Guest Post: Lessons From One of the World’s Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities

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This post originally appeared on Bicycle Colorado’s blog. See the original post for additional videos.

Piep van Heuven and Jack Todd, Bicycle Colorado’s policy team, spent June 11 to 14 in one of the world’s most bicycle-friendly cities — Copenhagen — as attendees of the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Denver Urban Exploration trip. The trip was made possible with funding from our friends at PeopleForBikes, who also had five staff members in attendance at the conference.

Jack Todd and Piep van Heuven, the Bicycle Colorado policy team.
Jack Todd and Piep van Heuven, the Bicycle Colorado policy team.

Denver Urban Exploration is a yearly opportunity for civic, community and business leaders from the city to take a look at what other cities are doing well — and what they aren’t — and see what can be applied in Denver.

One thing that Copenhagen is doing as well as (or better than) anyone? Being a bike-friendly city. That’s why the Downtown Denver Partnership provided every conference attendee with a free bike rental for the duration of the conference.

Before providing a run through of the sessions Bicycle Colorado participated in, here are a few facts about bicycling in Copenhagen:

  • Copenhagen has nearly 300 miles of elevated cycle tracks (compared to about 18 miles of painted bike lanes), green cycle routes and cycle superhighways
  • 49% of people in the greater Copenhagen area commute by bike every day
  • That number rises to 62% in central Copenhagen
  • 75% of the people represented above continue riding in rain, snow and other adverse weather conditions
  • Only nine percent of people in Copenhagen commute by car
  • The car was king in Copenhagen, too, before city leaders and residents decided they wanted a different way of life, as recently as the 1970s (just take a look at the two images below!)

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While there were several tracks to participate in on Denver Urban Exploration, including tracks focused on the local economy, architecture or affordable housing, we spent our time focused on mobility, which tied in to everything else discussed at the conference as well. We spent the majority of our time in the city riding bikes, exploring and experiencing the city’s infrastructure at all times of day and discussing what Denver can adopt here.

Day one in one of the world’s most bicycle-friendly cities

Day 1 Twitter Feed

The conference began on Tuesday with a bike ride from our group hotel to the Danish Architecture Center — a stress-free, mile-long ride most of the 140 attendees participated in. The ride was followed by two presenters discussing how Copenhagen has changed in recent years to become the “Copenhagen” we think of today: bike-friendly and among the most climate-conscious cities in the world.

It took conscious, thoughtful decision-making from the city’s leadership and citizens to make changes like removing car parking to make Stroget, the city’s world famous walking mall, what it is today.

According to the first presenter, Anders Larsen of DIS, Copenhageners began asking themselves “what kind of future do we want?” in the 1950s, and the answer was to live in a thriving city — bicycling played a big part in that.

Following the first presentations of the conference, Larsen led the group on an architectural and historical canal tour of the city, our first experience with some of the bike- and pedestrian-exclusive infrastructure the city has to offer, like the “key bridge,” which you can see below.

Day two


Day 2 Twitter Feed

Day two began with three presentations to the whole group in the morning from Frank Jensen, the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen; Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes; and Klaus Bondam, director of the Danish Cycling Federation.

Each of the presentations focused on making the city a more livable place, with Blumenthal discussing the many opportunities we have for growth in Denver, and Bondam noting the importance of infrastructure that works for everyone, not just confident and experienced commuters.

Bondam used his platform to remind Denver city leaders that there is financial benefit in bicycling, and that the city needs courageous politicians to make Copenhagen’s model a reality in Denver. He even asked city leaders to take the car down from its pedestal and treat other modes of transportation as equally viable.

Other reminders from Bondam included:

  • it costs money to create effective bike infrastructure, but that’s an investment in your city and residents
  • bicycling and walking should be integrated into all mobility discussions
  • policies and visions should be created to achieve goals to make any city more bikeable and livable

We spent the remaining two sessions of the day bicycling around the city in 30-person groups, led by the Danish Cycling Embassy and PeopleForBikes. Stops on our infrastructure tour included:

  • intersections with lights only for bicyclists
  • road-side pedestals so bicyclists don’t have to step off pedals when waiting for a light to change
  • tilted trash cans for bicyclists to discard trash easily while on the move
  • the Queen’s Bridge, which is used daily by 48,000 bicyclists — an astounding number
  • underground parking you can ride in and out of
  • massive elevated bike lanes
  • the full bike parking area outside of the Danish Parliament (many politicians ride in daily)
  • two-way lanes through parks
  • and a bikeway through the cemetery where notable Danes including Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen are buried

Take a look at some of the infrastructure below!

