Copenhagen – the city of the bicycle

For decades the Danish capital has been a model of how to build a cycling culture

Copenhagen is widely regarded as the best cycling city in the world. Over half of all its urban residents cycle every day. The comparative figure in Dublin is five per cent. Video: Ronan McGreevy

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 08:43

Even before it became one of the world’s great cycling cities, Copenhagen was a great city to cycle in. Like the rest of Den- mark, it is almost unerringly flat with wide boulevards and the type of sane city planning which makes cycling a joy. However, it also takes the collective will of the people to turn Copenhagen into a model city for the bicycle.

Copenhagen is built around the bicycle. Every taxi has a hitch rack, every underground metro station has a lift to take bicycles on and off metro trains. All trains can carry bicycles. You can cycle all the way from the airport to the city centre if you are so inclined.

The figures are quite start- ling. In central Copenhagen, 55 per cent of people commute by bicycle; in the greater urban area the figure is 36 per cent. In Dublin it is 5 per cent – and that represents a threefold increase on 10 years ago.

Rush hour on Nørrebrogade is quite a sight. For a full hour and a half, during each rush hour on this 2km street through the heart of the city, bicycles pass wheel-to-wheel. This is reputedly the busiest cycling street in the world.

Copenhagen has become a victim of its own success. Bicycle jams are common. The double-decker bike parks at every metro station are an impressive sight but there are not enough of them.

What is striking about Copenhagen is the sheer variety of cyclists, not just the young and the urban hip, but businessmen in suits, women in burkas and families in their cargo bikes. In Copenhagen, only losers take the car.

Cargo bikes, which resemble cycling wheelbarrows, are still a novelty on Irish roads, yet in Copenhagen a quarter of families own one. They are handy for shopping and for carting children around.

Cycling education begins early in Denmark. Copenhagen is decades ahead of most European cities including Dublin, a city of comparable size.

The Danes realised back in the 1970s that growth in car traffic and a sustainable urban culture were incompatible in the long term. As far back as 1962, Strogot, the Grafton Street of Copenhagen, was pedestrianised. There are more than 350km of cycle track around the city. They are all needed.

Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, the company which seeks to spread the example to other cities, says cycling is completely mainstream in Denmark, whereas cycling commuters are often seen as an oddity elsewhere.

“We don’t have a cycling culture here. It’s like saying we have a vacuum-cleaning culture because every home has one. We don’t fetishise cyclists. They are just people who get around by bicycle because it is safe and easy for them to do it. It’s that simple.”

Copenhagenize advises the National Roads Authority and Dublin City Council on bike planning for the future. Colville-Andersen describes Dublin as the “great hope”.

He cites the successes of the Dublin Bikes and bike-to-work scheme as some of the ways in which Dublin has started to develop a cycling culture.

“Dublin is one of the cities that has gone from zeroes to heroes in just six years,” he says. “Dublin is incredibly similar to Copenhagen in terms of population size. What it has done is legendary. It has been amazing, the transformation of the city centre.”

This week the World Health Organisation found that some 10,000 lives annually could be saved if the cycling rates in Copenhagen were replicated across Europe, with less pollution and improvements in the general health of the population. The WHO estimates that 29 lives would be saved and 553 jobs created if Dublin had the same rates of cycling as Copenhagen.

It took four decades to get Copenhagen to that level. Will it take Dublin that long?