A backlash to bike infrastucture in Copenhagen?

Screenshot of The Copenhagen Post

Among planners and bike advocates, Copenhagen is often held up as the apotheosis of a cycling city; a place that “gets it” when it comes to bicycling more than any other city in the world.

But, if an article in The Copenhagen Post (an English-language newspaper), is any indication, there are cracks forming in Copenhagen’s bike-first foundation.

In Dissidents in the City of Cyclists (published last month), the Post reporters paints the picture of a growing backlash against the way Copenhagen city planners insist on giving bicycles such high priority in transportation projects.

Here’s one of the opening paragraphs:

Amidst the fanfare of proposals and newly rolled-out projects for bicyclists, it is sometimes tempting to forget that “the city of cyclists” still has residents who do not want to a ride bicycle, thank you very much. Some Copenhageners still prefer to walk or even – gasp! – drive a car.

The article features comments from the chair of the Danish Pedestrian Association, Mikael le Dous.

le Dous feels like the boom in bike infrastructure and the lobbying power of the 17,000 member strong Danish Cyclists Association has led to a feeling among people who ride that they can pedal the streets wherever they want “with impunity.”

“We started our organisation a little more than five years ago,” le Dous told The Post, “precisely out of frustration with cyclists who violate traffic laws.”

le Dous feels like the numbers of people bicycling combined with their sometimes unsafe behavior is making Copenhagen less livable. “You cannot relax and you have to be alert. You cannot let your children run around…Plus bicycles are a big force compared to old people and children.”

Read the full article here.

I’d love to hear from someone who lives in Copenhagen or who has spent time there. It’s one thing to have push-back to bike infrastructure in New York City, but Copenhagen?!

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Paul
Paul
12 years ago

Let me guess: these are British people doing the complaining? It’s been the city of cycles for 80 years, save for a few decades with reduced use.

noah
noah
12 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Are there many British emigres in Copenhagen or something?

Chris I
Chris I
12 years ago

“You cannot relax and you have to be alert. You cannot let your children run around…”

Interesting. He would feel safer with them playing around 3000lb cars?

Unit
Unit
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris I

I think the comparison is to walking, not driving.

Natty
Natty
12 years ago

This serves to illustrate the underlying issue not bikes, motor vehicles or segregated infrastructure, but good old human nature.

craig
craig
12 years ago

Ever try to take your kids or walking/strolling (or your elderly self) along the Esplanade or the Tom McCall waterfront path? We can experience the frustration of Copenhagen pedestrians right here.

I’m pleased that recent PBOT bike projects tend to think safety-first for pedestrians, where appropriate. I’d love to see much of downtown eventually become car-free, and would hate to see it become more hostile for people on foot at the same time.

Especially in the central city, where bikes share space with people on foot, I’m all for clear laws for walking and biking safetly, and for vigilant enforcement of those laws.

BURR
BURR
12 years ago
Reply to  craig

actually, in most of downtown it’s illegal to bicycle on the sidewalks, and cyclists riding in the street share space with motorists, not pedestrians.

craig
craig
12 years ago
Reply to  BURR

Yeah, my paragraph break was in error. I was referring to a possible future, with a car-free downtown, not the current situation.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
12 years ago
Reply to  BURR

Don’t forget about crosswalks, where a lot of bike v. ped conflicts occur.

Deeeebo
Deeeebo
12 years ago

Natty is correct. Any time you have a user group that feels entitled you are going to have issues. Where I grew up on the east coast cars had the right of way, always. Even walking with the light at an intersection was taking a risk and you were always made to feel apologetic about holding up the car traffic. Now, in PDX, where every intersection is a crosswalk and peds have the right of way, its the other way around. Peds walk counter to signals or jaywalk or whatever they feel like and then yell at the cars (this from 1.5 years doing deliveries in downtown). It seems reasonable that some of this entitlement would exist with Copenhagen cyclists if the emphasis is primarily on them.

Oliver
Oliver
12 years ago
Reply to  Deeeebo

I like this perspective (from someone who grew up out of state). I’ve always been told that pedestrians have the right of way (along with make sure that you look both ways before crossing the street) That is not new here.

noah
noah
12 years ago
Reply to  Deeeebo

As a former East Coaster who still goes back a lot, I can tell you that jaywalking is very rare here as compared to the East, even if it is less rare than it used to be.

