Danish History: How Copenhagen became bike-friendly again


Jens Loft Rasmussen and Mai-Britt Kristensen.

When I visited Copenhagen last July, I was wowed by the seamless bicycle infrastructure and the many car-free streets and plazas. But the Danish capital wasn’t always a pedaler’s paradise. In the postwar era the city pursued American-style, auto-centric urban planning, but the 1973 oil crisis caused Copenhagen residents to rethink their transportation priorities. Over the course of several decades they rebuilt their city into the sustainable transportation Mecca it is today. As efforts to reallocate public space from cars to greener modes gain momentum in Chicago, Copenhagen’s story is an encouraging one.

While I was in town I stopped by the headquarters of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation and met with director Jens Loft Rasmussen and project manager Mai-Britt Kristensen. Over coffee and Danish pastry in their office’s lovely courtyard, they told me about how Copenhagen succeeded in changing course and what lies on the horizon. Jens also offered a bit of advice to Mayor Emanuel for creating a bike-friendly Chicago.


Nørrebrogade, said to be the busiest bike street in the Western World.

Copenhagen was not always such a bike-friendly town, correct? I’ve heard that in the Sixties and Seventies this was a fairly car-centric city.

Jens: Yes. When the bicycle was introduced in Denmark it became very popular. The Danish Cyclists’ Federation was founded in 1905. And during the Second World War you couldn’t get gasoline, so everybody used their bikes. But after the war we introduced the American lifestyle. In the Sixties people moved to new suburbs and kept their jobs in downtown Copenhagen. So how could they get from their new house in the suburbs to their job in central Copenhagen? In their car of course.

The modal split in 1970 was about ten percent biking. [To put this in perspective, the mode share in Portland, Oregon, America’s most bike-friendly major city, is roughly six percent.] But then we got the oil crisis. We had been totally dependent on gasoline from the Middle East and when it stopped the government had to introduce car-free Sundays. And then people realized that the car-free Sunday was the best day of the week, or some people did. They joined the Danish Cyclists’ Federation and there were huge demonstrations in Copenhagen. The attitude of the city government changed step-by-step from building highways to the center of Copenhagen to realizing that bicycling was a very important part of the transportation picture.

So that was the changing point and now there’s more than a thirty percent bike modal split [currently 35 percent]. During the past forty years we have moved step-by-step back to the bicycle culture we had before we got the car-oriented policies. That period only lasted ten years but it was threatening to change the whole way of living in Copenhagen, the whole infrastructure.

Were they talking about building expressways downtown?

Jens: Yes. For example we have a very beautiful lake area [on the outer edge of the center city]. They thought, “Oh, it would be fantastic for a motor highway.” They wanted to build a highway directly over the water so you could drive from the north of Copenhagen all the way to the center. All the squares in Copenhagen at that time were filled up with cars.


Public square in downtown Copenhagen, once used as a parking lot.

Really? So what are now public squares were parking lots before?

Jens: It was only for a short period. But we were stuck by cars inside Copenhagen. It would have been a huge damage if they had built the motor highway. But the Danes are little bit slow compared to the Americans so there are a lot of political discussions before we institute new steps. So that’s the reason why we hesitated and succeeded in transforming our attitude before we built the highway.

Nowadays it seems like a typical Copenhagen street configuration is you’ve got two lanes of car traffic and then you’ve got the bike lane raised a bit and then you’ve got the sidewalk raised a bit. Was that kind of street formerly a four-lane roadway, and then two of those lanes were converted to cycle tracks?

Jens: No. We had mixed traffic in Copenhagen in the Seventies so cars and bicycles used the same roads. But we had a lot of [crashes] when we mixed the traffic. So the planners and politicians in Copenhagen decided that we should take some of the space from cars and build separated bicycle paths. Because you have a problem when you mix bicycle and car traffic. And [separated bikeways] seem to be a very good solution because the injury rates for cyclists dropped. And the cycle tracks give you a better feeling of security.

