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Copenhagen and Amsterdam are not utopias

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In terms of eco-friendly mobility, the bicycle strongholds Copenhagen and Amsterdam are extremely appealing. Citizens' initiatives and consulting agencies are now attempting to transfer the achievements of the two capital cities to other places.

Commuter traffic in Copenhagen © iStock/Pel_1971

Commuter traffic in Copenhagen © iStock/Pel_1971

When talking about the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, the same names fall again and again: Copenhagen, Amsterdam or on a purely German scale – Münster. Recordings from the afore-mentioned cities show crowds of people, who travel from A to B on two wheels on a daily basis. The official figures corroborate the fact that the car ranks third or fourth as a means of transport. But a mood of change is prevailing in many other cities too. An article to commemorate World Bicycle Day.

Major differences in the means of transport used

The modal split, i.e. the percentage share of the distribution of the modes of transport used for commuter traffic varies significantly from city to city, from country to country and from continent to continent. Even in neighbouring cities the share of pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users and car drivers varies greatly in some cases. There are many reasons for this including also culturally-oriented preferences or it is due to the topographical circumstances of the region. However, one thing is certain: If the infrastructure for non-motorised mobility is in an appropriate state, the citizens prefer to leave their cars at home.

However, the factors that have to be taken into consideration are especially complex in the case of bicycle traffic. Whereas the network of streets and sufficient petrol stations is of primary importance for motorised traffic, the demands for an attractive bicycle environment are of a diverse nature. A vote in the scope of the Tagesspiegel Project Radmesser with just under 5,000 respondents showed that the biggest desires and expectations of the cyclists are associated with infrastructural and political measures.

Cyclists would like more attentiveness

Above all spatial equality is requested. The road traffic regulations apply equally to cyclists and car drivers, however, the former – as narrow bicycle lanes at the edge of multi-lane streets illustrate – only dispose of a small portion of the space available in the streetscape. Accordingly, the aspect mentioned most frequently in the survey was the constructional separation of the cycle paths from the traffic lanes, more space is demanded too.

At the same time, according to the survey, a stricter attitude towards the misconduct of car drivers and a revision of the road traffic regulations is required, especially in the form of new rules for road users turning right and revised traffic light settings. The traffic infrastructure is seen to be poorly adapted to the needs of bicycle traffic. The overriding opinion: Politicians should back the bicycle-friendly city more strongly and not shy away from asserting driving bans and speed limits for the motorised traffic.

Big differences between German cities

Whereas the bicycle as a means of transport in commuter traffic only represents a low, one-digit percentage rate of the modal split in southern European countries like Spain or Italy – 0% in Madrid, Alicante and Naples, 1% in Rome and Palermo, 2% in Barcelona – the situation is very mixed in German cities: The bicycle share in Oldenburg and Münster is 43% or 39% respectively, whereas in Hagen, Stuttgart and Essen the bicycle makes up less than 10% of the road traffic.

In comparison: In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which are commonly known to be two of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, the share lies at 29% and 30% respectively – an outstanding share for densely populated traffic hubs with a huge number of commuters.

Bicycle decisions are to bring about the transformation

In order to also achieve a less motorised modal split in cities with a low share of cyclists, the Bicycle Referendum Initiative – Bicycle Decision for short – came into play in Berlin in 2016. In the meantime, almost one million signatures have been collected in 46 German cities, the initiative has already been wound up successfully in 16 cities. The aim: To get the decision-makers at municipal level to commit themselves to passing laws in favour of a bicycle-friendly urban transport infrastructure.

In Essen, one of the cities with a successful Bicycle Decision, the following issues are on the agenda:

  • Building up a continuous network for everyday bicycle traffic
  • Converting crossings to make them safer
  • Setting up bicycle paths and zones, opening up one-way streets
  • Designing safe cycling lanes on main streets
  • Designing continuous and uniform cycling lanes
  • Expanding the number of bicycle stands
  • Promoting the mobility transformation consistently and transparently

At the present point in time, bureaucratic obstacles still stand in the way of fast progress, however according to Klara van Eickels, co-initiator of the Bicycle Decision in Essen, all of the demands will have been put into practice by the year 2030. That over 25,000 people have signed the Paper, although the bicycle only represents 8% of the modal split, gives rise for the assumption: There is the desire to ride bicycles, the bicycle-friendly infrastructure is merely lacking.

It wasn't a self-starter in Copenhagen either

Initiatives like these are long since not necessary in the Danish capital anymore. However, the fact that it became the bicycle capital has little to do with chance, it was also the product of passionate and tireless civil activism; a little over five decades before the first German initiative.

In the year 1962, the Danish architect and urban planner, Jan Gehl, in the meantime world-famous for his human-oriented transformation ideology, asserted himself for blocking off a street in Copenhagen city centre for car traffic. Concern was expressed from many sides that the restaurant owners and retail shops located there could lose business as a result of the lacking through-traffic. A few weeks later it became clear that the turnovers didn't drop, in fact they increased. Over the following years, the reduction of the automobile infrastructure gained more and more support.

"Copenhagenize" your city

Paired with a process that was based on a slow and inclusive implementation it was measures like these that turned Copenhagen into the bicycle-friendly city it is today. With regards to the aspired mobility transformation, the success story is a secret recipe, which can be implemented as an exemplary business model.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, a blogger at the time, founded the Copenhagenize Design Company, a consulting company for city administration, in 2009. The name already reveals the goal: "Copenhagenize" your city. The company has a long list of customers. In addition to European cities like Barcelona and Strasbourg, metropolises like Toronto and Detroit have consulted Colville-Andersen.

In addition, the company publishes the Copenhagenize City Index every two years – according to Colville-Andersen – the most comprehensible and holistic ranking of the most bicycle-friendly cities on the planet. In addition to the bicycle infrastructure and prioritisation of non-motorised modes of transport, factors like the gender distribution among the cyclists, the relative growth of the amount of bicycles in the modal split and the number of cargo bikes in the volume of everyday traffic are decisive.

At the top of the Copenhagenize City Index: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Antwerp – and Strasbourg, which first appeared on the index in 2015 and which has permanently been able to improve its ranking. Whether or not the ongoing success is related to the cooperation that was initiated in 2017 has not yet been proven. The further rankings can be found here.

The success proves them right

The example of Copenhagen makes it clear: The road to the bicycle metropolis is long and requires a lot of dedication and perseverance. Whether the success can be transferred over to Germany – the country of car drivers – will remain to be seen over the coming years. The success of influential activists like Jan Gehl and bicycle lobbyists like Colville-Andersen proves that the "Copenhagenization" is not impossible. Incidentally: The ten Radmesser (Bicycle Poll) wishes are all incorporated into the programme.