Andy
Andy
12 years ago

As a pedestrian first, biker distant second, my annoyances in Portland come down to cars, skaters dowtown, and bikers ignoring stopsigns a very distant outlyer. Have never felt threat from bikers however…

Irving Washington
Irving Washington
12 years ago

In Seattle, you need to be VERY careful when walking on the Burke Gilman Trail. As a cyclist I enjoy the BGT a lot, but I had my eyes opened last year when I took a 5 mile walk on the trail…it scared the dickens out of me. In Renton an old woman walking on the Cedar River trail was run down and killed by a cyclist last year.

BURR
BURR
12 years ago

the trick to feeling safe walking on shared paths is to walk on the far left, facing the oncoming bicycle traffic; if you walk on the right cyclists you can’t see approaching are passing you too closely from behind.

Paul Hanrahan
Paul Hanrahan
12 years ago

Whenever I see people on bikes making careless moves that could hurt others or themselves I am glad that they aren’t behind the wheel of a car making those same poor choices.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
12 years ago
Reply to  Paul Hanrahan

Good point in the on-street scenario. On an MUP, those kind of riders are just as offensive, if less lethal.

wsbob
wsbob
12 years ago

‘Dissidents in the City of Cyclists’ is quite an article. The interviewee doesn’t shy away from using a few hot-button terms to make a point…which probably isn’t the wisest thing to do, but the interview seemed to continue on constructively nonetheless.

Compared to the U.S., society is markedly different in Denmark, and that’s reflected in the article and comments to it. Apparently, it’s more costly to own a car over there, than it is here.

A good point raised in the article, is that Copenhagen and many other older European cities weren’t designed for use of cars, and so use of them in great numbers would pose an insurmountable challenge. In Copenhagen, a large percentage of the population has to ride bikes, because there simply isn’t room on the streets to handle all of the car use that would result if they didn’t ride bikes.

The interviewee, Mikael le Dous, chairman of the Danish Pedestrian Association, lowers the boom on people riding bikes that arrogantly disregard road use regulations and the rights to safe use of the road, of people driving motor vehicles and people on foot alike.

Here in the U.S., in Portland, Beaverton, and the metro area, there are many people that, for one reason or another, cannot ride a bike to get around. They might want to…but they can’t. Planning a well functioning, livable community, and residing within it has to take this reality into consideration.

Al from PA
Al from PA
12 years ago

I spent a week in Copenhagen, then a week in Amsterdam, in late May/early June (2011).

Amsterdam is the big time. Bike lanes/cycle tracks everywhere, fast riders in the lanes, bikes piled everywhere on the streets (half of them abandoned) –and if you get bored with the frantic (but efficient) pace, a motor scooter whizzes past you, in the bike lane, apparently quite legally, fighting for space and threatening to blow you away. Bikes are transparent–you don’t get the sense anyone really likes them, is an enthusiast, etc.–they just use them, the way you use a pencil. And everybody uses them. Of course you have to watch out for bikes at street crossings, the way you do for cars.

Copenhagen has a small(er) town feel, and is closer to Portland in the sense that people seem genuinely enthused about cycling–there are more fixies (than in Amsterdam) and recreational riders, and the Christiania trikes with children in the front box are very common. Children are obviously loved and biking is very much a family thing. People, especially with kids, ride at a very leisurely pace on side streets. I rode all over the city all week and did not note many scofflaw riders–quite the opposite. Danes all are well behaved, very fit, are made of sterner stuff than Americans, wait their turn in line (and make sure you do too), and tolerate dissidence only when it is carefully contained–such as in Christiania, the hippie haven where pot smoking is acceptable (and where the trikes are made). The center part of town is pedestrian only, and I did not see cyclists disrespecting walkers. Riding the wrong way on a cycle track or running a red light in either Amsterdam or Copehnhagen would be a touch suicidal–like driving the wrong way down the freeway in the US.

I think it would be very hard to separate walking from biking in Copenhagen–both are manifestations of the Danes’ overall healthiness and self-reliance.

wsbob
wsbob
12 years ago
Reply to  Al from PA

Al form PA …your observation of Copenhagen regarding people on bikes following traffic regulations and respecting people who walk and drive cars seems to be decidedly different than that of Mikael le Dous. Any thoughts on that?

Al from PA
Al from PA
12 years ago
Reply to  wsbob

Perhaps the difference comes from the fact that Mikael Le Dous is primarily (exclusively?) a walker, whereas I –admittedly only there for a week–both rode and walked. Perhaps a long-time citizen who remembers the days when there were fewer bikes per capita resents the current boom.

