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A look at two of Copenhagen’s vibrant side streets

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Life is very good on Blågårdsgade, a carfree street in the heart of Nørrebro in Copenhagen.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

When it comes to creating a city where mobility and quality of life are put ahead of auto capacity and speed, Copenhagen is a great model to follow. While I’ve spent a lot of time on main streets (it’s hard to stop staring at all the bike traffic!), I want to share two examples of wonderful side streets: Blågårdsgade and Elmegade (gade is “street” in Danish). Both of these streets are directly off Nørrebrogade, a street that has frequent bus service (nearly bus rapid transit) and very high volumes of bike traffic.

I first noticed Elmegade because of its interesting bike lane that shoots north right off Nørrebrogade. Unlike many other streets in Copenhagen, there is no cycle track on Elmegade. Instead, on one side of the street there’s a standard, wide bike lane much like you’d see in Portland. The lane meanders north as it weaves around bike parking corrals and patio seating from the various cafes. This isn’t just by chance. The weaving has a traffic calming effect that keeps the street safe for everyone.

Elmegade is southbound only for people driving cars, but it’s two-way for people on bikes (your wonky friends will call this a contra-flow bike lane). There is no marked bike lane in the southern direction, because that lane is shared by car and bike traffic. The speed limit is 40 km/h, which is about 25 mph. Even with frequent auto traffic, the street feels comfortable and relaxed. This is a great example of a compromise solution that doesn’t exclude either mode; but vastly improves the safety and livability of the street:

Elmegade is full of little boutique shops and cozy food and drink places. The famous Laundromat Cafe is the largest. While I was there, the sun broke out and the entire corner was full of people sitting outside. Elmegade is a success in large part because it almost feels like a car-free, promenade street. It’s quiet and the sidewalks invite casual conversations. When I think of Elmegade, I want to call it a bike street. Bikes are parked everywhere; in designated corrals, on the side of buildings, and often just right out in the street. That’s a little innovation of Copenhagen planners: Instead of installing racks, they simply painted out a section of the street and encouraged people to park their bikes (everybody has a kickstand here). Sometimes bikes fall over, but it’s no big deal. I can’t think of a simpler or cheaper bike parking solution.

The Laundromat Cafe.

At night, the street comes alive with friends riding side-by-side.

A few blocks to the southeast of Elmegade is Blågårdsgade. This is a very special street that I find myself drawn to over and over again. It connects to the much busier Nørrebrogade; but only for people walking or biking. Cars can’t enter Blågårdsgade from Nørrebrogade. The street itself looks and feels like a classic European pedestrian street. It’s narrow and old, five story buildings on each side make it feel cozy and intimate. Like any successful street, Blågårdsgade is full of great little shops and outdoor seating cafes. There’s also a produce market that gives it even more of a bazaar/shopping feel. At one end of the street there’s a large park with beautiful trees and benches. A local told me they do ice-skating in the park in winter months and it’s used for flea markets in the summer.

You see this all over Copenhagen. Friends stopping for a chat while astride their bikes. These conversations would not be possible if people were in cars or on the Metro/bus.

People can drive across Blågårdsgade, but they can’t drive on it. As a result, the street is a popular cut-through for people on bicycles. As I observed it during the afternoon rush-hour, I noticed many families biking with small kids would use it instead of the busy cycle track.

This photo shows several families who have just turned onto Blågårdsgade from the busy and hectic Nørrebrogade.
This photo says a lot about Copenhagen.

While it gets crowded with people on bikes and on foot, it never feels stressful. People are quite considerate and the pace is just right.

Part of what makes the street great is the liberal use of cobblestones. The cobbles are easy to bike over (especially with the wide-tired and comfortable bikes most people have here), and they have a very calming effect on traffic.

And when traffic is calm, people are happy…

These are just two of the many people-friendly streets that are all over Copenhagen. Every time I go out I come across another one. By creating these streets, the City of Copenhagen’s planners and traffic engineers are having an immense positive impact on their citizens’ quality of life. They have managed to create public spaces that function as transportation corridors, while still being vibrant social and economic hubs.

There are definitely streets in Portland where we can adopt some of these concepts. I can imagine NW 13th becoming similar to Blågårdsgade and perhaps a street like SW 9th near Director Park could become more like Elmegade.

Stay tuned for more coverage from Copenhagen. There are lots more images in the photo gallery (sponsored by Pro Photo Supply).