I visited Copenhagen with James over the long Easter break, to meet people involved with cycling research and cycling policy (and to enjoy cycling and walking around the city itself). This was the first time I had visited Denmark and it was interesting to experience Copenhagen by bike myself after having read other people’s accounts of it.
We started off with a mishap – on Easter Sunday when we left, the UK trains had turned into buses so we could not take our bikes to the ferry as planned. However, we then rented bikes there, which meant we ended up riding very upright, step-through bikes with backpedal brakes, adding to the experience.
While there we met with a number of Danish academics, including some of those involved in the major ‘Bikeability‘ research project. Lots of common interests there, including variously critical transport policy analysis, impacts of transport on health, and cultural meanings of cycling. We were also very kindly given a tour of the city by Zofia, an engineer from the city’s cycling team. She told us about the city’s cycling history (many of the cycle tracks are up to a century old) and the current policies, plans and challenges facing the municipality.
Cycling over Bryggebroen (Quay Bridge) with Zofia
I will no doubt be thinking a lot about Copenhagen over the months to come (and perhaps returning there to contribute to a PhD programme run by Copenhagen University). In the meantime, a few initial thoughts based on fieldnotes and riding experiences:
1. The sheer number of cyclists is exhilarating and sometimes a little overwhelming. According to the municipality and some researchers, the issue of congestion on cycle tracks and the decline in perceived safety is now becoming a major issue (particularly with cargo bikes which are often wide enough to block overtaking) and the city is looking at widening the tracks and creating formal fast/slow lanes (which already exist at busy times; informally).
2. Riding on Copenhagen cycle tracks in rush hour involves skills different to those I’ve learnt on the roads in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham. In particular, I initially found it hard to remember always to give the ‘slowing down’ signal (very important if you’re pulling in as there is often someone right behind you), and moving between ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ halves of the cycle track was sometimes challenging.
Rush Hour, Copenhagen
3. When talking about cycling in the UK, Copenhagen-The Netherlands is often treated as a kind of composite. However, it seemed to James and I (having visited the Netherlands last year) that there were some noticeable differences between Copenhagen and the Netherlands in terms both of cycling infrastructure and cycling cultures (to give an example of each, the junction treatments and the speed/sociability balance).
4. The car is still very much present in Denmark, so while there is a lot of cycling, there’s still a lot of driving and space allocated for motor vehicles. In terms of car-vehicle kilometres per head of population, the UK’s figures are pretty similar to European peers including Denmark. In Copenhagen itself, there are plenty of multi-lane roads with free-flowing motor traffic. (As a cyclist, you’re generally on a separate track right next to the motor traffic, usually separated by a kerb except at junctions).
Quiet time of day for driving and cycling, Langebro
Overall, the time spent in Copenhagen was fascinating: the chance to network with other researchers, finding out about the latest innovations (such as the famous ‘green wave’ that lets cyclists travelling at 20kmph get through traffic signals), noticing ‘little things’ that might make a difference to people (like the bike pump in the courtyard of the block where we were staying), and finding out about the stuff that didn’t fit into the images I’d picked up about Copenhagen. Then, the day after I returned, I had an advanced cycle training lesson in Central London, navigating lanes of motor traffic with my trainer Charlie and trying to remember not to use my now non-existent backpedal brake!