On the other hand Copenhagen before WWII was a bike town, period. Very few cars, everyone riding, including chimney sweeps, priests, repair people of all sorts, great grandmothers–there’s a film on You Tube, it’s amazing… Bikes owned the roadways (it’s clear in the film), unlike today, when they are kept on the side, on the cycle paths/tracks.

craig
craig
12 years ago
Reply to  Al from PA

Link to the YouTube video?

Al from PA
Al from PA
12 years ago
Reply to  craig

Oof–It was a Paramount “Traveltalks” travelogue from 1937–this is the (former) site, it’s been withdrawn for copyright reasons. A pity–it was wonderful

Paul
Paul
12 years ago
Reply to  Al from PA

Believe me, they most definitely ride the wrong way on cycle tracks in Amsterdam, and without much problem.

spare_wheel
spare_wheel
12 years ago
Reply to  Paul

awesome.

Josh from Wherever
Josh from Wherever
12 years ago
Reply to  Al from PA

I actually just spent 6 months in copenhagen, returning very recently, and I have to say there was only one accident i heard of, and that came from a cab opening it’s door into the bike lane and into a person. The cyclists rarely leave the designated paths, and I didn’t even see a close call in the 6 months i was there ( I biked very often). I didn’t hear a single complaint about bikes from any of the Dane’s i was friends with

spare_wheel
spare_wheel
12 years ago

“Bike lanes/cycle tracks everywhere, fast riders in the lanes…–and if you get bored with the frantic (but efficient) pace…”

Like.

“Danes all are well behaved…wait their turn in line (and make sure you do too),”

Dislike.

AJL
AJL
12 years ago

Irving Washington, the remark about the BGT may be right on about sunny summer days and lots of people out there…however the comment about the elderly woman killed is misleading. A police inquiry determined that the woman had unexpectedly stepped onto the path in front of the cyclist without looking and the cyclist had no warning she was there. They cyclist was exonterated of any wrongdoing.

wsbob
wsbob
12 years ago
Reply to  AJL

“…and the cyclist had no warning she was there. ” AJL

Did the court court conclude the cyclist had no warning she was there? If you’ve got a link to a story with that info, post it please. Quite a while back, I read three or four news stories about that incident, but not any about the courts ruling. What I recall reading is that a couple people on bikes were riding two abreast, and fast…15mph or more. True, it was reported that the lady made an abrupt side step in the path of the people on bikes approaching from the rear. Consequently, the impact was hard.

The way the story read, they did know she was there, moved to the left of the path to travel around her, but didn’t give the lady sufficient distance in the event she happened to make such an unexpected move. Don’t remember whether or not it was reported that they said they called out to inform her of their approach.

This was a very old person, I think 80’s. Very accomplished and very physically active in her lifetime, a skier, I believe. Just the kind of person everyone using a MUP should anticipate might be using such a trail, even if they cant see them far in advance.

wsbob
wsbob
12 years ago
Reply to  AJL

This morning, I did a little more checking on the death of the older woman on the Cedar River Trail. The stories I mentioned didn’t turn up. Here’s different, shorter one though:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2011652665_apwabikepedfatal.html

According to this story, the person on the bike that collided with the woman wasn’t cited or charged. Note that both people were knocked unconscious, which gives some indication of the speed the person on the bike was traveling as he attempted to pass her.

Here’s an April 2010 Seattle P.I. story about the fatal collision:

http://www.seattlepi.com/default/article/Elderly-Renton-woman-hit-by-bike-rider-on-Cedar-894493.php

Part of what it reports (Cline is the Renton Police Commander):

“…The police department’s Traffic Division is continuing its investigation, including talking to witnesses. … ” “…”We don’t know if the rules of the trail were violated,” Cline said. If someone was reckless, then charges are possible, he said. …”

And here’s a page of Seattle Times ‘letters to the editor’:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/northwestvoices/2011674604_noticketschargesforcyclistwhohitandfatallyinjured83yearoldwoman.html

Bikes are a fine way to get around, with a caveat: people’s irresponsible use of them abuses other people’s safe access to public roads and trails, inevitably leading to backlashes against this mode of travel, even in such a predominately bike travel city as Copenhagen, or Portland.

Al from PA
Al from PA
12 years ago
Al from PA
Al from PA
12 years ago

Ça y est–I found it after all:

http://vimeo.com/16369933

In all its colorized glory, with a –ahem–very dated commentary. The bikes start around 6:14.

