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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

STRAPHANGER: The Copenhagen Syndrome


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This week, Spacing presents five excerpts from Straphanger, the new book by Montreal-based author Taras Grescoe. The book examines the success stories, challenges, and future hurdles of 14 transit systems from across the world, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.


TODAY: Copenhagen

I was prepared to admire Copenhagen, grudgingly, as you might a doughty Lutheran aunt who prides herself on her strong opinions and sensible shoes. I didn’t expect to become infatuated with the place, jealous of those who got to live there year-round, and, to my wife’s annoyance, an advocate for an eventual emigration to Scandinavian climes.

I’ve been to more striking cities. Copenhagen is like a greatest hits of more glamorous destinations: it has the canals of Amsterdam, the squares of Florence, and the Baroque architecture of Vienna; there is even a single, New York– style modernist skyscraper (the SAS building, all of twenty stories). I’ve been to more exciting cities. Copenhagen’s biggest attraction is the Tivoli Gardens, a nineteenth-century amusement park complete with Ferris wheel and carousel, though the Lego Store and the Bodum Hus, where you can splurge on interlocking plastic bricks and functional coffeepots, are close runner-ups. And I’ve definitely been to balmier cities.

Copenhagen is windblown and rainy, and because it is at the same latitude as Ketchikan, Alaska, the winter sunset — when the sun deigns to appear at all — tends to come at mid-afternoon. Yet the scale of the place is perfect: Copenhagen is big enough to keep you interested, but small enough that you feel comfortable. In truth, though, the depth of my affection probably comes from the way I discovered Copenhagen.

During my first couple of days in the city, I walked and rode the two-line Metro. The brand-new system has state-of-the-art platform doors in its deep underground stations, and gleaming automated Italian-made trains, the kind that allow kids to sit in the front and watch the lights in the tunnel rush by. This being Northern Europe, there are no turnstiles, and passengers board on the honor system. (When I blundered on ticket-free on my first day, a platform attendant smiled indulgently and rode the escalators back to street level to give me a lesson on the proper use of the ticket machines.) From the central train station, eleven commuter train lines, run by Danish State Railways, extend deep into the suburbs. Cheerful orange buses, with low floors to allow easy entry for strollers and wheelchairs, run along most major streets. In fact, Copenhagen is the only city I’ve been where people complain there is too much public transport. When the Cityringen, a circle line that will add fifteen new stations, is completed in 2018, only the residents of the city’s most isolated districts will be more than a 600-yard walk from a Metro station.

“My problem with the Cityringen,” one longtime Copenhagener told me, “is that this is a small, uncongested city that already has a very good transit system. You can easily get to most places in twenty minutes or less, so I don’t really see the point in investing a huge amount of money and disrupting the city with ten years of construction when things work just fine as they are.”

The Cityringen may well be overkill. The city’s medieval core, tightly wound around the parliament building and stock exchange on the island of Slotsholmen, is so compact it can be crossed on foot in under an hour. More to the point, Copenhagen has reinvented its streets so they are now served by the most decentralized, affordable, and efficient mode of mass transit ever invented: the bicycle.

They are everywhere, the bikes of Copenhagen. Gray-haired senior executives ride black Flying Dutchmen to downtown offices in three-piece suits, slacks clipped to their calves and briefcases strapped to their backs. Women in late middle age do their shopping on pastel-hued Verlorbises whose baskets are stuffed with bread and produce. All of life seems to happen on bikes: Copenhageners have mastered the art of sending text messages, drinking cans of Carlsberg, smoking Prince cigarettes, and flirting on two wheels. On weekday mornings, the distributors of the free newspaper Metro stand curbside, holding out rolled-up copies for cyclists to grab, and recycling bins are oriented toward the bike lanes, their mouths positioned at the perfect height for a passing cyclist to lob a can. Even the homeless have bikes—nice bikes. Outside a Burger King, I saw a ruddy-faced gentleman asking for spare change, the handlebars of his classic Batavus hung with shopping bags filled with cans and bottles. When I finally happened upon the statue of the Little Mermaid in the harbor, I was a little surprised to see she was perched on a boulder, rather than straddling a Raleigh.

Bicycles here actually outnumber humans. At the last tally, central Copenhagen counted 560,000 bikes, but only 519,000 people. In the greater Copenhagen area, 37 percent of residents get to work or school by bicycle — a proportion that jumps to 55 percent in the central core — and these numbers are rising every year. To put this in context: more people commute by bicycle in greater Copenhagen, population 1.8 million, than cycle to work in the entire United States, pop. 310 million. After a couple of days of watching streams of fit, stylish Danes pedaling their hearts out, the Metro lost its appeal. I needed to find a bike of my own and join the parade. Happily, my hotel made a dozen loaner bikes available to guests. Lasse Lindholm, the head of communications for the municipal bicycle program, had volunteered to give me a tour of Copenhagen’s bicycle infrastructure, and on a weekday morning, I mounted my sturdy black three-gear bicycle and followed him out to the bike lanes.

