Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

A few small things that make a big difference in Copenhagen

Posted by on May 30th, 2013 at 5:44 am

Copenhagen Day 4-48-60

Riding in Copenhagen is so nice it’s even romantic.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

One thing I’ve learned on this trip is that it’s possible to vastly improve the cycling experience without spending millions on big and fancy projects. As I go through my photos and notes from each day, I’ve started a list of all the little things Copenhagen does to make cycling comfortable and easy.

I think several of these ideas could be adopted and/or expanded on in Portland.

As we build more cycle tracks and protected bike lanes, we will have to figure out a way to sweep them. Copenhagen uses mini-sweepers to keep the cycle tracks clear of debris (they also have mini snow plows):

Copenhagen Day 2-20

Copenhagen Day 2-19

Portland has a fair amount of stairs that happen to be a part of popular cycling routes. Stairs aren’t good for cycling of course; but wheel gutters can help make them tolerable. Unfortunately, we still use a very narrow product that isn’t easy to use. Recently we’ve discussed this issue here on the Front Page via the stairs on the new SW Gibbs Bridge and the stairs on the new Waud Bluff Trail.

Here in Copenhagen I didn’t expect to see many wheel gutters since they’re usually a sign of a lacking bicycle connection. But near the Fisketorvet Shopping Center in the Vesterbro area is perhaps one of the busiest wheel gutters in the world:

Copenhagen Day 2

It connects a new biking and walking bridge with nearly 11,000 bike trips per day with a cycle track (they’re working on a huge ramp project dubbed the “Bicycle Snake” that will connect the two, but it’s not done yet). While the wheel gutter isn’t ideal, at least the City of Copenhagen has installed one that is nice and wide. It works very well. I think we should rips ours out and order some of these…

Copenhagen Day 4-47-59

In order to make bicycling efficient, the City of Copenhagen has created a “grøn bølge” or green wave. This refers to the timing of bike signals. If you ride along at just over 12 mph on most main routes you can “surf a wave of green lights through the city without putting a foot down.” Portland has something similar on many downtown streets (using conventional signals of course), but I don’t think most people even know about it (there are no signs):

Copenhagen Day 4-32-44

Another thing you see a lot here are streets where people can ride bicycles in both directions on streets that are one-way only for driving. These contra-flow bike lanes add a huge amount of convenience to the system.


The sign reads “One Way – Except bikes”.
Elmegade shared and safe

One element of Copenhagen’s street network that I didn’t know anything about before coming here are “walking zones.” Many side-streets have areas that are designated “Gågade Zone” or “Walking Zone”. The few of these I’ve observed are very popular as cut-throughs for people riding bikes. I especially notice a lot of family biking groups riding through them. In Portland there are a lot of places we could make either completely or partially carfree while maintaining bike access. It could create much safer streets while not inhibiting mobility:

Copenhagen Day 4-23-35

Copenhagen Day 4-22-34

Blagardsgade, Norrebro

I realize there are several things missing from this list. On cycle tracks specifically, Copenhagen has built in a bunch of little tweaks that make them great. I’ll round those up in a separate post.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • 9watts May 30, 2013 at 8:06 am

    “it’s possible to vastly improve the cycling experience without spending millions”

    It is not about the money. It is about priorities–and clever design doesn’t hurt either. And I love your inspiring photos.

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    • longgone May 30, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      It is also about a culture that never severed its tie with the bicycle after the 1940’s.

      In the US, were beginning to dismantle street cars systems (politically sponsored by tire company’s) while Europe was rebounding from the war. An old riding friend of mine said that the street car,(with stops) was 2 min faster in an eighty block stretch than driving the same route at the time.
      And that was with far less cars on the street than today, for sure.

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  • Zach May 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Eugene experimented with a car-free downtown core for 25 years. It was an absolute disaster. A street here and there would be fine, but spaces empty of large numbers of people (whether in cars or not) passing through become scary and dangerous. Businesses get less foot traffic and close.

    The south end of downtown has a great car-free area – the PSU campus. It works because tens of thousands of people are walking between classes in nearby buildings every day.

    It also has a horrible car-free area that is safe only because of frequent private security patrols: the area near PSU east of 5th that surrounds high-rise apartment buildings and other sterile construction.

