Why Copenhagen's Bike Commute Rate Jumped From 36% to 41% in One Year

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Public Domain. Mikael Colville-Andersen

A somewhat odd factor at play in Copenhagen, starting in 2012, seems to have stimulated a bike boom in the already leading bike city. Bicycle commuting jumped from 36% to 41% from 2012 to 2013, after years of a fairly stable bike commute rate.

What caused the boom? I'm just going to get straight to the point, since I want to jump off of that point and into my own discussion. So, if you'd like to read the tantalizing lead-up to the point, check out Copenhagenize's post before scrolling beyond this pretty photo of Copenhagen bicyclists:


© Mikael Colville-AndersenThe unscientifically proven but seemingly obvious cause of the 5% bike increase is that 17 large construction sites for a new city Metro have made driving in Copenhagen a royal pain in the panties. Somewhat humorously, Mikael Colville-Andersen notes that a number of journalists have gotten the cause of the bike boom very clearly wrong, attributing it to things that don't even fall into the same timeline (new bicycle bridges and traffic calming, for example).

But there's nothing at all surprising about 17 large construction projects and the resulting lack of road space deterring transport in large, space-inefficient cars.

While this isn't surprising, however, it does offer some very important lessons. One is that, if you really want to encourage other modes of transport, part of that is discouraging driving.

When I was the director of a nonprofit focused on "transportation choice," this point came up on a few occasions. The organization was based in and focused on Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville has a wonderful pedestrian mall in the downtown which has been a crucial element helping it to land on the top of "best place to live" lists a few times. But there seems to be constant pressure to let cars cross the pedestrian mall. Why? Well, it's a bit of a pain to drive around downtown, especially when looking for parking somewhere close to this destination. I attended a number of surreal meetings where people said they wanted to encourage biking and walking but then said that it was too hard for people to drive around downtown and find parking there. The point that a place really good for biking and walking can't also make driving super easy and convenient just seemed to fly over people's heads.

Of course, there were members of the community and sometimes of these meetings who pointed out the obvious: a place that caters to all the desires of drivers is not a nice place to bike and walk around.

Many of us love to play the "why can't we all just get along" card. I definitely fall into the spectrum of people who like to avoid conflict as much as possible. However, eating soup with a fork doesn't really work, and expecting a lot of people to bike in a city that does everything it can to accommodate cars, just doesn't make sense. If you want to encourage bicycling, one important thing to do is to take at least a little something away from cars.

Copenhagen is inadvertently doing it right now. (Mikael predicts that once all these projects are completed, biking will drop off to 36% or so again.) Groningen did it when it took direct car routes to the city center away and replaced them with bike routes through parks. If you want your city to really push for bicycling, you sometimes need to take convenience away from cars. Squeezing a bike lane in here or there "where it doesn't interfere with existing car lanes" isn't going to do the trick on its own.