“In Copenhagen, being a cyclist is not an explicit identity marker,” Lindholm explained to me, as we merged into the flow of morning commuters. “If you asked the first hundred Copenhageners you met to define themselves, I can guarantee none of them would say ‘I’m a cyclist.’ Riding a bike here is as natural as brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces. We don’t even think about it.”

People ride in their work clothes, men in polished shoes, women oft en in heels. The typical Copenhagen bicycle has high handlebars, which allow for a comfortable upright posture, a basket on the headset, a mud guard over the chain, and a rat-trap above the rear fender. They are cheap enough to be practically disposable; the exceptions are cargo bikes, which have become something of a status symbol. These sturdy tricycles, with two small, swiveling front wheels and deep round cargo bays that call to mind pelicans’ bills, look like sleeker, more maneuverable versions of the bikes that ice-cream vendors pedal. They have become the SUVs of Copenhagen; Lindholm said a quarter of all Copenhagen families with two or more kids now own a cargo bike, and a new Nihola, one of the most coveted brands, can cost $4,000. Even Denmark’s crown prince Frederik is regularly photographed ferrying his youngest son around in a Nihola bike.

“You can easily carry three children in a cargo bike, and a week’s worth of groceries,” said Lindholm, as we pulled to the curb in the backstreets of Vesterbro, a working-class district undergoing rapid gentrification. Outside a six-story apartment building, a pink fiberglass shelter in the shape of an automobile took up a parking spot that would normally have been occupied by a car. A pi lot project of the municipal bike program, the shelter, which looked something like a Studebaker spun out of cotton candy, was divided into flaps that could be lowered and locked to provide secure overnight parking for four cargo bikes. “We love that cargo bikes have exploded in popularity, but they are difficult to park at regular bike racks. This way, we take away street parking from cars, but we are also illustrating that four big bikes can fit in the same space as one small car.”

After crossing a swing bridge, which the municipal government had built to provide a shortcut across the harbor for cyclists and pedestrians, Lindholm showed me where to lock my bike outside the Rådhuset, an impressive crenellated town hall guarded by sculpted dragons. In the basement, he showed me a cavernous room filled with hundreds of neatly racked bicycles; municipal politicians had been parking their bikes here, Lindholm said, since 1905. The real spectacle, though, came a few minutes later, when we paused on a bridge on Nørrebrogade, one of the main thoroughfares into the downtown. It was a quarter to nine, and a never-ending succession of cyclists streamed past, oft en four or five abreast, bound for downtown offices. Some talked on cell phones, some listened to MP3 players; only a handful wore helmets. When the hordes of bicycle commuters were forced to stop by a red light, a young woman with a campaign button on her lapel strolled among them, handing out pamphlets for the upcoming municipal elections.

“I’m a candidate for the Social Liberals,” she told me, returning to the curb as the light turned green. “Our transportation policy is actually quite controversial. We would like to add more lanes for bikes on bridges like these. We would like cars out of the city altogether.”

On the other side of the bridge, a monolith-like counter with a bright LED display kept a running count of the passing cyclists. So far that year, 1.8 million bicycles had crossed; in the summer, said Lindholm, the tally typically reached 35,000 a day, making Nørrebrogade the busiest bike route in Europe. Though it was a drizzly morning in mid-November, with the temperature only a few degrees above freezing, cyclists waiting for the light to change had backed up halfway along the bridge: I realized I was witnessing rush-hour bicycle congestion. Unlike automobile traffic jams, though, nobody here seemed particularly frustrated.

“People still ride when it snows,” said Lindholm. “We send the plows out to clear the bike lanes before they plow the roads for cars.” Though Lindholm and I were oft en riding on busy streets, I never felt threatened by rushing cars. The broad bike lanes are positioned a few inches higher than the roadway, yet lower than the sidewalks, and are physically separated from automobile lanes by a low curb, offering a real sense of security. In North American cities that have bike paths, a single, bi-directional lane tends to be confined to one side of the street, which means that cyclists going in opposite directions rush past one another, oft en with inches to spare. In Copenhagen, unidirectional bike lanes run down either side of major streets, allowing cyclists to relax (which may explain why so many were steering with one hand and holding cell phones in the other). On the few roads that offered on-street parking, the bike lane was located inside the line of parked cars, offering further shelter from traffic. Where the bike lanes crossed busy roads, a bold blue stripe showed the way across the intersection.

