Lessons from Copenhagen: Reflections on a Bicycle-Urbanism Master Class by Steve Bercu

I recently returned from Copenhagen, one of our planet’s great bicycling capitals, where I participated in a June 2016 master class on bicycle urbanism led by the Copenhagenize design firm, the gurus behind, among other things, the legendary Cycle Chic blog.  This company was founded by bicycle-urbanist extraordinaire, Mikael Colville-Anderson, pictured here.copenhagen1


My classmates hailed from four continents and included planners, architects, advocates, journalists, students, and elected officials. While the class addressed a broad range of issues and materials, here I want to focus on some salient impressions and reflections from the class, as well as observations of the Copenhagen bike scene.

History.  Copenhagen started early, installing, in 1892, the world’s first dedicated bike lane.  In this early era, bicycle advocates had to fight battles with the entrenched equestrian lobby over street space.  By the 1940s, the bicycle network had achieved impressive scale.  In the 1960s and 70s, the heyday of automobile-centered urban development, Copenhagen lost 50% of its bicycle infrastructure, and the bike network was effectively rendered useless.  This point marked a dramatic turning point, with the city completely reorganized around the convenience of the car, deeply inconveniencing all other modes, as dramatically visualized in this graphic:



In what turned out to be a great stroke of fortune, Copenhagen, like Oslo and Helsinki, was too weak economically to undertake major, Robert Moses-style highway projects within the urban core (though it had plans to do so on the books).  Stockholm alone, among the Nordic capitals, went down that path, and to this day its city center bears the scars of that legacy.  In the early 1970s, in response to the oil crisis, horrific bicycling fatalities, and massive grass-roots uprisings, huge pressure was brought on the government to provide safe infrastructure for bicycling.  Since that time, Copenhagen has been decisively pursuing efforts to grow, improve, densify, and complete its bicycle network—with unparalleled success.

Design.  Danish design is driven by three principles: practical, functional, and elegant.  Sometimes, a fourth and very helpful element can arise: iconic, as in the case of the famous “bicycle snake” (cykelslangen) bridge across the Copenhagen harbor.


I was reminded of the beautiful North Bank Bridge between Cambridge and Charlestown, which makes such an elegant statement while completing an important bicycle-network linkage.


The bicycle network throughout Copenhagen, as well as other Danish cities, adheres to an unrelentingly simple design vocabulary that is immediately legible in every sort of street condition.  There are only four types of bike facilities, four arrows in the quiver, and they are applied uniformly depending on the corresponding type of street.  New types of lanes and treatments are not invented over and over again from scratch every time a street is reconstructed, as seems to be happening currently in the U.S.  Here are the four types of bicycle infra:

Motor vehicle movement on street:


Type of bicycle infrastructure
Calm, residential street None
25 m.p.h. speeds Painted lane, at least 2.3 meters wide, between parked cars (if any) and curb
30 m.p.h. speeds Curb-separated cycle track, between street and sidewalk, at least 2.3 meters wide.
45 m.p.h.+ speeds Move cyclists away from traffic with as much space as possible.


Bi-directional bicycle lanes are not used on the street, having been discarded from Danish best practices 20 years ago.  They continue to appear in situations free from car-bike conflicts, such as in parks and along lakefronts.

Treatments for intersections have also been simplified and standardized.  The three key elements for intersections are a leading green signal for bikes, a cycle track all the way to the crosswalk, and a withdrawn stop-line for cars, five meters behind the bikes (to prevent right-hook collisions).   Copenhagen bike planners continue to use the city as a laboratory to try out new potential solutions, with the goal of making bicycle trips ever safer, more comfortable, and more convenient.  The ability to bike to a destination within 30 minutes seems to be a key psychological, threshold.  The city has recognized that speed and convenience are the principal drivers behind residents’ decisions to use bicycles for their trips.


Source: Morten Kabell

Through a series of design innovations such as “green wave” signal synchronization for inbound and outbound bicycle commutes, Copenhagen has expanded the catchment area for 30-minute trips to an impressive radius from the center city.

Parking.  When it’s time to remove parking in order to gain street space for other uses, the advice from Copenhagen is: do it fast and do it green.  Leave plantings behind.



