Copenhagen bicycle “super highways” push regional cooperation to a new level

Denmark's capital city joined with 21 of its suburbs to create a common vision on how to get commuters out of cars and onto bikes. (Cycle Superhighway, Copenhagen Region)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Each weekday morning here, hundreds of commuters in the municipality of Furesø get on their bikes for the one-hour ride into Copenhagen.

They can ride quite fast on the first stretch of trail, a straight path between quiet forest and noisy roads. Later, bikers pass blocks of drab council housing and a lake area with lots of geese before arriving in the bustle of the Danish capital. Here, the path is thick with cyclists, not just the long-distance commuters but also girls with flowers on their bike baskets and parents hauling kids in bicycle trailers.

This is Route C95, also known as the Farum route, one of two cycling “super highways” that have recently opened here. They’re part of a fast-growing network of bike infrastructure targeted specifically at suburban commuters, featuring smooth pavement, good lighting, separation from traffic, safe road crossings, rain shelters and air pumps. A total of 28 routes with 467 km (290 miles) of cycle paths are planned. Eleven of these will be ready by the end of 2018.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that Copenhagen, world famous for its bicycling culture, is up to something big with bikes. What’s less well known is how Copenhagen’s latest innovation happened. It’s a remarkable story of regional cooperation, forged by one big city and 21 of its smaller suburban neighbors, who came together around a common vision for moving commuters from using their cars to riding their bicycles.

“Cyclists know no borders,” says Furesø Mayor Ole Bondo Christensen, who is an avid bicyclist himself. “For them, a coherent and reliable infrastructure is important no matter which municipality they pass through.”

Targeting congestion

Ironically, this regional success started with a failure. Back in 2007, city leaders in Copenhagen began looking for a way to reduce automobile congestion in the city center. They aimed to do what London and Stockholm did around the same time: create a “congestion charge” on cars entering the city.

Protests kicked up from the municipalities around Copenhagen. Their citizens would be particularly burdened by the extra cost to go to work or do other errands in the city. The project was dumped.

In the Copenhagen region, 28  commuter bicycle routes, covering 467 km (290 miles), are in the works. Routes in dark orange are completed, light orange are funded and gray are planned. 

With no congestion toll in sight, Copenhagen decided to tackle the problem from a completely different angle. Instead of deterring driving, why not encourage biking?

Planners were starting from an enviable position: In Copenhagen, nearly 60 percent of all trips of less than 5 km are already made by bike. However, for trips of more than 5 km, that falls off to 20 percent. Nudging that number up to 30 percent would equate to more than 50,000 more trips per day by bike. That would go a long way toward relieving congestion and helping Copenhagen meet its pledge to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025. All that exercise also would have a positive impact on public health.

Another plus was existing infrastructure. Most municipalities in the Copenhagen region already have local bike paths. But they’re of varying quality and don’t link up in straight-enough lines to make long-distance riding efficient and attractive to daily commuters. A 2008 survey of commuters showed that one in three people who normally drive would switch to a bike if there were more direct bicycle tracks with a consistently high standard of quality from one municipality to the next.

Joining forces

In some ways, the bike plan benefitted from the failed attempt at the congestion charge. For one thing, it was more of a “carrot” than a “stick” so the suburban communities were more open to it. And although the congestion charge didn’t work out, it created a dialogue between Copenhagen municipal officials and planners from around the region. It wasn’t hard for Copenhagen to approach them with the idea for the cycle super highways.

“We had a very good collaboration during the talks of the congestion toll,” says Maria Streuli, who headed the project throughout the concept and first development phase. “Particularly at the civil-servant level.”

With the commuter survey in hand, the Copenhagen Mayor for Technical and Environmental Administration invited civil servants from the suburbs to a meeting to discuss the possibility of developing a concept for better cycle ways. The approach sent a clear signal: This was to be a joint project among all the municipalities, and not just a project steered by Copenhagen.

“If Copenhagen municipality had made the concept on its own and just presented it to the other municipalities, it wouldn’t have worked as well,” says Streuli.

Furesø Mayor Ole Bondo Christensen: “Cyclists know no borders.” (Furesø Municipality)

The reaction was very positive — almost every municipality in the region sent a representative to the first meeting. Afterward, a group with planners from the 22 municipalities started to develop the concept. There was some amount of peer pressure among at work, Streuli says. “The others are doing it, so they feel the need to act as well,” she says.

One result of all this participation is that the cycling network includes a number of suburb-to-suburb routes. It’s not all hub-and-spoke routes radiating out from Copenhagen.

If inclusiveness was one goal, another was to dream big. Streuli didn’t want the original vision to be hampered by worries about cost. This freed the planners to develop innovative ideas like timing stop lights at road crossings to favor bikes rather than cars. Another idea was to include “conversation lanes” wide enough for two people to ride side-by-side and talk.

