Is Copenhagen a City of Cyclists?


Copenhagen calls itself “City of Cyclists” and some even consider it the cycling city of the world. I went to Copenhagen to further form my opinion. I used to know Copenhagen well. I visited the city often when I was much younger. Nine times I had been there, from 1973 to 1999, but I must admit I had never cycled in Copenhagen. It was high time for a tenth visit and for some serious cycling. After looking around and cycling criss-cross through the city on a weekday and in the weekend I can now also speak from my own experience about what I think about Copenhagen as a cycling city.

People cycling on the busy H.C. Andersens Boulevard, next to 6 lanes of motor traffic. This is the future Cycle Superhighway Københavnerruten C98.

“Will the world survive this event?” asked Erik Griswold on Twitter after I had tweeted I was riding a bicycle with the Danes. It is no secret that what I had said about Copenhagen before was not always positive. But I love the city. I have many fond childhood memories and to my own surprise I found my way instantly again, now that I returned after almost 20 years since my last visit. But I did come to check whether my feelings about Copenhagen’s cycling reputation were correct. The local consultancy company Copenhagenize Design has put out a list of best cycling cities in the world four times since 2011 and in the last two issues Copenhagen came first. This list has contributed much to the reputation, maybe even more than actual achievements. I have some experience judging best cycling cities. So I did some judging of my own this visit.

Still from a Super-8 film my father made in 1976 on one of our summer holiday visits to Copenhagen. It wasn’t the wide street on Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square) that he wanted to film. It was because of the text on the building, but unfortunately that is too hard to see.
This is what my father wanted to film. The huge sign with “UTRECHT” that used to be on the roof of the Helmerhus aka the Utrecht building until 1995. It refers to an insurance company (originally from Utrecht) that held its office in this building from the 1890s to 1995. Picture: still from the 1969 Hitchcock movie Topaz.

Without a doubt there is a lot of cycling in Copenhagen. Denmark as a country is always second-best when it comes to figures about cycling. It is hard to find reliable comparable figures for cities, but I managed to find some by the city of Copenhagen from 2017 and from Amsterdam and Utrecht by the Dutch Knowledge Institute for Mobility, also from 2017, about cycling to work. The Copenhagen figures include cycling to a place of education, while the Dutch figures do not, and I had to combine some of the other categories to make them comparable, but this is the closest comparison I could make. It does give you a good idea of the differences. There is relatively more cycling in Utrecht and Amsterdam than there is in Copenhagen, for going to work at least.

In all international comparisons Denmark comes out as second-best for cycling. Graph from the KIM brochure “Cycle Facts 2018“.
Comparing the modal share for cycling to work in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Utrecht, in 2017, as best as possible. Recreated charts from information by the City of Copenhagen and KIM, the knowledge institute for mobility in the Netherlands.

There are also similarities. The Danes went through a car centric era just like the Dutch and the rest of the world. Like the Dutch, the Danes managed to turn the tide. Recently I used images from the Danish film “Cykelmagt 1+2” in my posts about the history of the Demonstration Cycle Routes in Tilburg and The Hague. Now I would like to quote some words from that double film from 1989. In it filmmaker Leif Larsen said: “Between 1950 and 1975 the authorities challenged our national [Danish] means of transport: the bicycle for the benefit of the new mode of transport: the car.” In 1978 (part 1) he interviewed cyclists who told him how intimidated and scared they felt by all these cars. A city engineer responded as follows: “It is a regrettable fact that the lack of security felt by cyclists riding along a street without a bicycle path and with more than just local traffic covers a genuine risk. That risk can be reduced by means of cycle paths. Unless you want these streets to become bottle-necks, the consequences of a new cycle path will be very serious. Stopping and parking must be prohibited, which means that shops and dwellings cannot be served properly. We do not feel that to be justified. You must make your choice: Do you want cycle paths? Do you want parking lots in front of the shops? Do you want to move the traffic elsewhere including bus traffic? You cannot combine cycle paths, the loading of goods and passengers, and intense traffic. You are forced to lose one of the three.”

Stills from the film Cykelmagt 1+2 by Leif Larsen. Left a Copenhagen street in 1978 where cyclists had to ride with traffic. Right a reconstructed street in 1989 to give cycling its own place.

