Copenhagen: A city of SUV cyclists

With 55 percent of its residents cycling to their place of work or education each day, Copenhagen has succeeded in changing its transportation system--and improving quality of life along the way.

COPENHAGEN--The Danes practice what I call green pragmatism .

It's the realization that people, even those who believe in the cost- and health-benefit analyses of going green, are not going to change their behavior unless the new option is both practical and convenient.

Copenhagen is in the process of installing even more cycle tracks, bike paths with distinct barriers from cars, to replace existing bike lanes. Candace Lombardi/CNET
But presented with cool technology in the marketplace and education on why a change might be beneficial, people will adopt new best practices offered to them. It's why the Toyota Prius has become so successful, while things like CFL and LED light bulbs are still struggling .

This is certainly the case here in Copenhagen. The self-described "City of Cyclists" made some very big transit decisions starting in the 1970s, and then spent years of trial-and-error putting those plans into place. Now it's reaping the rewards and offering to share what works with other cities around the world.

Copenhagen boasts that more than 36 percent of people commuting in to the city, and 55 percent of all Copenhagen residents, cycle to their place of work or education every day via 350 kilometers (217 miles) of bike lanes, and 40 kilometers (25 miles) of bike paths, according to Danish government statistics.

Those statistics seemed completely implausible to me for a country where intermittent downpours are the norm for summer, as is snow in the wintertime--until I traveled to Copenhagen and realized two things: first, many residents are not just bicyclists--they also ride tricycles well equipped to carry people and gear. Second, they often ride on cycle tracks delineated by curbs, not bike lanes by U.S. standards.

Seeing these two distinctions in person explains the cycling phenomenon. The Danes didn't completely change their habits in exchange for cleaner air or reduced energy consumption; they developed technology to accommodate how they already lived.

While U.S. cities and towns have been embracing cycling in recent years, many bike lanes are still designated by nothing more than painted lines wedged between the lane for cars and parked cars. Often, bike lanes begin and end haphazardly, making navigation difficult and dangerous for cyclists . It can also seem dangerous to city drivers who fear hitting cyclists or other vehicles as they swerve to avoid them. Rogue cyclists add to the difficulty by running traffic signals or riding toward oncoming traffic.

Cycling in Denmark is a different game. Copenhagen, like several Danish cities and towns, has cycle tracks, as well as bike lanes. Cycle tracks are biking-only roads delineated by a curb or barrier. On many Copenhagen roads there is the car lane, and to the right of that is a cycle track about four inches above street level. To the right of the cycle track is a sidewalk. Pedestrians do not walk on the cycle track except to cross as they do the car lane at intersections. Cyclists must ride in the correct direction of traffic and obey traffic rules just like cars, or be faced with traffic tickets. Some intersections even have mini-traffic lights specific to cyclists.

The second thing that distinguishes cycling in Denmark are the cycles themselves.

While I've seen many people tooling around Copenhagen on bicycles, I've seen just as many, if not more, people on cargo trikes.

Cargo trikes are tricycles for adults with a large amount of cargo space and rain protection for packages, dogs, and kids. The cargo beds, which commonly contain a forward facing bench seat, are located at the front of the trike so that people peddling can keep an eye on whatever, or whomever, is in it. The trikes I saw were outfitted with things like upholstered seats, car seats for kids, side doors for dogs, canopies, rain shields, and even hard tops.

The practical little vehicles explain how so many Danes can get around by bike. Having stable, three-wheeled cycles that are easy to balance, compared with bicycles, also explains how Danes continue to cycle into old age.

Several Danish companies have been making these SUVs of the bike world for almost 70 years to accommodate the needs of people trying to get to work and traveling with kids. Recently, they've been enjoying a renaissance with exports to Europe, and even some to the U.S. Danish cycle manufacturer Nihola, for example, exports its "hand-built" bikes to Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the U.S.

Cargo trikes here range from the very fashion-forward to the self-made. Online there are dozens of blogs dedicated to the cargo bike lifestyle and several collections of cargo trike photo galleries on various photo-sharing Web sites.

Of course, this phenomenon didn't just happen overnight. It took years of Danish government planning and investment to include curb-delineated cycle tracks and bike lanes, as well as capital investment in bicycle and trike manufacturers.

The first cycle track was installed in 1920, and additions are ongoing. Today, it costs about 8 million Danish Kroner ($1.5 million) to construct 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) of cycle track in a city, according to Danish government statistics.

I asked one Danish triker how the government was able to push the adoption of bicycle culture and get support for spending millions to renovate many Denmark cities into bike havens. She pointed out that everyone absolutely hated the traffic and pollution and added that the country saves money on health care due to increased exercise and decreased air pollution. Copenhagen, in particular, has seen a drastic reduction in traffic as a result of the switch. The "Copenhagen supermum," as the fashionable Danish working women with young kids on trikes are affectionately called, had a good point.

Even factoring in the cost of treating cycling-related injuries, Copenhagen saves an average of 1.7 million Danish Kroner (about $325 million) a year in health care costs per year for a population of about 1.2 million, according to the Copenhagen Bicycle Account 2010 (PDF). That's attributed to the decrease in air pollution because of fewer cars on the road resulting in fewer respiratory-related health issues, and an increased general health among its citizens.

The Danish National Board of Health recommends 30 minutes of physical exercise a day, which it says statistically extends a lifespan by five years and keeps people healthier longer into old age. That 30 minutes, of course, can easily be met by cycling daily.

The Danes have been capitalizing on the positive results by branding Copenhagen cycling culture, or what it calls "Copenhagenize," in its tourism marketing. It seems to be working. Several major magazines and Web sites have named Copenhagen as a top tourist destination, best place to live, or best place to bike in 2010.

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About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.

 

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