Hart Noecker
12 years ago

Some backlash. One op-ed does not a backlash make.

mary
mary
12 years ago

I spent a week cycling in Copenhagen in October 2009 (fall weather, some rain, spending time with local and European cyclists). It’s not a big sample, but I never saw anybody run a red light. To turn left, everyone did the “box” left turn, in which they start across the street, then line up with the cross street and wait for the green. One local bike manufacturer did mention the push-back against additional bike trails into the city — apparently one party was campaigning against another and citing the expense and inconvenience to drivers of accommodating all the cyclists.

9watts
9watts
12 years ago

The article is a bit lopsided. After starting with the “Some Copenhageners still prefer to walk or even – gasp! – drive a car.” quote we don’t hear about cars again. The focus is entirely on the bikers-behave-badly and pedestrians-are-thus-unsafe perspective. The case for a ‘backlash’ would have been a stronger if someone had included statistics. There’s a fair amount of ‘might’ and ‘wouldn’t.’

wsbob
wsbob
12 years ago
Reply to  9watts

The article’s basic question:

“…But does Copenhagen prioritise bicyclists’ needs over those of pedestrians and others?…”

Mikael le Dous, chairman of the Danish Pedestrian Association, says yes. The writer of the story says

“…That success has perhaps led to a bicycle-focused culture, where cyclists break traffic rules – like riding on sidewalks and against red lights – with near impunity. …”

Who is Mikael le Dous? The article introduces him by saying:

“…Amidst the fanfare of proposals and newly rolled-out projects for bicyclists, it is sometimes tempting to forget that “the city of cyclists” still has residents who do not want to a ride bicycle, thank you very much. Some Copenhageners still prefer to walk or even – gasp! – drive a car. …”

This isn’t true only of Copenhagen. It’s true of our area as well. The article doesn’t give Mikael le Dous’s age, but does indicate he’s an older person…I suppose, 50’s or older.

The older people are, especially if they’ve got a disability, or haven’t for one reason or another, been riding a bike for years, the less inclined they may be to take on the challenge of acquiring the skills required to ride a bike in traffic.

People’s bodies aren’t nearly as flexible when they’re older, as when they are young. Their older bodies don’t recover from injury as readily. As people age, the greater chance of falling from a bike compared to falling while walking, can make walking the more appealing choice for traveling about and generally retaining physical condition.

The article is not about how bad are the habits of people riding bikes, compared to those driving cars. The article is about how in Copenhagen, generally…the bike mode of travel has been given priority over both motor vehicle and pedestrian modes of travel, and how this may be contributing to an increased disregard, by increasing numbers of people riding bikes, for people that drive or walk, but particularly for people that walk. People that walk are particularly vulnerable to the comparatively swift momentum of people riding bikes.

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

I think the author brings up a good point. Cyclists need to obey traffic laws just like every other user of the road. If they do not, it is increases unsafe conditions for everyone. It is not too much to ask that cyclists obey the laws and consider other users of the road.

Barbara
Barbara
12 years ago

I spent a weekend in Copenhagen in June this year. When I read a sign about the new bicyclist/pedestrian bridge to Nyhavn that is mentioned in the article, a woman stepped up to me and told me how bad this is for the boaters. She said the boaters are more restricted or less flexible about leaving the harbor because the bridge needs to be raised. Our conversation was limited due to my limited Danish. It seemed very much a “not in my backyard” position. Those new bridges (one has been built 2-3 more planned) are combined pedestrian and bicyclist bridges, no cars. I don’t know how much separation there will be, but it sounded to me like a great concept for alternative transportation modes, as these bridges will significantly shorten travel distances and this way make biking or walking feasible in the first place.
Apart from that, bikers are mostly separated from both cars and pedestrians in Copenhagen and I didn’t notice any problems. Maybe it’s just a sign of the success or maturity of the Copenhagen transportation policies that pedestrians and bikers fight each other and not cars.
As far as elderly people biking, the comments above are very much an US perspective. In Germany and Denmark people of all ages bike, because they have done it all their lives, they do it at a leisurely pace and in street clothes. In the US biking is a sport, in Europe it’s a mode of transportation. In Germany, many elderly women either don’t own cars (just owning a car is much more expensive in Europe), or don’t even have a drivers licence, so that get around by bike or foot as long as they can.