s and ‘60s, while much of the rest of the industrialized world was embracing the automobile.  More recently, the government has spent $44 million on bicycle infrastructure projects over the last four years alone.  And today the city has a rule that during snowstorms bikeways are cleared of snow before the streets used by cars.

Meanwhile cities like New York, London, and San Francisco are finding reliance on cars comes with problems inner-city pollution, vulnerability to high gas prices, and a loss of a sense of place—not to mention higher carbon emissions.  They are trying to replicate Copenhagen’s efforts even as the Danish city strives to become even more bike-friendly.  The next several years may see bicycle superhighways cropping up around the world, as cities continue to Copenhagenize. 

Photo credit: Hunter Desportes

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