    And the bus mall, even though it’s now open to car traffic, is still one of the least dynamic parts of downtown.

    Simply closing streets is not the answer.

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    • yoyossarian May 30, 2013 at 9:02 am

      I think the fact that the bus mall is largely flanked by sterile high rise office towers has more to do with it’s lack if dynamism than the fact parking and most auto-traffic is restricted. If you look at the areas along 5th and 6th that draw people for reasons other than work they are usually quite vibrant, ie. Pioneer Courthouse Square, the food carts on 5th and Oak (even on weekends!), dare I say the mall, and PSU.

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    • Nick Falbo May 30, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Car Free isn’t a quick fix that is appropriate in all areas. To succeed without cars, a space needs to be successful in-spite of the cars that are already there. There are very few main streets in Portland that are this busy with pedestrian activity. Downtown Eugene in the 70s definitely was not.

      Where in Portland might a car-free zone work? The place has to have a seriously high level of current pedestrian activity, needs to have alternate routes of some sort available, and needs to have good access by non-auto modes.

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      • Miss Forpe Stubb May 30, 2013 at 7:38 pm

        A street that I would REALLY like to see car-less is SW Park between Mill and Montgomery. This would extend the pedestrians-and-bikes zone around PSU, and close a 3-block long loop of slow-moving car traffic, which would really improve the air quality and general atmosphere in that area. There is already a TON of bike and pedestrian traffic (particularly on Farmer’s market days). I seriously believe that more than half the car traffic that moves through this loop is either searching for non-existent parking spaces or just plain LOST.

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    • ScottB May 30, 2013 at 10:02 am

      Car-free zones work as a function of density. The CPH core is dense. In the US where we have densly populated urban cores, car free zones work well. New York, Santa Monica, SFO is moving in that direction. If you count time-based car-free the list is quite big.

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      • Curt June 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

        Burlington, VT and Boulder, CO work well and are pretty low density communities. I also lived in Kalamazoo, MI where IIRC the very first pedestrian mall was built. It has been opened to cars now but is still very ped. oriented.

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    • was carless May 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

      There is a lot of history as to why downtown Eugene failed – its a lot more complicated than you think:

      Eugene opened 2 shopping malls outside of downtown and built a multi-ringed freeway system (Beltline, 126, Delta) in the 60s and 70s that caused the bulk of downtown retailers to flee the core. Eugene then proceeded to bulldoze 80% of its downtown buildings to erect parking garages to compete with the car-friendly nature of the new suburban shopping centers.

      It was only after those actions were taken that they banned cars from a single street in downtown Eugene: broadway. But by then it was too late… everyone had already left the vacant, decaying core.

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    • jeremy May 30, 2013 at 11:22 am

      I agree with “was carfree” in that the Eugene problem is much more complex than closing the street. Broadway has been “opened” to cars for a few years now and that area is still awful. Adding to the complexity already mentioned, Eugene has consistently fought having a shopping anchor come to downtown. Any mention of a national brand (even one that on the balance sheet is pretty good, humane, earthy, etc like Whole Foods) gets stopped at the first breath. Perhaps the issue is density and desired services. In Eugene, look to the campus to understand the way bikes can function–tons of bikes as a result of 1)tons of shops/restaurants 2)tons of residents (dorms, fraternities/sororities, dense apartments) 3)awful parking often farther away than most people live.
      I was nearly car free in eugene from the late 1990s through 2011 (both as a student–very easy, and as a teacher in the local school district–pretty easy) and the downtown core has been a disaster always. It is a mistake to place any causation on the closing of or opening of Broadway.
      I like what Jonathan has to say. Sometimes the small changes make a large impact in the experience. At my office in Portland, there are 4 stairs to get up to the freight elevator (where I can put my bike in the bike room) but I ride a cargo bike, so it is not easy to lift it up the stairs…the result is that I have to walk my bike through the nice, clean lobby of the building to get to the elevator–I hate it because I feel self conscious that others are judging all bike riders as disrespectful of the space, when I am only trying to get to the facility provided for me. Imagine if cars had to drive through the lobby of the building to get to the parking garage…..small changes make big impacts.

