‘Bicycle culture by design’

For a study analysing cycle infrastructure, and the interactions between various different modes of transport, it was fitting to enter the country by a train…inside a ferry. The two high speed carriages from Bremen are shunted aboard at Puttgarden in North Germany and re-join the rails at Rødbyhavn, leaving a window of 45 minutes to exit the train and catch a breath of fresh Baltic sea air on deck. Arriving at Copenhagen a short time later, one steps out to a city where within half an hours pleasant cycle you can be at the beach, the park, the airport, or the city limits. Cycling in Copenhagen has been mainstreamed.

In the context of facing global challenges, Denmark surges ahead of the rest of Europe. Environmental policies in this relatively small nation reflect a forward-thinking political agenda, and one that provides numerous exemplars of sustainability. With ambitions of being carbon neutral by 2025, The Danish capital Copenhagen is the definitive example of a sustainable city, and has even coined its own term ‘Copenhagenize’ to describe how often it is looked to as an exemplar study by other cities around the world. This is primarily for its strong bicycle culture, which has been propagated by the Copenhagenize design company, led by Mikael-Colville-Andersen, that characterises itself as  ‘Re-establishing the bicycle on the urban landscape’; using Copenhagen as a successful model to show what happens when cycling is made integral to urban planning and design.1

In relation to the Netherlands, Copenhagen shares much with the Dutch model, but the absolute proportion of space that has been allocated to cycling is lower, and the treatment of junctions slightly different in that it relies more on the road users to follow priority rules more than signals. Nevertheless, levels of subjective safety are very high. And Copenhagen has succeeded in creating a city where it is easier and faster to jump on your bike than it is to get in your car or take public transport. The merits of this approach speak for themselves, including reduced noise, reduced air pollution, reduced CO2 emissions, and a massive reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Although the growth of urban cycling has been incremental, historically, Copenhagen has had a head start; cycle paths providing access to lakes and parks outside the city were laid out in the early twentieth century and were then extended during WWII to help provide sustainable transport during a time of petrol rationing. However, new road construction in the 1960s and 70s curtailed this early development, and it wasn’t until the burgeoning environmental movements of the 1970s organised massive demonstrations in favour of urban cycling that progress resumed and eventually culminated in a relatively complete network of segregated cycle paths. These were finished by the mid-1980s, and since then the network has doubled in length to reach 454 km of connected cycle lanes. The lanes were also implemented with the approach of putting facilities on routes that cyclists were already using, instead of experimenting by trying to put cyclists onto lesser used streets. This meant cycle routes were placed on the most direct and efficient routes to places.

All of this means that in Greater Copenhagen, almost as many people commute by bicycle as those who cycle to work in the entire United States (census, 2014) (Denmark, 2012).2 But not only are these cycle paths used for cycling to work, they are used professionally to provide utility for services like the Police and Danish post. The infrastructure reflects a clear distinction in the minds of Copenhagen planners. The bicycle is not merely a leisure item, it is a means of transport, it is as functional a part of the city as the metro or the highway itself. Along with this, it also has positive economic benefits, and the city of Copenhagen has estimated that for every kilometre cycling, it brings a net gain for society of 1.22DKK (0.14GBP), compared to a net loss of 0.69 DKK (0.08) for every kilometre driven in a car. These numbers include both savings in the public sector, and additional economic activity in the private sector (City of Copenhagen, 2010).3

In assessing exactly what it is that makes cycling in Copenhagen so prevalent, there are several key misconceptions to address. The first being, that the city is dense, and can that journey lengths are short. This is not the case, in fact, Copenhagen is a dispersed city, spread out through the ‘five fingers plan’ along so many parks and avenues that you barely feel in a city at all, and indeed a polycentric urban network might be more a fitting description. Undoubtedly, it is this greater metropolitan spatial arrangement that has helped cycling to take off. Quick access to a neighbourhood centre, and access along cycle superhighways to the city centre, means that cycling becomes a fast and feasible way to reach daily destinations. Combine this with a high cost of motoring, and a metro that covers only a limited area, and you have a city in which cycling is often the easiest and most convenient way to get around.

Potential Improvements and Criticisms

Despite the great progress that has been made to accommodate cycling in Copenhagen. There are still significant improvements to be made, and in fact EU statistics show that recent times have seen a drop in the modal share of cycling. This reflects a reduction in funding.5

cycling in copenhagen modal split

The Model Split in Copenhagen, from EPOMM. 2016



A general lack of signage along cycle paths means that newcomers to the city are often forced to rely on their own methods of navigation. A coherent signage system would enable the city to be perused effectively by tourists, and could incorporate smart city initiatives to provide an interactive experience through digital cycle path totems. This could further enhance the city through providing information on congestion and weather conditions that might be valuable to commuters, and could be provided alongside water fountains for refreshment at key crossroads and transport nodes.


Before more cycle use is encouraged however, the city would do well to provide more cycle parking. This will ensure that the bicycle remains central to the identity of Copenhagen, and that it continues to structure and characterise the quality of the city, whilst also helping reduce the ‘clutter’ of bicycles at central locations.

Travel Times

The strategy for cylcling in Copenhagen outlines several key objectives to help promote further cycling, including reducing travel times in the city “Travel times are a central parameter for competitiveness, regardless of which type of transport you are dealing with” 6 .This will be done through introducing shortcuts, and through the introduction of contraflow cycling on one way streets.

Cargo Bike Parking

Along with refinements and widening to paths that makes it easier to conduct conversations while cycling without disturbing people wishing to overtake, plans also exist to enhance  the provision for cargo bikes, as nearly 1 in 5 Copenhagen families has a cargo bike. 6


cycling in Copenhagen

Cargo bike parking from Cycle Hoop




1. Copenhagenize Design Company [Accessed 14 July 2016]
2. Census. 2014 Modes Less Traveled—Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008–2012 [Accessed 14 July 2016]
3. 2012. Cycling in Copenhagen [Accessed 14 July 2016]
4. City of Copenhagen. 2010. City and Traffic [Accessed 14 July 2016]
5. Cycling Embassy of Denmark. 2016. The Danish National Cycling Fund has been spent – Cycling Embassy of Denmark [Accessed 20 July 2016].
6. 2011. GOOD, BETTER, BEST THE CITY OF COPENHAGEN’S BICYCLE STRATEGY 2011-2025 [Accessed 20 July 2016].