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A cyclist pedals past the Bella center in Copenhagen, Oct. 1, 2009. (Odd Andersen/Odd Andersen/The Associated Press)
A cyclist pedals past the Bella center in Copenhagen, Oct. 1, 2009. (Odd Andersen/Odd Andersen/The Associated Press)

For the Danes, city planning is all about the bike Add to ...

From his second-floor office overlooking a Baltic-fed canal, Andreas Rohl ponders a daily question: How can he make life hell for the car drivers of this Scandinavian capital? Mr. Rohl, you see, is the bicycle program manager for the city government of Copenhagen. And it's his job to get more of the almost two million Danes living in Greater Copenhagen out of their cars and onto bikes. And to do that he must find ways of making a daily commute on two wheels more attractive than one on four.

"This is what we work on a lot," said Mr. Rohl, an every-day cyclist who does not own a car. "It's all about normalization: making the experience of getting in and around the city on a bicycle as normal and hassle-free as possible.

"We have reached the point where riding a bike is a far better mode of transportation than a car. You can get almost anywhere faster on a bike than in a car. We focus a lot on increasing bike speeds from point A to point B, and one way you can do that is slowing car speed over that same distance."

When you think of rush hours in major world centres, you imagine cars inching along, going nowhere fast. But the morning and afternoon commute in Copenhagen is something else entirely. It is a spectacle involving tens of thousands of cyclists roaring down dedicated lanes in tight packs, past cars moving at half the speed, if at all.

Copenhagen is the cycling capital of Europe, and likely the most bike-friendly city in the world. An amazing 37 per cent of those living in Greater Copenhagen use a bicycle to get to work or school every day. That number jumps to 55 per cent if you look only at people living inside the city limits.

Bikes are everywhere: in vast lots outside train stations, leaning against buildings, locked to racks that are as ubiquitous as Carlsberg signs. The people riding them are dressed for all occasions. You see men in pin-striped suits and women in skirts and high heels. Few ride anything but old, traditional one-speeds.

As many cities around the world take the first tentative steps toward building bike cultures of their own, Mr. Rohl has become in demand as a speaker. People want to know how Copenhagen did it. Mr. Rohl tells them it took time and uncommon political courage.

Today, cyclists rule the roads in Copenhagen. There are far more bikes than cars. Where cities in North America focus on easing car congestion, in Copenhagen it's bike jams people like Mr. Rohl are trying to solve. In some cases, that has meant taking space away from cars and handing it to cyclists. It's meant building bridges for bikes and pedestrians over busy thoroughfares.

"Part of finding ways to get even more people biking is to make the experience for cyclists as pleasant as possible," said Mr. Rohl. "So if you can create peaceful routes for cyclists and give them pleasant views, it makes the trip more enjoyable and they'll be more apt to continue doing it."

Imagine this: Traffic lights that were once co-ordinated for car speeds were adjusted to cater to the pace of the average cyclist, allowing them to travel long distances without ever getting a red light. To increase safety, stop lines for cars are five metres behind those for bikes. Cyclists get a green light up to 12 seconds ahead of cars to help increase their visibility.

In the winter months, bike ridership drops off 20 per cent. Still, an armada of plows is ready to clear bike lanes when snow flies. They get priority over routes for cars.

You would think that with so many cyclists on the road, the number of accidents and deaths would be enormous. In fact, each year sees an average of two or three deaths, although there were five in 2008. There have been about 120 serious accidents annually in the past few years, a figure that has declined as the number of cyclists on the roads has increased.

Surprisingly, few cyclists in Copenhagen wear a helmet, a matter that local politicians often debate. But there has been a general reluctance to make them mandatory because it might discourage people from riding. The benefits of cycling, both environmentally and healthwise, outweigh the risks of riding without a helmet, Mr. Rohl said.

It's not all perfect, of course. Cyclists want more parking, and the holes and bumps along certain routes repaired. They want dedicated lanes widened to accommodate their growing numbers. But overall, people are happy with the job Mr. Rohl and others have been doing on their behalf.

By the way, if you think the Danes are doing this to save the planet, you're wrong. Only 1 per cent of those recently surveyed by the city said they were riding a bike to help the environment.

The rest said it was just easier to get around that way.

 

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