It’s a Monday morning in Copenhagen, and I’m tearing down a street called Rolighedsvej on my clunky steel rental bike, trying to make it to a meeting for which I’m nearly certain I’ll be late. As I zip along the beautifully maintained bike lanes, it strikes me that I’ve never had a city biking experience quite like this. Not only do I feel totally safe and secure, but I’m able to get to my destination faster and at a fraction of the difficulty and cost than if I were driving a car.
Ninety percent of Copenhageners own a bike. Only 29 percent of Copenhagen households own a car.* Fifty-eight percent of Copenhageners use a bike on a daily basis for at least small trips, and 37 percent make their daily commute on bikes. (The city’s target is 50 percent by 2015.) Many government service providers now use bicycles, like postal workers and police officers. With a robust public transportation network to complement the biking routes, only 31 percent need to commute by car. The energy impacts of this are huge: Bicycles have displaced more than one-third of all transportation fossil fuel use in Copenhagen and, in the process, eliminated 90,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
The destination I was aiming for on my rental bike was the apartment of Mikael Colville-Andersen, known to many as Denmark’s unofficial ambassador of bicycle culture. In addition to being a journalist, filmmaker, and photographer, Colville-Andersen is a frequent consultant to the Copenhagen government on bicycle issues and author of the internationally famous bicycle blogs Copenhagenize.com and Cyclechic.com (the latter of which spawned an international movement of blogs documenting fashionably dressed people on bikes).
He explained to me that biking in Copenhagen is just a natural part of everyday life, not something people do to burn calories or make a statement. “When I lecture I have four rules for promoting urban cycling. And rule No. 1 is what I call ‘A to B-ism,’ and that is, if you make it the quickest way to get around town, everyone and their dog will do it. Men in suits, mothers with children. … The basic anthropology of encouraging people to ride is to make it easier.” Data back up his contention. A 2006 survey found that 54 percent of Copenhagen cyclists ride because it’s easy and fast. Nineteen percent do it for exercise and only 1 percent for environmental reasons.
Biking in Copenhagen is easy and fast partly because of the city’s amazing investment in bicycle infrastructure. With more than $10 million in annual investments (20 to 25 percent of the road budget), the results are stunning. In addition to 397 kilometers of combined cycle tracks, lanes, and greenways and almost 35,000 bike parking spaces on roads as of 2008, the city has implemented some innovations for bikes, such as the so-called “green wave,” in which traffic lights on several main arteries into the city center are synchronized during rush hours for the benefit of bikes. This means that bikers can maintain a comfortable 20-km-per-hour cruising speed without putting a foot down to stop for a light for up to 6 kilometers. And on one of the busiest of those routes, they’ve closed down the road to car traffic.
Another perk for bicyclists is the “pre-green” signalization in which bicycle traffic lights turn green a few seconds before car traffic lights do, giving cyclists time to avoid traffic while in intersections. There is also bright blue paint where bicycle lanes cross intersections, giving a clear sense of where bikes should be in the most dangerous areas. Further, car waiting lines have been pulled back 5 meters behind bike waiting lines in 120 intersections to give cyclists a head start. In the winter, bike lanes get priority in terms of snow clearance and salting.
Concerns about safety are a significant barrier to cycling in most places. Numerous surveys have found that one of the primary reasons people in North America avoid bike commuting is because they tend to see it as dangerous, largely because of car traffic. Bicycle fatality rates are nearly four times higher in the United States than in Denmark. One reason why cyclists in Denmark are safer than those in more car-dependent countries is that with bicycles, safety comes in numbers. According to studies conducted in America, Europe, and Australia, as the number of cyclists in a city goes up, the rate of injuries goes down. The explanation is that in cities where bicycle commuters are few, drivers do not expect them or adequately prepare for sharing the road.
No matter how safe, fast, convenient, and inexpensive bike commuting can be made, however, it won’t be adopted if it can’t at least partially out-compete cars. So, beyond the “carrot” of incentivizing bicycle commuting, Copenhagen (and many other European cycling cities) also employs the “stick” of policies designed to discourage car use. Some of these policies are actually national—for instance, Denmark imposes a tax of 180 percent on car sales (which is not as bad as it sounds, given the $20-per-hour minimum wage), and gas costs almost $10 per gallon. Every year 2 to 3 percent of parking spaces are removed to gradually wean residents from auto-dependency. In addition to being scarce, parking is expensive—about $5 an hour in the city center. And as the inconvenience and cost of parking increase, so, too, does the rate of bicycling.
The success of cycling in Denmark raises the question of why America, with all its massive resources, lags so far behind on something that could be so beneficial to cities and inexpensive to implement. In the United States as a whole, only 0.4 percent commute by bicycle. The highest rate in the country is found in Portland, Ore.—but at about 6 percent, it’s nowhere near Copenhagen’s 37 percent. This question of why cycling is not more common is particularly vexing for the American Sunbelt, where biking weather is often ideal for much of the year. Copenhagen, which is near the same latitude as Moscow, manages to keep 80 percent of the biking population during its long and difficult winters (even during snowstorms, that level only drops to 50 percent, thanks in part to the active plowing of bike lanes). Yet cities like Los Angeles or San Diego, with their minimal precipitation and moderate temperatures, can barely manage to break a 2 percent bicycle mode share.
It wasn’t always like this. According to Colville-Andersen, after the invention of the bicycle and before the onslaught of the car, it was commonly thought that bicycles would become dominant in Sunbelt cities. In a guest blog for the Los Angeles Times, he quotes an 1897 newspaper article: "There is no part of the world where cycling is in greater favor than in Southern California, and nowhere on the American continent are conditions so favorable the year round for wheeling." At the time, he points out, the world’s most impressive separated bike path was located not in Europe, but between Los Angeles and Pasadena. The Arroyo Seco Cycleway (also known as the Dobbins Veloway) was a wooden, elevated, multi-lane bike path replete with features like lighting and gazebo turnouts. Ironically, after its abandonment it became the right of way for the Arroyo Seco Freeway, the first in California.
Whether attitudes toward cars and bicycles are the cause or the consequence of the massive differences in transportation philosophy between these two countries, there’s no disputing that the gulf in these attitudes is as wide as the Atlantic. Coville-Andersen summed it up for me in this anecdote. “I was in Washington … and somebody asked me a question: ‘you know in the States we go for bike rides on the weekend. What do you guys do?’ And I said, ‘we go for car drives.’ And people laughed. We’ll get a car and drive out to see my mother-in-law, or somewhere we don’t normally go. Cars are for the weekend.”
This article was adapted from Chapter 7 of The Very Hungry City: Urban Energy Efficiency and the Economic Fate of Cities by Austin Troy, Yale University Press (2012).
Correction, Nov. 1, 2012: This sentence originally misstated the percentage of Copenhagen households that own a car. It is 29 percent, not 53 percent. (Return to the corrected sentence.)