Day three

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Day Three Twitter Feed

Day three began with two more lectures focused on architecture and ways to address population growth and unemployment. The big takeaway from these lectures was this: Copenhagen’s bike culture didn’t become what it is today completely organically; a spike in unemployment in the 70s and 80s encouraged the city to invest in infrastructure to make bicycling a more economically-viable transportation solution for Copenhageners, saving them money and spurring job growth.

That’s a big part of Copenhagen’s story that isn’t often told.

The entire conference then broke into two large groups to bike across the city (in smaller units) to Nordhavn, with one group focusing on livability and the other focusing on the economy. We were in the livability group, which ended their ride at Copenhagenize Design Company, where we heard from Morten Kabell, a former mayor of Copenhagen, about bicycle urban design.

Kabell dove deep into how Copenhagen has prioritized bicycling, foot and transit trips to make them more convenient. He took the most commonly cited version of the concept of induced demand and flipped the script: instead of thinking of induced demand as “if you build more car infrastructure, people will use it,” think of it as “if you build more bike, ped and transit infrastructure, people will use it.”

“Whatever you build will be used,” he said. “If we choose the right kind of infrastructure, people will be using it.”

He noted the low cost of building bike infrastructure — even elevated cycle tracks — as compared to infrastructure for automobiles, which also needs work much more frequently, and went on to discuss how the city’s infrastructure priorities reflect their use. In Copenhagen, bike lanes are plowed before anything else on a snowy day because they’re so well used.

He closed his presentation citing the effectiveness of Denmark’s infrastructure in regard to roadway fatalities.

“If the U.S. had the same fatality rate in [crashes] that Denmark has, last year you would have saved 27,300 lives,” he said to a room full of Denver city leaders, including representatives from Denver Public Works and the Mayor’s Office. “That has to do with how we design our streets and roads. Those 27,300 people deserve to be alive.”

Following this ride, Piep and Jack took their own tour of the city to continue geeking out about bicycling on their own.

Day four

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Day Four Twitter Feed

We began day four of Denver Urban Exploration with a more specific infrastructure tour of the city: Copenhagen’s bicycle- and pedestrian-only bridges, with a brief stop to watch Danish children learning to ride in a group setting. For us, this was the “iconic infrastructure tour,” and it demonstrated how a complete, connected network is imperative for any city to be truly bicycle-friendly, but a few iconic pieces of infrastructure bring a bike network to the next level.

On a few key pieces of infrastructure, Copenhagen spent additional money to make it beautiful and allure more riders to it, all while adding connections in the city.

Take a look at some of the videos to the right, and check out our Twitter feed from day four to learn additional details about ridership.

The final session of the conference was about the soft touches that cities can add to make cities more livable. Make places where people want to spend time, especially in the public realm, and you’ll create thriving neighborhoods and commercial districts. David Sim, the presenter from Gehl architects, reminded the crowd that these can be affordable investments that have a huge impact on a city’s livability.

“It’s cheap to be nice to people,” he said.

Immediately before Sim’s session, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock spoke to what he’s seen of Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure. “Copenhagen has inspired me,” he said. “We can have this.”

And immediately after the final session, Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, added her thoughts on Denver’s bike network. “It’s really straightforward, let’s just build the infrastructure,” she said.

As the bike advocates in the room at this conference, alongside PeopleForBikes, the effectiveness of Copenhagen’s bike network came as no surprise, but for many others in the room we think this trip was illuminating in how we can make this work in our capital city.

We’ll continue to build on the many connections we made at Denver Urban Exploration in making Denver a more bikeable city, and a more livable one in the process. We’re excited to be a part of that, and we’re glad to have our members along for the ride.

Thanks again to the Downtown Denver Partnership for inviting us on this trip, and to PeopleForBikes for sponsoring Bicycle Colorado’s policy team to attend.

  • TM

    I hope Denver leaders start listening. The current plan of 6 years per mile of bike lane is getting us nowhere.

  • Completely missing from this article, and apparently from the conference as well, is any mention of the price of gasoline and car ownership in Denmark. Countries in the EU, including Denmark, tax gasoline at roughly five dollars a gallon more than in the U.S. A gallon of gas goes form about $US 7.50. Imagine how much interest in bike commuting and infrastructure would soar if people had to pay $100 each time they filled up their gas tank. Other costs of buying, operating and storing a car are also much higher than in the U.S.