Because in Copenhagen we have mostly women using bikes. But I heard from Vancouver during the Velo City conference that it’s mostly males who are using bikes and women and children feel insecure. It’s now the opposite situation in Denmark. The man is using the family car and the woman and the children are on the bicycle paths.


So most families in Copenhagen own a car?

Jens: No, in Copenhagen car ownership is relatively low. A lot of the young families prefer to buy or rent a relatively expensive downtown flat and then they use a cargo cycle and car sharing. So that’s a new tendency. But if you look at the older people like myself, most of us have one car. But if you live in Copenhagen you’re probably only using it on the weekends when you’re going to the countryside or something like that. What is your opinion Mai-Britt?

Mai-Britt: When you ask someone from Copenhagen why they bike, a lot of people might think it’s because they’re very conscious of the environment and they want to do everything in an eco-friendly way. It’s not that they don’t want to do that but the primary reason that they choose to ride their bike is just because it’s easy and fast. If you live and work inside Copenhagen, the time and money to have a car, to wait in line to get around town and find a parking space and having to pay for that, that’s quite a lot of trouble compared to just getting on your bike.

They’ve just started opening the first cycle superhighway network. The city of Copenhagen and seventeen other municipalities in the capital region of Denmark are cooperating to build this network of cycle superhighways where they are trying to make fast and comfortable routes from the suburbs to the city center to try to increase the modal share. Because right now the modal share of people who ride a bike to work or place of education is 35 percent and they want to reach fifty by 2015, which is quite soon. So one way to do that is to make it an appealing alternative for the people who live in the suburbs, or live in the city of Copenhagen and work in the suburbs, to take the bicycle there instead of the car, or combine it with the train.


What will these superhighways be like physically?

Mai-Britt: It is a variety of measures. Mostly the facilities are already there. What they are trying to do is reduce the waiting time at intersections, make it fast and easy to go through. For example do you know about the “Green Wave”? It’s a measure which they first introduced on Nørrebrogade, which is the busiest cycle track in Denmark. It’s a way that they have coordinated traffic lights to benefit cyclists. So if you are at a speed of 20 kilometers [12.4 miles] per hour going into town and out in the afternoon, the traffic lights will be so that you can just go straight through at a green light instead of waiting. And the cars, then, have to wait.

Jens: It’s quicker to take your bike because of the car congestion, but the congestion would be much worse if we didn’t have all the bicyclists. The Danish Cyclists’ Federation is participating in a new committee which will develop ideas about how to improve mobility for everyone. The S-train, the local train, has introduced a new concept where you can take your bike on the train and it has been an enormous success. They have increased the number of passengers but also they have to rebuild the train cars to accommodate the bikes because there are so many of them.


The Copenhagen Metro, not quite as bike-friendly as the S-train.

So we’ve had great success in the center of the city. 55 percent of people living in the city and working in the city are using bikes. But as Mai-Britt said, we also have a goal that people arriving from longer distances also use the bike. Up to fifty percent of people arriving at their workplace or university shall be on bike, that’s the goal. And it demands further steps and better integration of public transportation and bikes.

And as we also have seen in the Netherlands, they have huge bicycle parking facilities at the stations. We have seen bike-sharing systems introduced in more than 300 European cities. So that’s a new development. So think about how can we reach even higher levels of bicycle traffic. And I think that the most important things in the coming years will be developing combined solutions.


Parking outside a Copenhagen S-train station.

You know what’s going on in Chicago now, we have a mayor who has some big ideas for biking. For instance, he’s talking about putting in a hundred miles of protected bike lanes, which in Chicago at this point usually means moving the car parking to the left of the bike lane and then putting in a striped buffer and some flexible posts between the car parking and the bike lane.

When you guys put in all these separated bike facilities, that generally involved taking out a lane of car traffic or car parking, right?

