Bicycle sensors in Copenhagen clocked a new record this month: there are now more bikes than cars in the heart of the city. In the last year, 35,080 more bikes have joined the daily roll, bringing the total number to 265,700, compared with 252,600 cars.
Copenhagen municipality has been carrying out manual traffic counts at a number of city centre locations since 1970, when there were 351,133 cars and 100,071 bikes. In 2009, the city installed its first electric bike counter by city hall, with 20 now monitoring traffic across the city.
Copenhagen’s efforts to create a cycling city have paid off: bicycle traffic has risen by 68% in the last 20 years. “What really helped was a very strong political leadership; that was mainly Ritt Bjerregaard [the former lord mayor], who had a dedicated and authentic interest in cycling,” says Klaus Bondam, who was technical and environmental mayor from 2006 to 2009 and is now head of the Danish Cycling Federation. “Plus, a new focus on urbanism and the new sustainability agenda broke the glass roof when it came to cycling.”
Since 2005, 1bn Danish kroner (£115m) has been invested in cycling infrastructure, from several new bike and pedestrian-only bridges such as Cykelslangen (the Cycle Snake) to the recently opened Kissing Bridge. “Cycling went from being a normal part of daily life to a core identity for the city,” says Bondam.
For Morten Kabell, the current mayor of technical and environmental affairs, the cycling city is “a constantly evolving goal”. He sees “the central core of town between Nørreport, City Hall and Kongens Nytorv becoming car-free within a decade”, and is striving for 50% of all commutes to be made by bike across Greater Copenhagen by 2025 – not such a lofty goal, given that the current figure is 41%.
However, he believes this figure will actually fall when the metro extension opens in 2019. “There’s no doubt it will take some of the bike traffic; but the important thing for me is to have a green transport system. As long as it’s fossil-free and alleviates congestion and air pollution, I’m cool with that,” he says.
In the past year, bicycle traffic has increased by 15% and vehicle traffic has fallen 1%. Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s population has been steadily growing, with the inner city set to creep up from 600,000 to 715,000 people within the next 15 years. “People see that the fastest way to get around town is on a bicycle,” says Kabell. “In several new developments, car ownership is higher than it has been in older parts of town, but not ‘usership’.”
Kabell believes the challenge now is to build infrastructure to keep up with the growing number of people; alongside the metro expansion, his department is working to increase the the cycle network’s capacity and efficiency. Last month, Copenhageners were invited to identify areas where bike lanes are either missing, too narrow, or heavily congested. In just 12 days more than 10,000 people shared their views on an online map. While many suggestions were expected, such as improving signal times, some were surprising: major routes, like Nørrebrogade, one of the world’s widest and busiest tracks, were marked as “too narrow”.
The data will be used to develop a Cycle Track Priority Plan for 2017-2025, which will identify where it’s most necessary to build, widen or optimise intersections. This will then form the basis of plans to be put forward for annual budget negotiations.
For many cities, mirroring Copenhagen’s achievement is nothing more than a distant dream. As one Twitter user put it: “The fact that Nørrebrogade has been marked as too narrow must be a success of international dimensions.” Kabell, though, thinks anyone can do it. “It’s not in our genes, it’s not in our water … What we’ve shown the rest of the world is that if you build protected infrastructure, people will start riding their bikes.”
In London, figures show the gap between bike and car use is getting narrower. Data from Transport for London suggests the number of commuters travelling through the heart of the city during rush hour could soon exceed the number of vehicles on the streets.
The number of cars entering the city during the morning peak hours fell from 86,000 to 64,000 between 2004 and 2014, while bikes rose from 14,000 to 36,000. That’s two cars for every bike – and if trends continue, more people will be cycling than driving into central London during the morning rush hour in 2019. But London’s cycling infrastructure needs to catch up.
Over in the Netherlands, the Dutch are already reaching the point at which bike traffic is overtaking car traffic. In Amsterdam, 48% of city-centre trips are pedal-powered, while in Groningen’s core, bikes are used for 61% of all trips.
Not all cities are going in this direction, however. In Beijing, bicycle use fell from 60% to 17% between 1986 and 2010, while the high status attached to cars has seen vehicle ownership more than quadruple in the last 16 years. But Kabell says that leaders of China’s megacities are beginning to see the light when they visit Copenhagen, and efforts are being made to improve cycling infrastructure and bike-hire schemes.
The next step for Kabell is to create good alternatives to the car. “You can’t just prohibit cars and then deal with it … That’s why we’re expanding the metro and investing in bike infrastructure. Give people options and then slowly take away space from cars and give it to bikes.”
It is cheaper too: the last 12 years of bicycle investments only amount to half the cost of a single vehicle bypass in the north of the city.