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  • Spiffy May 30, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Portland has a fair amount of stairs that happen to be a part of popular cycling routes.

    really? I can’t think of any popular routes in Portland with stairs… it seems to me that any route with stairs in very unpopular…

    perhaps the SW Gibbs Bridge is becoming one? how much bike traffic does it get? I’d rather ride a mile or two out of the way than have to deal with those stairs…

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    • was carless May 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Springwater trail up to the Burnside Bridge is a big one.

      OHSU/South Waterfront up to Lair Hill requires a huge amount of stairs, unless you take the elevator.

      There are a few more, mostly in SW Portland.

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    • Joseph E May 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      41st/42nd Street neighborhood greenway crosses I-84 via a ramp at the south side with 2 turns, but at the north end there are only stairs or a very twisty ramp with 5 switch-backs, clearly designed for wheelchairs. This would be one of my main routes, but I can hardly use it with a trailer or a load of groceries. I carry my bike up and down those stairs to get to the train station almost every day, if I don’t have my kids with me


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    • Reza May 30, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      The stairs on SW 3rd Avenue just south of Market Street (at the entrance to the superblock) are part of my daily commute, and I see other riders occasionally use them too. I think they are the best example of wheel gutters in the city, which probably means that they are against ADA regulations because I have not seen them replicated anywhere else in Portland.

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  • Spiffy May 30, 2013 at 9:16 am

    In Portland there are a lot of places we could make either completely or partially carfree while maintaining bike access.

    yes, like the Old Town/Chinatown street closure that they’re experimenting with… except that for some reason it’s closed to all vehicles, not just cars… I still haven’t seen any justification for not allowing bicycle access on those streets…

    another example is the car-free Ankeny block, which is also vehicle-free by design…

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    • was carless May 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Wait, they don’t allow bicycles? You’re joking! Do they actually ticket people biking?!

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    • Chris I May 30, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Ride-by shootings?

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    • acetracer May 30, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Like it’s difficult to get off and walk 2-3 blocks. It’s aimed at safety, so the drunk masses wandering the streets at those times can walk about the streets and NOT get hit by fast moving vehicles.

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  • Alex May 30, 2013 at 9:41 am

    I would like to point out that they do all of this while not charging a bicycle tax in any way.

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  • dan May 30, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Jonathan, your trip report is making me want to go back to Copenhagen!

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  • Schrauf May 30, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    So people ride through the Walking Zone? Are you sure that is its intended purpose? The sign certainly implies no riding.

    Regarding wide wheel gutters, those are very slippery when wet, even if the metal has traction stamped on the surface like in the example photo. The wider the gutter, but more risk. Only inattentive or stupid people should be at risk of falling down flights of stairs due to such things, but here in America it is too easy to sue for being inattentive or stupid – and win. Maybe a sandpapery coated wheel gutter would be okay.

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    • Joakim May 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      At least in Sweden pedestrian streets/areas allow non-motorized vehicles. However, the vehicles have to move at walking pace and pedestrians have right of way.

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  • Babygorilla May 30, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Are people on bikes in Copenhagen as seasonal / weather sensitive as folks here? There’s a pretty big drop off with last week’s weather just looking at this month’s Hawthorne Bridge numbers.


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  • Dwaine Dibbly May 30, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Contra-flow bike lanes on one-way street help keep bikes off the sidewalks, improving things for pedestrians, too. When I see bikes on the sidewalk in the downtown area where they are banned, it is almost always someone going against the direction of the one-way street.

    “Green Wave” signs downtown might help drivers from zooming from light to light. You can always tell who gets it & who doesn’t.

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  • mezay May 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks for capturing the wheel gutters in photographs. I used the one on the Waud Bluff Trail a couple of times today. It definitely needs improvement to make it more attractive for people of all ages. This Portland Parks & Recreation and PBOT’s opportunity to set a precedence for what a good wheel gutter SHOULD look like. Of course, once the ramp is installed with the rest of the North Portland Greenway Trail, the wheel gutters will not be required anymore.

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  • Sean May 30, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I love the red trike in the second to last picture. Does anyone have any nfo on those?

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  • Chris I May 31, 2013 at 8:01 am


    How are you traveling between cities on this trip? Are you utilizing the train system there?

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