Ecocity Snapshots

Transformation Through Ecomobility

The Cycle Snake is one example of the cycling infrastructure making Copenhagen arguably the world’s most bike-friendly city.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

“Cycling is not a goal in itself but rather a highly-prioritized political tool for creating a more livable city.” That’s a quote from the cycling plan of Copenhagen, Denmark. Human-powered mobility improves health, reduces planet-threatening emissions, addresses inequality, provides recreation, supports local economies, and nurtures compact, diverse communities with shared public spaces. My wife, Adrian, and I got first-hand proof of these relatively obvious benefits in June while visiting Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Paris, London, Antwerp, and Brussels. But I also came back wondering whether ecomobility has the power to change people.

Copenhagen is famous for walking as well as cycling. The city banned cars from Stoget, a shopping street, in 1962. Today, car-free streets radiate from Stoget, creating a ped/bike/people-friendly environment for much of the downtown. In 1980, Copenhagen also banned cars from Nyhavn, a street that has since become a mecca for outdoor cafes and strolling. The city pioneered many cycling infrastructure designs that are now commonplace throughout the world including Cycle Highways which the city has incorporated into all of its main arterials. Residential streets are calmed by speed limits as low as nine miles per hour. Copenhagen now builds bridges mainly for pedestrians and cyclists, with many recognized as architectural as well as engineering marvels. In response, bikes account for almost half of all trips to work and school in Copenhagen.      

Despite being at or near the top of most lists for the world’s best cycling city, Amsterdam keeps on building mind-boggling bike infrastructure. The entrance to the central train station, which previously was a sea of parked bicycles is now a spacious pedestrian plaza thanks to construction of a subterranean (and sub-water-level) bike park with a capacity for 7,000 bikes. The link from the train station to Dam Square has been retooled for walking, cycling, and public transportation. Arterials here include segregated bikeways with their own traffic signals. On shared roadways, bikes have priority partly because of infrastructure design but largely because bikes overwhelmingly outnumber cars here.

Utrecht, a city 35 miles south of Amsterdam with a metro population of 565,000, boasts a 12,500-bike parking structure at its train station, making it the largest bike park in the world. The spacious bikeway leading to this structure is now the busiest bike route in the Netherlands. Over half of residents here visit the city center by bike and the cycling counts are so high that Utrecht is building cycle routes around the center to ease congestion. Utrecht is expanding its network of roadways that involve one two-way car lane flanked by one-way bike lanes in each direction, meaning bikeways account for two-thirds of the roadway. The city is also converting several arterials to shared roadways with traffic calming features and a maximum speed limit of 19-mph. The name of these routes, fietsstraats (bike streets), is embedded in the pavement to remind motorists that they are not the dominant mode of travel here. These bike-friendly streets connect with bike trails that take cyclists to and from the surrounding countryside past farms, fields, and working windmills that still dot the landscape.

In Paris, which the Copenhagenizer Index ranks as the eighth most bike-friendly, large city on earth, almost one million bike trips occur every day. Paris has generated this rebirth of cycling by implementing an ambitious plan to build cycleways in concentric rings surrounding the city center intersected by radial routes linking with cycling infrastructure in adjacent communities to improve the metropolitan network. Parisians have responded by flocking to the newly-liberated roadways like Rue Rivoli, adjacent to the Louvre, where cyclists now outnumber cars for much of each day. Protected bike lanes now link the Rue Rivoli with the Arc de Triomphe, adding an element of multi-modalism to the Champs Elysees, which was already famous for its exceptionally wide sidewalks.

In London, where the largest congestion charge zone in the world makes drivers think twice before bringing their cars into the city center, swarms of commuting cyclists cross the Thames on the Blackfriars Bridge using wide, car-free lanes previously dominated by motor vehicles. Blackfriars is just one of several Cycle Superhighways opened or planned as London aims to reduce traffic congestion, meet climate action targets, and create a more livable city by restoring a more equitable balance in who gets to use the public right of way.

Antwerp uses ped/bike-friendly streets to facilitate car-free mobility from its historic train station into the city center and to cultural, historic, entertainment, and other destinations. Similarly, Brussels has gained attention as a walkable city by removing cars from Grand Place and streets throughout the downtown and by creating a 60 km pedestrianized Green Promenade around the entire city.

Throughout our month in these seven cities, I saw lots of bicycling misbehavior including blowing through stop signs, tailgating, and, or course, pedaling at unsafe speeds. I was both amazed and horrified by the sight of long lines of fast-moving cyclists crossing each others’ paths with only inches to spare, reminding me of a real-life version of the Frogger video game. Yet, despite the speed and daring-do on the part of parents with kids in the cargo bikes and office workers in suits and dresses, I did not see a single cycle crash or even hear a single word of profanity.

Similarly, car drivers in these cities seemed reconciled to coexisting with bike traffic, yielding to cyclists without honking, swearing, or exhibiting any other form of road rage. No doubt the transition from car-centricity was not smooth. I assume that huge amounts of political capital were spent dealing with drivers objecting to relinquishing some of the public space they used to hog. But from my outsider’s perspective, I returned to the car-centric streets of Los Angeles imagining that drivers in these seven cities are accepting, perhaps grudgingly, that bikes and pedestrians have a right to part of the roadway and, in the words of the Copenhagen plan, that cycling creates more livable cities.

So, while recognizing that my “evidence” is limited and purely anecdotal, I am willing to believe that cycling, and ecomobility in general, might actually have the power to change people, at least a little bit.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.