“It is very important to have a thorough description of the ideal solution,” Streuli says. “Municipalities who might start out with a less-than-ideal solution can turn to the ideal solution if the project is a great success.”  

Support isn’t unanimous

Of course, cost concerns did come into play as planning turned toward implementation. The municipalities surrounding Copenhagen include some of Denmark’s most affluent areas as well as communities plagued by youth unemployment and social-care costs. Should money for cycling infrastructure come at the expense of funding for daycare or schools?

“Some municipalities said they’d never be able to afford the project,” Streuli says. “Whereas others said that we could not talk of cycle super highways without actually making them super.”

One municipality just south of Copenhagen called Tårnby backed out of the bike plan in 2011. Officials there had budget cuts to make and decided they wanted to prioritize buses over bicycling. That decision had ripple effects in the next municipality out, known as Dragør. Officials there supported the bike plan but decided it made no sense to participate if Copenhagen-bound cyclists would lose their trail going through Tårnby.

To encourage municipal participation, a cost-sharing structure was set up. Municipalities only pay half of the construction costs. That’s a better deal than they are used to, as they normally pay for all of their own bike infrastructure. Most of the other half is covered by a subsidy from a national fund for supporting bicycling.

“For us, the project was a win-win,” says Mads Christiansen, head of traffic planning in Lyngby-Taarbæk, a suburb north of Copenhagen that is due to get a route in 2017. “By joining the cycle super highway project we get financial support from the state to build a very crucial bicycle path.” (For more on Lyngby-Taarbæk, see this story.

A six-person secretariat was also set up as a neutral body to administer the project. Each municipality pays an annual fee to support the secretariat’s work. Since the fee is based on population, Copenhagen pays the largest share by far. For a municipality like Furesø, with 39,000 people, the fee is DKK 26,000 ($4,400 U. S.)  The Capital Region of Denmark, a regional government primarily responsible for running hospitals, also helps fund the secretariat.

Policy is set by a steering committee made up of executive-level civil servants from all participating municipalities. That committee is chaired by Copenhagen and meets three times a year. A project group consisting of traffic planners and other more technical people meets four times a year.

Local leeway

Furesø is very enthusiastic about the cycle super highways. Two more routes are under construction here, in addition to the C95 Farum route, which opened last year.

Nobody is more excited than Bondo Christensen. The mayor pedals from his home to town hall each day, making part of the trip on the new path. He wishes that route had been in place during his previous job.

“Before I became mayor in 2010, I worked in Copenhagen some 20 kilometers away,” Bondo Christensen says. “I very often went by bicycle. The state of the bicycle path made it very clear to me that an upgrade to cycle super highway was necessary.”

While the regional plan is aiming for consistently high-quality bicycling conditions and a common brand (route signs are marked with a white “C”), it’s not necessarily trying to standardize the infrastructure everywhere.

Citizen input inspired Furesø  to light its section of the Farum route with small light diodes. (Peter Hovmand, Plot Foto)

Where Copenhagen might focus on widening bike paths to accommodate dense bike traffic, Furesø focused on upgrading lighting. (One stretch in Furesø traverses a dark forest.) Citizens were asked what kind of lighting they liked. They chose what at the time was a new technology: Small light diodes embedded in the road surface. The choice has proven popular with cyclists. It also gave the Farum route a twist, telling riders that something new was happening on the existing bicycle path.   

As the regional network is built out, cyclists will experience a bit of a patchwork. One 50 km route from the municipality of Frederikssund to Copenhagen won’t open until 2017, but the outer stretches are almost ready. For the time being, commuters there experience a high-quality path that comes to an abrupt stop. The secretariat is working on ways to inform bicyclists about work in progress. 

In terms of maintenance, the municipalities have made a joint agreement. Each municipality is responsible for running and maintaining its part of the path, in close dialogue with the other municipalities and the secretariat. One of the most important parts of this agreement is that shoveling snow on the paths gets first priority in all municipalities, just like any highway would. This is meant to ensure that cyclists don’t encounter clear paths in one suburb only to find the route impassable in another.

In Furesø maintaining the cycle paths has just as high priority as maintaining the roads — and the municipality gets praise for the high level of maintenance from the bicyclists. When asked how much Furesø spends on maintenance on the cycle super highway, Mayor Bondo Christensen sounds a little surprised.

“It is a very small amount of the budget,” he says. “And the money is very well spent on securing a better climate and healthier citizens.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct an earlier mistake in how the cost-share arrangement for construction is described.  

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Annemarie is an editor and journalist based in Copenhagen mainly working with subjects related to politics, green technologies and society.  Full bio

LEARNING FROM COPENHAGEN

  • Copenhagen approached its suburbs to create a bicycle “super highway” plan together.
  • Municipalities pay only half of construction costs. A national fund pays most of the rest.
  • A secretariat acts as a neutral body to administer the project and is partly funded by fees paid by municipalities according to their populations.
  • Municipalities have flexibility in terms of how they upgrade facilities to meet “super highway” standards.

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