A Better World Is Possible:  Creating Towns That Are Bicycle Friendly

Commuters cycling in Copenhagen. Photo: Febiyan on Unsplash

At a recent presentation on how Amherst sets its road repaving priorities Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) asked about ways that we might make our bike lanes safer and also about the prospects for creating more of them.  The upshot of the answers was that creating safer bike lanes (e.g by adding reflective striping or rumble strips, or barriers/dividers to separate cyclists from motorists), or adding new bike lanes, while desirable, is quite an expensive proposition that could undermine a road repair budget that is already stretched thin.  

The conclusion that doing more for bikes is just not fiscally feasible at the moment, might make sense if you accept the status quo – that improving roads for motorists ought to be the top priority.  But I’ve been reading about cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark where cycling amenities are often prioritized over motorist amenities.  And as a thought exercise, I tried to imagine what our streets might look like 10 years from now when our town will be half-way to net zero and where we should expect the use of private cars to have been significantly reduced and  replaced by mass transit, cycling and walking. And as a further thought exercise I tried to imagine what making our town more pedestrian and cyclist friendly might look like. I personally find the prospect of cycling into town from my home on Dennis Drive, via Route 116 to be terrifying.  Is there a way that we could make our cycling routes more inviting and more safe?  Can we imagine a network of paths and trails that would allow cyclists to traverse town, mostly without having to compete with trucks, cars or busses?  Could we, for example, create bike lanes separated from traffic, which have proven to be considerably safer and more inviting in other municipalities? Could we dedicate some streets to cycling exclusively?  Could we convert some of our streets that are too narrow for a bike lane to one way only for motorist traffic to make way for a wide and safely separated bike lane?  What would traffic flow look like in our town in a future where personal car use is greatly diminished but bicycle and pedestrian traffic have greatly increased?  We might get some idea by looking at some European cities where more than half the population commutes to work by bike.

There are a lot of good stories out there about efforts by cities and towns to make their communities more bike or pedestrian friendly.   A few months ago we posted a guide on how to create walkable towns. This week, we’ll take a look at cycling. Below you’ll find a short story on Copenhagen, one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world. Following that article are some links to additional pieces on the subject. Collectively, these reports illustrate that with a bit of imagination, purposefulness, and capital investment we can facilitate a transition away from transportation dominated by the burning of fossil fuels.

The article Copenhagen: More Than Bike Lanes, by Joe Cortright, first appeared in Strong Towns on August 16, 2019. It was originally published in City Observatory a week earlier in 2019. It is reposted here under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Copenhagen: More Than Bike Lanes
Strong Towns member Joe Cortright runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. This post is republished from City Observatory with permission.

The Los Angeles Times has a gushy article—“Copenhagen has taken bicycle commuting to a whole new level“—extolling the virtues of cycling in Copenhagen. What with a vast network of bike lines and even bike-superhighways, and a robust public commitment to making cycling a viable transportation alternative, the Danish capital is a model of how to free a city from domination by cars. Long a leader in this endeavor, Copenhagen continues to build on its success: fully 62 percent of commutes are by bike, up from 36 percent just seven years ago.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, and for good reason Copenhagen stands as a model of how a prosperous Western city can consciously undertake policies that lessen its reliance on automobile transportation, and reduce carbon emissions and other air pollution, by making it easier and more convenient to get around by bicycle.

The LA Times chalks up Copenhagen’s success to a combination of political leadership and public investment—about $115 million in cycling infrastructure in the past decade. Copenhagen has on-street bike lanes, dedicated bike boulevards, and even bike- and pedestrian-only bridges. Cycling has achieved social and cultural critical mass. People of all ages, different genders and social stations ride their bikes: cycling is not the exclusive province of the athletic, the young and the spandex-clad. And most everyone rides some variant of the simple, upright single-speed black city-bike.  As an occasional visitor to the city, its a joy to rent a bicycle and use it as your primary means of transportation.

For those who have made the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, and come away with a romantic vision of re-making their auto-dominated city into a more bike-friendly place, there’s a lot than can be learned. While leadership and infrastructure are certainly keys to building a bike-friendly city, too many re-tellings of Copenhagen’s success leave out some of the most important ingredients. Aside from a reference to parking violations costing as much as $80, the LA Times article spells out none of the details about how car travel is priced in Denmark. A close look at the specific policies for taxing and pricing of cars and fuel, and promoting dense urban development, are key to understanding why Copenhagen has been so successful.

“Public policies that ask car owners to take greater responsibility for the cost of roads and emissions, and the conscious decision to build housing at much higher densities, make cycling in Copenhagen more attractive and feasible than car travel for many trips.”

Like most Western European nations, Denmark imposes heavy taxes on gasoline. The typical price of a liter of gas in Denmark today is about 10.70 Danish Kronor (DKK), which works out to about $5.70 per gallon (about US$ 0.14 per DKK and 3.78 liters per gallon).  Because of higher taxes, gasoline costs roughly twice as much in Denmark as it does in the US. Cheap gasoline is a strong inducement to own and drive cars.  Expensive gasoline prompts people to make very different choices, both about where to live and how to travel. (Plus the tax revenue is a vital source of funding for bike infrastructure, transit, and a range of public services.)

Also, Denmark imposes a 150 percent excise tax on most new vehicle purchases.  So a basic economy car which would have a retail price of say $20,000 in the US would cost upwards of $50,000 in Denmark. (The tax has been reduced from a previous level of 180 percent.) Unsurprisingly, only about 29 percent of Copenhagen households own cars. Making cars and driving more expensive creates powerful incentives for people to live in places where there are good alternatives to car travel (including transit, walking and cycling), and to utilize these modes regularly.

Finally, its worth noting that the density and ownership of housing in Copenhagen is very different than in US cities. Copenhagen is relatively dense. Nearly 60 percent of households live in multi-family housing. Also, Denmark has a system of tenant-governed social housing. About 20 percent of the nation’s population lives in social housing that is constructed and governed by tenant cooperatives. Cycling is more convenient in higher density communities.

There’s a lot we can learn from the design and operation of bike lanes in Copenhagen, and the lessons about leadership and the need to make investment are real. But that’s only part of the story. Public policies that ask car owners to take greater responsibility for the cost of roads and emissions, and the conscious decision to build housing at much higher densities, make cycling more attractive and feasible than car travel for many trips. As we always stress at City Observatory, the dysfunction in our transportation system stems fundamentally from charging the wrong price for roads. Stories, like this one from the LA Times, extolling the Copenhagen cycling success story shouldn’t leave out the essential role of correctly pricing cars and fuel and building dense housing.

Read More:

What Makes Copenhagen The World’s Most Bicycle Friendly City by James Thoem (for Copenhagezine)

For an article on how Copenhagen implemented bike friendly policies, see the 2021 report from the European Union: Cycling Copenhagen, The Making of a Bike Friendly City.

For a comprehensive plan from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group on creating a bike and pedestrian friendly city, see  How To Achieve a Walking and Cycling Transformation in Your City

Video (13 min):  Utrecht: How This Dutch City Became So Bicycle Friendly

How Cities Can Become More Bike Friendly.  The Netherlands Offers Some Useful Lessons.

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2 thoughts on “A Better World Is Possible:  Creating Towns That Are Bicycle Friendly

  1. One fast comment: the very expensive thermoplastic markings serve as a “straw” man in the fiscal argument. They can also be slippery when wet. A bit of paint is preferred, and frankly – if the town can’t get this together soon – don’t be surprised if “paint your own” bike lanes start to spring up everywhere!

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