Copenhagen II: What Separates Us is Our Separated Bike Lanes

Part Two: What Separates Us is Our Separated Bike Lanes In our last post we began to explore some of the ways that Copenhagen’s bike culture differs from the United State’s and how, if we are to “Copenhagenize” our bicycle culture—something that many, though not all, local cyclists desire—certain assumptions will need to be re-thought.

One of the most difficult values to rectify in bringing Danish practice to the U.S. is that American cyclists must follow the same traffic laws as automobiles…in fact, US bicyclists have fought to establish and defend these laws for decades.

For example, in Copenhagen bicyclists are required to use cycletracks wherever they exist, and citations are a real possibility for those who choose to ride in traffic with the cars and buses – to ride as U.S. laws allow.  Left turns from most cycletracks require waiting two signal cycles – one to cross the street moving straight ahead, and then across the street to the left on the next signal.  Moving to the left turn lane to make a turn on the next available signal is illegal.

To their credit, Copenhagen’s civic authorities are keenly aware of the limitations and dangers associated with separated right-side bike facilities.  The city has done a thorough job of adding bike boxes in advance of stop lines, introducing advance green cycles at major intersections – green for bikes first, then transit, and finally general traffic.

Traffic Lights with Bicycle Prioritization

More recently, the City has added flashing in-pavement lights extending through intersections to alert right turning motorists of the presence of riders in the cycle track.  It’s impressive technology, to be sure – and necessary due to the vulnerabilities of bicyclists riding in that particular location on the right of way.

Law & Culture

This system works in Denmark for a number of reasons – most relating to Danish culture generally and not so much to “bike culture.”  As with so many ancient cities in Europe, compact land use patterns are very conducive to cycling, and trip distances for the Danes are generally shorter than for their American counterparts.  So, who needs to rush and blow through a light?  The Danes will be the first to tell you that they put a huge cultural emphasis on civil obedience and not “standing out” – it’s all about we and not me in Danish society.  Accordingly, adhering to rules and regulations that would send US cyclists to the ramparts are perhaps more easily accepted.

So, we are fast, hard riding rugged American individualists and the Danes are subservient sheep?  Not really. But their urban form, culture and topography certainly helps the odds for making easy cycling a useful means of getting around.  Our cities (and perhaps Seattle in particular) require more effort from the bicyclist, which likely places a limit on the potential population of riders, and perhaps creates more of an identity of our cyclists as, well, cyclists.

Does this mean there is no place for cycle tracks in Seattle?


Our trail system (300 miles in King County alone) remains an enormously popular place for a broad spectrum of the public to cycle – for perceived safety, lack of hills and a generally pleasant environment.  The Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River Trails (and so many others) generate new bicyclists in our region on a constant basis – these users seek the same characteristics in their rides as the Danes experience on their cycle-tracks.

A one-track mind

What made this trip so interesting and timely is that we have heard a growing chorus of local urbanists advocating a similar cycletrack approach for Seattle. US bicycle practice has been built (with strong support from local and national bicycling advocates) upon a foundation that the bicycle is a legal and accepted part of the on-street traffic mix. With that background, solutions mandating the use of separated parallel facilities has been discouraged for years.  The Denmark model would seem to fly in the face of such a philosophy, and might stand to antagonize or alienate the very urban constituency that has fought for bike lanes, better access to transit, regional trails and other bicycle infrastructure.

If we look both at the design characteristics of Danish facilities and the real-world realities of cycling in the US (and Seattle) then some lessons emerge that point the way:

  • The Danes have emphasized cycle-tracks on their busiest arterials, and spent accordingly on the technological fixes in these locations.  The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan identifies a number of similar streets here “for future study.”  Many of these corridors (such as Westlake Ave between Fremont and South Lake Union) are flat arterials that wouldn’t involve any loss of parking spaces.  In fact, the busier the street, the better the benefit of the trade-off between “vehicular freedom” and the desire to encourage new riders.
  • If installed, new cycle tracks should focus on areas of high residential or employment density, good to excellent transit access, and, if possible, areas with a surplus of available on-street parking – as there will almost certainly be issues with merchants over the loss of what they often consider a critical resource.
  • Whatever we do, we probably can (and certainly must) do a better job of preserving safety and mobility for pedestrians than is the case on many of Copenhagen’s cycle-track corridors.  Oddly, it seems that the space for the tracks came equally from the vehicle lanes and sidewalks in a number of locations surprisingly close to downtown. That simply would be unacceptable in Seattle.

Done properly, cycle-tracks can serve close-in urban neighborhoods (Eastlake, South Lake Union, portions of Capitol Hill) and areas served by high capacity transit (Rainier Valley, 12th Avenue E., the Bel-Red corridor on the Eastside) to encourage new bicyclists without stripping the rights of existing riders.  There is still a place for bike lanes, sharrows and (eventually) bike boulevards, but, after Copenhagen, I am convinced that cycle tracks can and should be a tool in our kit for expanding the benefits of bicycling to a larger portion of the public.