Jens: Yes, there was a fight between the different means of transportation and we saw it at Nørrebrogade, which is now transformed from a car street to a bike and bus street. But there were huge political discussions and especially the shopkeepers thought that they would lose customers and some car drivers said that it was a fight against them. But the situation on Nørrebrogade was that we had 30,000 bus passengers each day and 30,000 bicyclists and 15,000 cars, and the cars took most of the space. If you have a street where you have to move 75,000 people a day, and you cannot move the houses…

Although historically in Chicago they have demolished neighborhoods to put in expressways…

And so it’s a political battlefield, what shall we use the right-of-way for. And also in Copenhagen we have battles about that. But we can see that the bicycle will win because it takes much less space than the cars. So if you have cities like Copenhagen, and also I’m sure in Chicago, where the population is increasing [Actually Chicago’s population dropped during the last decade, largely due to the demolition of high-ride public housing, but that trend will likely reverse this decade] and the mobility of each inhabitant also is increasing, the car’s not the solution.


So you mentioned that the plazas used to be used for car parking, and lanes of traffic and car parking were taken out to put in cycle tracks. In Chicago the city been making a great effort to put in protected bike lanes, but it’s difficult to do this without removing travel lanes or parking. In some cases they are taking out travel lanes, in situations where you’ve got a road that’s just way too wide and has too many lanes for the amount of car traffic, where they’re confident they can take out a travel lane without creating congestion.

The issue is, because it’s so hard to to remove car parking in Chicago, it’s very difficult for the city to install protected bike lanes on many of the streets where they would be the most useful for cyclists. [The new 2-way protected lane on Dearborn Street is a great example of the city building a protected lane in a highly useful location, which required a minimum amount of parking removal.]

Jens: If we can give some advice from Copenhagen to the mayor of Chicago it would be that I’m sure Chicago also wants to attract businesses and to be a pleasant place to live. And if you want a liveable city you put the pedestrians and the bicyclists in the central areas. You put them in the best squares and the best roads. That shows the priority and the future view of traffic in the city. That’s the idea of the famous Danish architect Jan Gehl

He’s been very active in New York City…

Jens: Bogotá, Colombia, Mexico and also some Chinese cities. His ideas are, as we see it, the future idea of a modern city where people are moving around and there’s also a social life so you can meet each other. When you are sitting in a car there’s not much social interaction between the citizens. When you are walking, when you are biking, then you get a very liveable city. You can stop at a café if you meet somebody you know. It’s the idea of Jan Gehl. And I would encourage Chicago to keep working to create a modern, liveable city that gives bicyclists and pedestrians a high priority when you choose which streets they shall they move on.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

12 thoughts on “Danish History: How Copenhagen became bike-friendly again”

  1. I hear the new mayor of Copenhagen is planning on building a huge underground highway and pushing for widening roads for more car traffic.

    1. I’m fuming about that harbour tunnel, and have a sincere urge to punch our mayor in the face for spending so much money on a very clear minority (only 13% of his own electorate commute by car). The argument is to move car traffic from street level down in the tunnel, which I’d support, the problem is that everywhere in the world, more space for cars have just been taken up by more cars, I really have my doubts that Copenhagen would be different.

      But to be fair, I’ve never heard any talk about widening any roads for car traffic. Rather the opposite, they are planning on giving another major artery the Nørrebrogade treatment.

  2. The only city in the states that is even remotely similar to Copenhagen is Boston (population density and size, land area, travel distances, spoke&wheel street system, similar mode-share – by that i mean walking, car, and transit splits compared to copenhagen in the 70s – cambridge has about 8% bike mode share, btw – etc…). I think it’s difficult for sprawling grid cities like Chicago to model themselves on the successes of a place like Copenhagen because it’s a very different beast. It is encouraging, though…

  3. Thanks for the update. The intiiatives taken by Copenhagen are an example of what good can come from crisis (oil dependency). Will support any local effort to improve bike lanes. Unfortunately, the climate makes for serious discussion as to year-round use of bike transportation. Have to weigh the costs vs benefits when making the investment in bike-friendly highways.

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