    I”m a lifelong bike commuter. I admire the cycling infrastructure in Denmark and other countries in northwest Europe, but you can’t divorce a discussion of the infrastructure from a discussion of the radically different price signals that Danish commuters see and that Americans, including Denverites, don’t see. I wish it were as simple as “let’s just build the infrastructure,” but it’s not. Those higher gasoline taxes provide funding for the infrastructure that we don’t have here. They send a price signal that virtually screams at people “you need to get on a bike!” Moreover a tax of that magnitude would have to be levied by the state or federal government. If a city did it on its own, people would just drive to the next town over to buy their gas.

    This is not to say that we should stop expanding bike infrastructure. We need to keep expanding it, but we need to understand that without the European price signals we won’t see nearly the uptake here as they see there.

    • Jack Todd

      Hi Jerry, you’re right that that wasn’t a talking point at the conference. Also missing was a deeper discussion about transit and how the bus, metro and train systems connect greater Denmark into the central city–bicycling is a true first-last mile solution because of the convenience of Denmark’s transit system in conjunction with the convenience and stress-free nature of riding a bike in the city.

      In Denver’s case (and America more broadly), we do need to disincentivize driving as much as we need to incentivize bicycling. Conversations about things like parking are important parts of that discussion that can begin at the local level (and parking is an example of something that was discussed quite a lot at the DDP conference). A gas tax is a statewide discussion and, unfortunately, one that is pretty much halted before it even has a chance to begin year after year in Colorado. We’re still working to shift that discussion.

      • mckillio

        We need to have the state allow cities to implement their own gas tax and or sales tax on gas.

        • TakeFive

          I’d be for that. It would take a change to Colorado’s Constitution.

          • mckillio

            It’s crazy to me that something like that is in the constitution. And in trying to find it in the constitution reminded me how crazy long our constitution is.

          • TakeFive

            It’s been a few years but I caught up with it. It’s in Article X, Section 18 of the Colorado Constitution.,_Colorado_Constitution

            Text of Section 18:
            License Fees and Excise Taxes ­Use of

            On and after July 1, 1935, the proceeds from the imposition of any license, registration fee, or other charge with respect to the operation of any motor vehicle upon any public highway in this state and the proceeds from the imposition of any excise tax on gasoline or other liquid motor fuel except aviation fuel used for aviation purposes shall, except costs of administration, be used exclusively for the construction, maintenance, and supervision of the public highways of this state. Any taxes imposed upon aviation fuel shall be used exclusively for aviation purposes

    • @Jerry Tinianow – Framing this as a tax to scream a price signal will, alas, just get a lot of American’s knees jerking, and not in a way useful for bicycling. The reality in the U.S. is that our gas prices enjoy a whole lot of subsidy and the costs they inflict are externalized (ignored), whereas EU countries are more fiscally-responsible about these costs.

      • TakeFive

        our gas prices enjoy a whole lot of subsidy

        That makes no sense other than I know you love your subsidy talking points.

        • @TakeFive – It’s not “talking points,” it’s basic working knowledge of transportation funding in the U.S. You can find substantiation of this on this very website.

          • TakeFive

            I understand the system; taxpayer-voters ‘subsidize’ what they want and since it’s their money that’s the way it should be.

            And in Metro Denver taxpayer-voters also chose HUGE subsidies per capita, per passenger, per mile for transit – including me; I voted for FasTracks.

        • mckillio

          ? Of course they enjoy a ton of subsidy. I’ve never heard anyone argue otherwise.

          • TakeFive

            Who’s they?

            In any case gubment collects various taxes for the purpose of society and the common good. There’s power in it’s collective ability to provide what would be silly for each individual to do for themselves. Some treat such government ‘subsidized’ purposes as if it were manna from heaven when in fact it’s a collection taxpayer monies. Whether it’s called gubment investments or subsidies makes no difference; so long as (a majority of) taxpayers are getting what they want their taxes to pay for then gubment is doing what it’s supposed to do.

          • mckillio

            Producers of gasoline. Partially but that doesn’t mean that the price of it isn’t artificially low and subsidized.

          • TakeFive

            Eh, GWB passed accelerated depreciation which isn’t the same as Federal Grants. It propelled the whole fracking revolution which led to lower consumer prices.

            Obama created generous tax incentive for renewable energy which propelled a new industry that lowered costs to where now Xcel Energy is aggressively replacing coal burners with renewable energy; it’s now virtually half the cost from where it was prior to Obama.

            These are not bad things but people can fudge anything if they want to. Nothing but stupid politics and biased agendas.

          • mckillio

            Okay but the cost of gasoline is still incredibly artificially low. It should cost at least twice as much.

  • TakeFive

    Denmark is an area half the size of South Carolina. 86.9% of Denmark’s population of over 5,760,694 is of Danish descent ie. blonde haired and blue-eyed. It’s fair to say it’s a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.