Finally, for a little fun, check out this wonderful video from Portland explaining their cycletrack:

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

Copenhagen: The Cold Cycle

There’s nothing like a family vacation to drop one’s guard a bit and see things from new and interesting perspectives.  Over the winter holidays, my family and I traveled to Copenhagen to fetch our oldest son after his six-month college foreign study ended. The trip provided a great chance to look at four European capitals and to see how they handle bike transportation issues. America's non-motorized advocacy community often laments that our cities do not have infrastructure systems like European cities or that when they do invest in non-motorized infrastructure the bicycle lane remains empty while the culture seems stuck in the 1950s; this was finally a chance to see what "they" do, and maybe form a couple of opinions about how it might work here.

Why can't we be like them?

In 30 years of practice as a non-motorized transportation planner, I have heard almost nonstop from the urban design community – and to a lesser degree from transportation planners – about the remarkable resurgence of bicycling in Copenhagen, particularly the 33% share of commuting done by bike and the series of “cycle tracks” (physically separated bicycle lanes) that accommodate these many thousands of Copenhagen cyclists.

Witnessing it first hand is a powerful experience. While we scurried about the city, the temperature never got above 19F, so instead of seeing tens of thousands of cyclists every day, we merely saw thousands.  It became natural for me to compare our two cities and cultures and to reflect on whether the American urban design community has considered certain distinctive but highly influential differences - in our physical stting, our legal environment for cycling, and even in our cultural approaches to bicycling.

They're just like us, only different...

The riders of Copenhagen struck me as vastly different from American riders.  It’s hard to describe the Danes as “bicyclists” in the same context as American bike commuters.  First, the bikes that the Danes ride are simple and often in relatively poor mechanical condition. Admittedly, when your commute is as flat as billiard table you don’t need much. Still, in a town as self-assuredly cool as Copenhagen, one doesn’t see fancy bikes or hipsters on “fixies.”  In fact, bike theft is seen by residents as a major problem in town and riding fancy bikes is seen by some as an invitation to trouble.  Most bikes are relatively inexpensive - what our experienced riders here might dismissively refer to as "department store bikes."

That stands in stark contrast to our daily downtown commuters in most US cities.  Here we see well-maintained, well-equipped bikes with indexed shifting, triple chainrings, waterproof panniers and riders in full racing regalia; commutes for 8-plus miles one way are common. In Copehagen, we see office workers in full-length wool coats and knee-boots, with rarely a cleated shoe or helmet in sight. Here, riders spin in low gears and move at 16-18 mph on our avenues, hills, and boulevards; in Copenhagen, it is rare to see someone riding more than 10-12 mph.

Advocacy vs Avocation

Our bike culture is one of avocational cyclists – those who ride for the enjoyment, fitness or environmental consciousness that accompanies riding a bike in an auto-dominated environment.  Riding in such an environment requires skill, preparation, and dedication – a certain pride in survival seems a natural by-product for our urban riders.

For the Danes, the bike is not avocational, but rather it is instrumental: a simple, efficient tool to get to work, which may be why it all works so well for so many practical-minded Danes.

Why does this matter? If we are to truly “Copenhagenize” cities like Seattle, we would need to change the transportation system framework in a manner that will cause the very individuals and organizations who have dedicated themselves to creating a better environment for bicycling in Seattle to take serious pause.  Thirty years of dedicated advocacy work is hard to change, without a clear sense of what could be gained or lost.

More on that in the next post.

Bicycling Magazine Says We're #4

Seattle's Number Four!!! The annual Bicycling Magazine list of America's Top 50 Bicycle-Friendly Cities is out, and as always there is a bit of angst in the community about the ratings and what they mean.  (Minneapolis ranked over Portland?  Mon Dieu!) What does it mean to be fourth out of 50?

The honest answer is: Not Much.

It’s great to be recognized for trying to do right by our bicycling community, and Bicycling deserves some thanks for acknowledging the role of the not-so-recently-adopted Seattle Bicycle Master Plan (SBMP) in setting a new course for bicycle facility and program development.  I’ve been here 30 years now, and it is still remarkable to me how many ride in Seattle given both our climate and topography.

What such listings don’t reflect is how far we have to go to meet the goals of the plan, nor how perceptions of what is an appropriate course of action to “promote” bicycling growth ranges across a huge spectrum of rider types and ideologies.  Even during SBMP development, we heard equally from those who want the convenience and directness provided by on-street facilities, while others were just as passionate about the development of separated trails and cycletracks.

Who is right in this battle along the ideological spectrum?  The answer to that question is, of course, yes.

  • Yes to adequate funding of the existing plan.
  • Yes to innovation in implementing new types of facilities.
  • Yes to continued and increased integration of bicycling and walking in transit and general highway retrofits
  • Yes to continued development of our Regional Trail system, which consists of over 300 miles of facilities in King County.

Using these lists to compare cities is a futile exercise in many ways: comparing small college towns with cities in the Midwest struggling to kick start a flailing economy just doesn’t compute.  Lists aren’t meant to be a final word – they instead serve a valuable purpose in keeping the discussion alive, raising the bar, highlighting successes and promoting a vision for the cycling future that is vibrant and relevant. I’m sure advocates in Boulder and Davis will joust about the ratings, but it is nice to have a national magazine recognize the efforts of so many in this city and region to create a better transportation future.

So, may the discussion continue, and may we keep pedaling upward to a better place.