Bicycle-friendly Copenhagen tries to ease crowded lanes

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Source: Worldwatch Institute

Ole Skram, like some half a million other Copenhageners, rides his bicycle to work. Yet his commute is particularly unique: recently, Skramequipped his three-wheeled bicycle with an espresso machine. 

The simplicity of cycling through Denmark's capital city hasled several entrepreneurs to begin food delivery businesses on their bicycles. Sushi, ice cream, even cocktails can be ordered from a cyclist.

'It's like brushing your teeth and combing your hair; it'sthat easy to bike in Copenhagen,' said Lasse Lindholm, a campaign officer withthe Department of Traffic's cycleprogram.

But cycling's popularity comes at a cost. Bike lanes arequickly filling to capacity. As the city strives to reach cycling rates of 50percent, transportation officials face a problem that few other urban areashave confronted: bicycle congestion.

In the Copenhagen metropolitan area, more than a third ofresidents pedal their way to work. With bicycle lanes that crisscross the cityand bicycle bridges spanning many roadways, cyclists can often ride with ease.

Yet more cyclists are complaining that cramped lanes pushthem closer to cars or buses. A 2006 DanishTransport Research Institute poll found that 47 percent of cyclists feelunsafe riding on Copenhagen streets. A decade prior, 40 percent expressed suchconcerns.

'More parents don't want their children to ride,' Lindholmacknowledged.

The rising insecurity comes as cycling injuries are on thedecline. Thenumber of cyclists killed or seriously injured [PDF] in the city fellsteadily from 252 in 1996 to 92 in 2006. The number of fatalities have fallenas well, from six in 2006 to five last year and none so far in 2009.

Copenhagen has set a goal that 80 percent of residents shouldfeel safe when they bike through traffic. Several intersections andparticularly congested bike lanes are being redesigned to achieve the safety target.

In addition, city planners are adjusting traffic lights on bike-heavyroadways to enable high-speed cyclists to pass without stopping at a red light.The measure, known as a 'greenwave,' also prevents slower cyclists from clogging bike lanes.

Copenhagen's busiest cycling street, Nørrebrogade,implemented the first 'green wave' in 2007. Cyclists who ride at a speed of 20kilometers (12 miles) per hour avoid the traffic lights.

City safety officials have supported the 'green wave' forits ability to minimize dangerous interactions between cyclists and cartraffic. '[Cyclists] can feel safer on the cycle paths when it is not worth theirwhile to rush,' the city council said in a 2008 statement.

'Green waves' have since been implemented on two more roadsin Copenhagen. The Dutch capital Amsterdamand the Danish city of Odense have also updated their traffic lights tofacilitate cycling.

'It's a very cheap thing to do,' said Lise Bjørg Pedersen, apolitical consultant for the Danish CyclistFederation. 'All it takes is political will.'

Across Denmark and Germany, about 20 percent of trips aremade by bicycle. Ridership is slightly higher in the Netherlands and China, at anestimated 30 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

Many countries are experiencing a rise in bicycle popularityas gasoline prices increase and as riders seek to incorporate physical exerciseinto their commute.

In Copenhagen, however, few cyclists have switched from carcommuting out of a desire to reduce their carbon footprint, Lindholm said.

'Less than 1 percent of Copenhageners say they bike for theenvironment,' he said. 'They do it because it's easy and it's fast.'

Reporting for this story was made possible courtesy of funding provided by the German and Danish foreign ministries.

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