Cycling is not a niche, not something special

| March 30, 2011

An interview with Andreas Røhl, Head of Cycling Programme for the City of Copenhagen

The City of Copenhagen is on the leading edge of cycling policy innovation and its experience is instructive for cities around the world as they learn to accommodate cycling as an increasingly popular form of everyday transport. We spoke with Andreas Røhl, Head of Cycling Programs for the City of Copenhagen, about what it will take for Copenhagen to become an even friendlier place for cyclists and what it can teach other cities about how to improve cycling conditions.

Talk a bit about the city’s goal to increase the percentage of cycling commuters from 37% today to a 50% market share by 2015. Explain the logic of setting such an ambitious policy goal?

“The goal of creating the world’s best city for cycling has had the intended effect of increasing the community’s focus on improving cycling conditions. We can now say that cycling is at the top of people’s minds and at the very top of the political agenda. Importantly, we can see that cycling conditions are now taken into serious consideration by stakeholders and developers on individual projects – even projects not typically seen as directly bike related. At the governmental level, the fact that this goal has been decided on by all of the political parties in Copenhagen’s governing council ensures agreement at the highest political level and thereby creates an excellent working environment for the technical administration. The 50% goal is extremely ambitious, but part of the reason that 50% was chosen is because it is important to have a figure that is easy to relate to. The 50% goal is partly a communication and marketing tool and it has been a very effective way to start a conversation on the benefits of increased cycling in Copenhagen. Of course, it is also important to communicate that at any increased level of cycling – be it 38%, 40%, 45%, etc. – there are substantial benefits to be had. It’s important to understand that at the same time as the city is trying to increase the cycling share, the city is also expanding the Metro and we see no reason to compete with public transport to meet the isolated goals of increased cycle traffic. Cycling needs to be seen as something that is normal – not a niche, not something special or something “green” and certainly not stuck in a corner locked in competition with public transit for increased market share. Cycling is treated, and should be treated, as a very important part of the overall transportation system in Copenhagen.”


Talk a bit about what exactly would need to happen on the ground for Copenhagen to increase the commute share for cycling from 37% to 50%.

“We can see from our numbers that nearly everyone between 20 and 50 years old, living within 7km from their work go by bike, simply because it’s easiest and fastest. With this as our base, we can see that we have to do two things to increase the commute share for cycling:

1) Make cycling travel times more competitive (two ways to do this: either improve conditions for bikes and/or make it more difficult for cars).

You can do quite a lot on the “improve conditions” side of the equation, but it’s expensive because it mainly involves infrastructure improvements like bridges and tunnels. That said, we are working with the surrounding municipalities on making cycling more competitive over longer distances – beyond the 7km threshold and even beyond 10km. Reducing travel time between Copenhagen and its suburbs is one key to attracting more cycling commuters. Our data shows that there is a great untapped market beyond Copenhagen’s borders. We can also think about how to distribute car traffic in Copenhagen. This policy option has both infrastructure costs and involves significant political considerations.

2) Creating a more pleasant cycling environment during the rush hour (“conversational cycling”).

If you cycle today during rush hour in Copenhagen, you can’t have a conversation – there is simply no room for it. So, the bicycle is probably the only mode of transportation where you can’t have a conversation with your friend while you’re moving from A to B. To create those opportunities, you have to create more room. You can do this by widening the cycle lanes, creating new routes, closing off streets to through-going car traffic, etc. There are many different ways to accomplish this, but the goal is the same: increase the opportunities for conversational cycling during rush hour. This is important because the opportunity for conversational cycling means the opportunity to cycle next to your kid, the opportunity to go at a slow speed if you’re an older person, and the opportunity for someone new to the city to get comfortable cycling during Copenhagen’s intense rush-hour. These examples of “conversational cycling” give a good picture of where we are now and where we have to go.

We have to pursue all of these policies just to maintain our current cycling market share because there is, at the same time, increased car ownership and an expanded Metro system. With the cycling share of the market essentially stable the past four years (36%, 34%, 37% and 37%), this conversion has to happen even faster if we are to be serious about increasing the market share.”

What is the city’s annual budget for cycling projects?

“This depends on how you define a “cycling project.” Due to the integrated nature of transportation development, every road project and crossing reconstruction in Copenhagen is, in essence, a cycling project. But we can say that it has averaged between 50 million DKK and 100 million DKK ($9 million – $18 million) annually since 2006. Our cycling program staff ranges from between 5 to 10 people. But also in several other departments are a significant number of people working on bike related activities”

You’ve said that cycling as a means of transport is too cheap for its own good. What do you mean?

“Let me use Copenhagen as an example. Currently, cycling in Copenhagen has a 37% market share and the money we spend on cycling is substantial, but if you compare it to what it costs to, for example, build the Metro, expand a highway, or run our bus system, it’s very, very cheap. And that is good, of course. But the fact that cycle infrastructure is rather cheap also means that we don’t have a separate cycling department under the state with hundreds of people working with huge projects that are extremely expensive. In fact, you could say that the more people that bike, the less there is to earn on building infrastructure. So, as long as something is cheap, there is also less interest in it. Again, it is very positive that cycling is so cost effective, but sometimes one can’t help but think that in a political sense, it would benefit from being more like high-speed rail – incredibly expensive with many interests involved. It’s not to say that “expensive is good” it’s just important to be aware that cycling is lacking many of the institutional and political advantages associated with other forms of transport.”

Dronning Louises Bro

Cycling as a means of transportation is on the increase in cities throughout the world. However, the vast majority of these cities have a cycling mode share far below Copenhagen’s 37% share. What are the most important improvements for these new “bike cities.” Where do you start?

“It’s a hard question because of all the unique local factors, but what we’ve seen in Copenhagen is, that it is very important to create the “good example.” In every city you have areas that are more densely populated; universities, commercial corridors, etc. The idea is to start where it’s easiest. There is nothing magical about cycling – if you give people the opportunity to go from A to B in fifteen minutes in a pleasant way and the alternative takes 20 minutes, then most people will obviously consider the first option. It’s about getting from A to B, but it’s very important to consider the entire journey from A to B – if you don’t, you won’t have a good example. Just one problem intersection will make people reconsider taking a bike, despite the fact that 95% of the journey is covered by cycle tracks. Taking the entire journey into consideration is not an easy task, but at least if you have something at a smaller scale, then you have something to point to and say that it worked here and might work elsewhere too.”

Ryan Horton, urban planner and guest contributor for Cycling Embassy of Denmark.

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Category: Danish Cycling Know How

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