So there were very few cycle tracks at that time and that is consistent with my own memories. However, when Leif Larsen filmed the city again, over ten years later, in 1989 (for part 2), he was pleased to show newly built cycle paths and to be able to say the following: “The City of Copenhagen has not changed very much. Cyclists still have problems, but something has changed: the attitude towards cyclists. Conditions have improved […] space was found for a cycle path, cars, buses, and even for the shopkeepers and dwellers. […] Where cyclists formerly had to fight their way, the shopping street now is rebuilt according to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and shopkeepers. In one-way streets cyclists may go in both directions. […] You can bring the bike with you in local trains. Comfortable bicycle stands are introduced at many terminals for commuter traffic. All this has been done in spite of sceptical experts.”

Cycling straight-on through the top of a T-junction requires waiting for the light to change in Copenhagen. In the Netherlands you would almost always be able to bypass the red light.

More recently the city has also built a lot of new infrastructure and not only cycleways. Between 2006 and 2016 I counted five new important bridges and viaducts. This includes the well-known Cykelslangen from 2014. That name means both cycle tube and cycle snake in Danish but in English publications the city refers to it as Cycle Serpent. Touted as something special, Dutch observers saw flaws too. The Inner Harbour Bridge from 2016 is the least attractive of the new bridges, from a cycling perspective that is. This bridge was designed and approved by people who apparently have no clue about cycling. The right-angled zig-zag movement you have to make on this bridge is an insult to anyone on a bicycle. Researching for this post – after I had returned home again – I found that on this topic I wholeheartedly agree with Mikael Colville-Andersen from Copenhagenize, who has called it “a stupid, stupid bridge”.

The Inner Harbour Bridge (Inderhavnsbroen) completed in 2016 is a design disaster. This becomes apparent from all the red and white warning signs brought in to make sure people on a bike don’t have an accident.

But this bridge does not stand on its own. I found many details that are – in my opinion – not well done, crude, not given enough thought, or not executed in the best way possible. I was not the only one to notice this. For example, Copenhagen does not have many dropped kerbs. Instead you find asphalt ‘blobs’ to make it possible to mount or descend a kerb when you have wheels. It works – not very convenient on a bicycle and I hate to think how it must be in a wheelchair or with a stroller – but it is a clumsy solution and the blobs are downright dangerous to pass when they are in your path. Apparently they are described as a ‘Copenhagen Bodge’ by people from the UK. I find that a fitting description.

At some locations the city put up a footrest (and an armrest) so you can start riding again when the light turns green in a more convenient way.

The notorious bicycle counters in the streets (notorious, because they show figures that are totally different from the figures the city claims for the streets they’re in) do not work very well. Just standing next to them shows you that sometimes all cyclists are counted and sometimes not even 10 percent of the people passing them is noted. Which makes these counters a useless gimmick.

These counters do not count very accurately. This entire group of people was counted as just one person. This renders the counters useless.

Copenhagen has many one-way cycle tracks directly next to the travel lanes for motor traffic. There is often no other protection than the kerb height; a level difference. The Danes generally do not like buffers or traffic islands. They feel that those areas take up valuable space that you could better use for cycling. This leads to cycle tracks directly next to fast-moving vehicles. And also to the fact that there are no protected intersections. The Copenhagen design recommendations for intersections are very different from the Dutch. Often you see a stop line for motor traffic that is set back, giving cyclists a place to wait and then to start first when the lights change. Another option is to have a 4 second head start for cycling. If that can be given the need for the set back stop line is no longer there, according to the manual. Most traffic light installations work static. They are not fully actuated systems like we have in the Netherlands. Giving this a very “crude” feeling from a Dutch perspective. On most intersections the two directions (north-south and east-west) get an alternating green light, and that is it. Dutch traffic light installations are far more sophisticated and complicated than that. Which gives Dutch engineers a lot of advantages to organise and guide the separate traffic flows. It will not be soon that the Danish cyclist can influence the traffic lights with an App like we can in some cities in the Netherlands. At intersections there often is a right turning lane for motor traffic that also needs to be used by people cycling to go straight on. This feels unpleasant and counter-intuitive. Just like going to the right first in order to make a left turn. You wait in the corner of the intersections – unprotected – for the lights to change and then you can finish your left turn. On a protected intersection you wait at a location where people going straight-on pass behind you. On a Copenhagen intersection they pass in front of you because you have moved to the right first. Again, very counter-intuitive.

