Good bicycle karma from Copenhagen

Yesterday, I visited Andreas Rohl’s free lecture on “Sticks, Carrots and Tambourines: Actively Learning from Copenhagen’s Transport Successes” at SFU Harbour Centre. Andreas Rohl is Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Manager and recently joined Urban Systems for a temporary term in their Metro Vancouver office.

In his lecture, Andreas Rohl talked about how Copenhagen became a cycling capital, the motives of people in Copenhagen to use bikes as their favourite means of transport, Copenhagen’s new bicycle strategy and policies, the economics of cycling and what challenges lie ahead for Copenhagen but also other cities like Vancouver to make cycling more attractive.

Today, 36% of trips to work or study in Copenhagen are made by bike (compared to 29% by car, 28% by public transit and 7% by walk). In total, 50% of the people who live or study in the city use a bike, the average trip length is 5 km and 25% of families with two or more children even have a cargo bike. According to Rohl, people in Copenhagen don’t define themselves as cyclists, they just use bikes as their favourite means of transportation to get around. In this “cycling democracy”, everyone is cycling no matter what gender, income or other social factor, as the following video on Copenhagen’s bicycle culture shows:

Nevertheless, prospects for cycling weren’t always so good in Copenhagen. Like in many industrialized cities, the number of bike trips dramatically decreased in the 1950s and 1960s with the beginning car hype. By looking for new solutions due to the oil crises (“Never miss a good crisis”), listening to citizens and investing in cycling, the city of Copenhagen could revert this trend starting from the second half of the 1970s. This growth continued until today when congestion on many bike lanes or huge demand for bike racks creates new challenges.

Today, the city of Copenhagen investes $ 15-20m in cycling per year which actually only equals $25 per citizen. In fact, 1 km of seperated cycle track only costs $ 1.3m compared to $ 180m for 1 km of Metro city ring. Moreover, the total costs of Copenhagen’s planned regional 250 km net of Super Cycle Highways costs $ 150m compared to $ 300m for the car connection from an urban development area to the inner city. So, money is important but the political will to use space for cycling and to promote cycling is at least equally important.

There are many reasons for promoting cycling: less congestion, better environment, less emissions, improved health and urban life. In fact, when a person chooses to cycle this is a gain for society of $ 0.22 per cycled kilometre whereas society suffers a net loss of $ 0.12 per kilometre driven by car. The net health impact is $ 0.80 per kilometre or $ 300m per year.

The main reason for using a bike is that cycling is easy, quick and convenient. Moreover, it is a good way to exercise, it is cheap and it is environmentally friendly. So, the main aim is to promote cycling simply as a fast and comfortable way to get from A to B. Therefore, the current infrastructure focus lies in fostering conversational cycling (go from two lanes to three lanes so that people can bike next to each other and talk like in a car or bus), providing a coherent cycling network and reducing traveltime.

A concrete example was the establishment of “green wave” through traffic for bikes at 20 km/h which increased average speed from 15.1 km/h to 20.7 km/h and decreased travel time from 8:54 min to 6:25 min for a 2.2 km distance. Moreover, it is also easy for cyclists to use public transit, they can usually get very close to their destinations by bike, all cabs need to have bike racks and all bike tracks have highest priority with regards to snow removal in winter. In addition, regulation (especially for new urban development) and density (keeping city dense as walking and cycling are the preferred means of transport for short trips) are also crucial.

Rohl’s bottom line is: While bikes are part of the urban life in Copenhagen, they are not just romance but the system has to work every Monday morning when people go to work or study. Nevertheless, promoting a cycling culture is also important. According to Rohl, you have to design good cycling infrastructure, to identify the best target groups, to approach newcomers to get them on bikes and also to get the message on some basic rules out to the people. Moreover, changing your transport is also much about changing your identity. So, communication is a central element of promoting cycling and Copenhagen’s Karmaspotters are a perfect example of how to bring good bicycle karma to the city:

If Copenhagen would need to start from scratch again, Rohl would recommend not to talk too much about safety, to simply build cycling tracks all the way from A to B (even when it hurts) and to tell the story of cycling (marketing, communication). In addition, the panel discussion also highlighted that there is a big program for children in terms of cycling education and promotion which should encourage them to use these modes of transport for getting to school and thereby also increases their and their parents’ quality of life. This is true for students as well, as the following video shows:

The presentation and video podcast from Andreas Rohl’s free lecture is available on the SFU website. Registration for the second part of this lecture series is now also open: On June 28th, Mikael Colville-Andersen who is known as Denmark’s bicycle ambassador will talk about “Bicycle Culture by Design“.

Finally, I have again created a Storify story summarizing the #sfucph tweets as well as other tweets, photos and links from the event. Enjoy!

Posted on June 5, 2012 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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