Somehow, seeing park-like features arise from the streetscape seems to neutralize the NIMBY outrage at loss of sacred public parking.  Here’s an example of streetspace repurposed for community life:


Measurement and Reporting.

Copenhagen issues biannual bicycle reports.  One of the most important measures tracked from year to year is how safe people feel when biking.  I thought this was a laudable way to think about the health and performance of a bicycle network.  By including health benefits, the city is able to calculate a return-on-investment (ROI) for capital expenditures made for the benefit of the bike network.  For example, when two bicycle bridges were completed across the harbor, at a total cost of approximately $13mm, the bridges yielded a 12% ROI and thereby were able to pay for themselves within 5.5 years.  A great deal of effort goes into measuring and analyzing the bike network, including 30  permanent counters buried under the pavement and an additional 200 counts undertaken on an intermittent basis.  Moreover, the data yielded by these measures proves invaluable in determining where to invest and justifying policy initiatives that improve bicycle facilities.

Some other data of interest: it is notable that Copenhagen relies in “safety in numbers” rather than helmet usage for bicyclist safety; helmet use is in the range of 11%, while injury rates remain quite low.



Source: Morten Kabell

As for female cyclists, often called the “indicator-species” of healthy bicycle infrastructure, 55% of the cyclists in Copenhagen are women (similar to Amsterdam).  By contrast, only 28% of those biking in Boston are female.  I also noted very high occurrence of cargo bikes: there are 40,000 of them in the city, with 26% of families owning one.  To me this indicated the strong reliance of bicycles for everyday needs and the imperatives of family life.

Scofflaws.  Rather than bemoaning scofflaw behavior by cyclists and crying out for increased enforcement of traffic laws, Copenhagen sees cyclists who break or bend traffic laws (the so-called “momentumists” and “recklists”) as key indicators of a problem with the city’s infrastructure and therefore highly useful to study.


In the master class, we did traffic counts specifically intended to track rogue bicycling behaviors, then talked about potential fixes to intersections that might better facilitate the movements being attempted by recklists.

Environment.  We had a guest lecture from Morten Kabell, the Copenhagen Mayor (we would say, I believe, “Commissioner”) for transportation.  What an inspiring guy.  He explained the Copenhagen aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city within nine years, and the world’s best bicycle city.  Denmark is a small country with a population smaller than that of Massachusetts, yet they leave us in the dust with the boldness, ambition, and aggressiveness of their goals.  By 2020, Copenhagen’s public-transit system will be fossil-free.  As from now, 75% of the city’s new transport must be “green” (i.e., public transit, bicycling, or walking).  Are you listening, Allston I-90 Interchange Improvement Project? The goal for bicycle trips in the greater-Copenhagen region is 50%, up from 41% currently.  As a point of contrast, Boston is striving to get above 2%.  Bicycling around the city, I was impressed about how often I saw Copenhagen streets used creatively, beyond just the idea of moving cars around, rededicating space in ways to provide for ordinary needs of families, children, community, and everyday life.


Communications.  Because bicycling culture in the U.S. developed largely in the absence of any dedicated infrastructure, the marketing messaging around bicycling here has very much centered on the recreational and sport aspects of bicycling.  Bicycling got positioned here as a complex sporting endeavor requiring sophisticated (and expensive) technical equipment and expertise—somewhat analogous to skiing, sailing, or sport-fishing.  The history in Europe is completely different and the messaging tracks that difference.  We talked in the class about the “societal mirror.”  How can bicycling be portrayed as an everyday activity in a way that enables people to see themselves “joining the tribe?”  We also had a provocative discussion about how health-warning labels and similar messaging might be used to help correct some of the harmful mythology that has built up around automobiles.


I was left pondering how we could think better about normalizing the image of bicycling as a mainstream urban transportation choice.



  1. Alan Wright on August 5, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Fabulous – thank you!

  2. Rik on August 5, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Sounds like a great study trip! I’ve been puzzling over how the Dutch do unsignalized intersections. I’ve scrubbed through the CROW manual and all the intersection details have to do with traffic lights. There are no best practices for unsignalized intersections that I could find (other than roundabouts). Did you see any examples of how they do this? do bike lanes end before an intersection to merge with cars or do the bike lanes continue to the stop line? I’d be interested to hear what you observed.

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