Lindholm said that, though it was mid-November, the city hadn’t seen a single cycling fatality that year. (In contrast, about twenty cyclists die every year on the streets of New York.) Drivers, I noticed, were exaggeratedly cautious, coming to a full stop, craning their necks and waiting until the bike lane was completely clear before turning right. In Denmark, as in Holland and Belgium, a policy of strict liability applies to motorists: in accidents, the presumption of guilt is on the driver, who is considered to be the operator of a potentially lethal piece of heavy machinery. Opening a door on a cyclist is a serious offense, and — except in extreme cases, where a bike rider blindsides a stopped car — it is the driver’s insurance company that has to cover all the costs. (Drivers are also taught to reach for their door handles with their right hands, which forces them to swivel and look back for approaching bikes before opening the door.) If anything, I felt less intimidated by the motorists than by my fellow bike riders. In Copenhagen, coming to a halt on a busy bike lane can be tricky: to prevent a pile-up, you are well advised to signal a stop by holding up your right hand, crooked elbowed, before easing your way over to the sidewalk. Lindholm left me at a waterfront community center, after introducing me to the director of Copenhagen’s cycle program. Over coffee, Andreas Röhl explained how the city’s technical and environmental administration was trying to make Copenhagen a paradise for cyclists.

“I work with the bicycle as mass transit,” explained Röhl. “It’s all about what makes a nicer city to be in. Bicycles are fast, they don’t make noise, and they are cheap for the city. There is no cost of running the system — you just have to give people the infrastructure, and they use it. For a city like Copenhagen, with the kind of climate and layout we have, the bike is by far the most cost-effective mode of transport for moving large numbers of people.”

Röhl figures bikes are beating cars in Copenhagen thanks to a classic system of incentives and disincentives. A “green wave” times traffic signals on thoroughfares so a cyclist maintaining an average speed of 12 miles an hour won’t be stopped by a red light. At over a hundred intersections, bicycles are given a 15-foot, six-second head-start over cars, an initiative that Röhl says has cut down significantly on right-turn collisions. In some areas, bike lanes are even marked by flashing green running lights embedded in the pavement, and cyclists are allowed to go the wrong way down one-way streets without risking a ticket. Copenhagen’s municipal authorities have set a high price for parking, but the national government is responsible for the most effective disincentives. Gas in Denmark is expensive — during my visit, the equivalent of $7.50 a gallon — and there is a 180 percent registration tax on new cars. For many people, car ownership just doesn’t make financial sense.

With 220 miles of bike lanes, Copenhagen’s network is close to being built out. “The thing is,” said Röhl, “it’s easy to add miles. The hard part is putting bike lanes where people want to go.” Röhl pointed out that bike paths in other cities are oft en threaded through parks or alongside rivers. In Copenhagen, bike paths follow the most direct possible routes to downtown, while drivers are forced to detour along one-way streets.

The growing popularity of biking actually had Röhl a little worried. “Now we’re experiencing rush-hour congestion, which isn’t good for traveling speed or feelings of safety. Our goal is to have fifty y percent of people in the greater Copenhagen area commuting by bicycle in the next five years. That will mean fifty-five thousand more people riding bicycles to work or school.” The next step, he said, was to widen existing bike paths, which would mean taking even more road space away from cars. Röhl acknowledged that cycling may not be a year-round solution for every city. “Remember, though, Copenhagen is rainy and cold, and gets snow, and it is also quite spread out. Yet we are finding that people are routinely cycling twelve miles one-way to get to work. In places like Phoenix or Houston, which were built for cars, you might have an uphill battle getting many people on bicycles. But you need to go for the low-hanging fruit, places like Manhattan or Chicago, which are quite flat and densely populated. With the right kind of infrastructure, bike riding could easily become a major form of mass transit in the United States.”

It is clearly a boon for public health. I have to admit I was a little skeptical when Röhl cited studies that showed commuters who got to work by bike rather than car had a 30 percent lower mortality rate than motorists. But as I pedaled around the harbor, encountering bike-riding Danes of all ages, red-cheeked and strong-limbed, I began to suspect there might be some truth to the stats. Routinely cycling a dozen miles a day as you take your kids to daycare, do your shopping, or ride to work would give you all the exercise you needed. As Lindholm pointed out, why spend an hour and a half in the gym when the act of commuting alone could make you a healthier person?

It might even make you a happier one. I know that, after just a day of pedaling the streets of the world’s best bicycle city, I was grinning like a seven-year-old who’d awakened to find a brand-new Schwinn next to the Christmas tree.

Excerpt taken from Straphanger © 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.