Published: June 23, 2013
COPENHAGEN — It sounds so promising. A network of dedicated cycle routes running through a city with air pumps to fix flat tires, footrests to lean on while taking breaks and trash cans that are specially angled so you can throw in empty water bottles without stopping.
Best of all, you can cycle on those routes for long distances without having to make way for cars and trucks at junctions and traffic lights, according to the official description of the Cycle Super Highways, which are under construction here as part of the Danish capital’s efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2025.
Are they as good as they sound? These days it is hard to find a big city that doesn’t make grandiose claims to encourage cycling, and harder still to find one that fulfills them. Redesigning congested traffic systems to add bike lanes to overcrowded roads is fiendishly difficult, especially in historic cities with narrow cobbled streets like Copenhagen. But as its cycling program sounds so ambitious, I went there to try it.
Maybe I’d be less cynical if I lived in Amsterdam, Cologne or any other city with decent cycling facilities, but as a Londoner, I’ve learned the hard way to be suspicious whenever politicians promise to do anything bike-friendly. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, is a keen cyclist, who issues policy papers with auspicious titles like “Cycling Revolution” and has continued his predecessor’s biking program by introducing a cycle-rental project and building new bike lanes.
So far so good, you may think, unless you have braved the potholes, parked trucks and construction debris that obstruct those lanes, many of which appear to have been designed by someone who has never seen a bicycle, let alone ridden one. London cyclists swap horror stories of dysfunctional cycle routes that end without warning or maroon them on the wrong side of the road, though few can be more perilous than a new lane on Bethnal Green Road, which is blocked by a streetlight — anyone rash enough to use the lane has to brake sharply to avoid crashing into it.
Luckily for Copenhagen’s cyclists, their system has been more thoughtfully designed. The capital is a compact, reasonably flat city that is naturally bike-friendly, and even its old cycle routes are wider and better maintained than London’s. More than a third of Copenhageners already bike to work or school, mainly on short journeys of an average of five kilometers, or three miles. The roads are still jammed with cars, mostly driven in from the suburbs, and the public transport system is congested.
The solution, or so the city’s traffic planners hope, is to encourage people to cycle for longer distances by creating the cycling equivalent of freeways, which will provide fast, direct routes of up to 22 kilometers into the center. A total of 28 highways are planned, providing 495 kilometers of dedicated bike tracks. The first one from the western suburb of Albertslund opened in April 2012, followed a year later by the second, from Farum, northwest of the city. Nine routes are under construction and should be completed by 2015 at a cost of 208 million krone, or $36 million, divided equally between central and local government.
What are the Super Highways like? Judging by my experience of the Farum route, they’re great. Impressive though the air pumps, footrests and angled trash cans are, the biggest thrill was pedaling through the “green waves” of uninterrupted green traffic lights, which have been programmed to prioritize cyclists over cars. It was also cheering to see bikers chatting while cycling two or three abreast in “Conversation Lanes.” Like most urban bikers, I usually value the practical benefits of cycling, as a speedy means of transport and convenient form of exercise, but the Farum route made it as pleasurable as zipping along empty country lanes.
Copenhageners seem to agree. There was a 10 percent increase in the number of people commuting by bike along the Albertslund route in the year after its opening, most of whom switched from cars. “It’s super cool that we can use wider bike paths with fewer intersections and move faster, even on long distances,” said Kigge Hvid, who rides to work in Copenhagen as chief executive of the INDEX: Design to Improve Life Awards. “Also, it makes me like my city more. It feels fresher, less noisy and livelier, because you hear greetings between cyclists, which are unheard of from cars.”
The planners hope the full network will eventually encourage a 30 percent increase in cycling among Copenhagen’s commuters, which would be hugely beneficial in terms of reducing the city’s CO2 emissions and health care costs.
They are still experimenting with some elements, notably with different types of energy-efficient lighting. The Farum route includes two trial projects: One uses solar cell-powered light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and another uses dynamic LEDs, which deploy sensors to detect when cyclists are approaching. The route is fully lit when in use, otherwise the LEDs are dimmed to 10 percent of their power. Future priorities are to improve the lighting in tunnels and snow clearance during the icy winters.
As more Super Highways are built, it will become increasingly difficult to squeeze them into the existing traffic system, especially in the city center. The traffic planners hope to resolve this by redesigning the entire system. Bikes will have the exclusive use of some streets at particular times of day, and may be able to go both ways along certain one-way streets. Some of the Super Highways’ design features, including energy efficient lighting, are to be introduced to standard cycle routes as are newly designed parking facilities for bikes and ways of making the city’s ancient cobblestones less uncomfortable for cyclists.
Yet one group of Copenhagers seems convinced already that the cycling program delivers what it promises. Ms. Hvid has noticed real estate agents citing proximity to a Cycle Super Highway as an asset for their properties.