The blue painted strip tells people where to expect cycling. Note the dashed line at the end on the right hand side. That is the place to wait for the light to change if you want to make a left turn. The manuals advise only two blue strips per intersection. They would otherwise confuse people more than protect them. The girl in the pink coat was one of the few children I saw cycling in the city. I was in the city on a Thursday until late afternoon, a Saturday and a Sunday, days you would expect to see children cycling, but I didn’t. I saw more children in a cargo bike than there were on their own bicycle.

Some of the larger intersections have become extremely complicated because they have more than four arms for instance. It could help to change such an intersection into a roundabout, but Copenhagen has virtually no experience with roundabouts. There are only a few mini-roundabouts. There seems to be no desire to change that. This is different for cycle streets. There is one real cycle street in Copenhagen so far, Vestergade, but that is not much more than a sign that was put up in a further ordinary street. The Draft Cycle Statement 2018 designates eight streets that should become genuine cycle streets. Streets with a sufficient number of cyclists but that are too narrow to create separated cycling infrastructure. The city intends to use experiences with cycle streets from Århus (Denmark) and German and Dutch cities to improve the design. They also plan to use Dutch experience for that other topic: bicycle parking. In its Bicycle Account of 2016 the city noted that Utrecht, the busiest train station in the Netherlands (176,000 travellers per day in 2014), has almost 20,000 indoor bicycle parking places, while Nørreport Station, the busiest station in Copenhagen and Denmark (147,000 travellers per day in 2014) has 2,400, all of which outdoor.

The only real Cycle Street in Copenhagen is Vestergade. It was changed from a one way street with painted on-street cycle lanes into a two-way cyclestreet. But apart from taking away the lines not much more was done than putting up two signs. The conversion took place between 2012 and 2014 judging from Google StreetView.
The outdoor bicycle parking racks at Nørreport Station. The square was reconstructed after the metro line was finished (2015). It got 2,400 bicycle racks. The single-tier racks take a lot of space and the bicycles are not shielded from the elements.

It would indeed be a good idea to improve the bicycle parking opportunities for the 27% of train travellers who arrive to Danish stations by bicycle (compared to almost 50% in the Netherlands). You can take the bicycle into many trains in Denmark, but you have to carry it on the station stairs. Those stairs do not generally have grooves for the bicycle which are so common in the Netherlands. In other words: you may take the bike in the train because then not much needs to be done for cycling at the stations.

I was very surprised to see so many free racks on a Sunday near Nørreport Station. There seems to be truth in the saying that Copenhageners mostly ride to work and not for recreation. Hence less cycling on a Sunday.

Ninna Hedeager Olsen, Mayor of Technical and Environmental Affairs in Copenhagen said on a conference that aims to get more cooperation between cycle cities, just last month: “Copenhagen has very good bicycle infrastructure, but when it comes to bicycle parking facilities and handling abandoned bikes, Amsterdam is 10-15 years ahead of us. We need to learn from their best practice. Test the established ways of doing things is always healthy, and the cooperation with Amsterdam can definitely challenge our conventional thinking. Amsterdam has many years’ experience establishing bicycle streets where the street is laid out on the cyclists’ terms but where cars are also welcome. This is interesting know-how which we will now systematically get access to”

In front of Copenhagen’s Central Station I finally found some double stacked racks. Here too there were free racks available even on a Thursday. A luxury you are not very used to as a Dutchman. It really makes a difference when 27% of the train travellers arrive by bicycle or almost 50% like in the Netherlands.

The Danes sometimes boast about things that are very common in the Netherlands and overall Copenhagen lacks many things to make life better for cycling compared to many cities in The Netherlands, as I described in this post. In his excellent three-part comparison series between the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark Robert Weetman concluded: “It’s no secret that overall I’m more inspired by the Dutch approach.” It’s no secret that I am too. I was under the impression that cycling in the Danish capital is quite good for many, especially when you come from a country with little to no cycling infrastructure Copenhagen will be impressive. But it is not as convenient and as good as the cycling climate that I am used to in for instance my hometown ʼs-Hertogenbosch or my city of birth Utrecht. My trip to Copenhagen and experiencing what it feels like to cycle there has not changed my opinion. Yes, Copenhagen is a City of Cyclists, but Copenhagen is certainly not the Cycling City of the world.

My video portrait of Copenhagen.