On your bike: What the world can learn about cycling from Copenhagen

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If the world's grandees pay close attention when they land in Copenhagen for December's UN climate-change conference, they might just find the eco solutions they need under their feet, says Robin Barton

Gordon Brown is not known for his cheery disposition, but even he might crack a smile at the sight of a mother pedalling three grinning children to school by cargo-bike in Copenhagen. The Prime Minister will be visiting the Danish capital – where such scenes of urban pragmatism are normal – during the UN Climate Change Conference, which takes place from 7-18 December.

If he were to duck out of the delegates' scheduled "Energy Tour" of wind turbines and refuse incinerators, his perfect day might start at Det Økologiske Inspirationhus (the house of ecological inspiration) in Frederiksberg, continue with an organic lunch at Bio Mio, and conclude over a CO2-neutral beer at Nørrebro Bryghus; were he to have arrived in summer, he might have been tempted to leave his problems behind and join the locals cooling down after work with a swim at the Havnebadet and Copencabana city-centre harbour baths. But even a couple of hours outside the conference hall will reveal why Copenhagen is regarded as one of the most liveable, people-friendly cities in the world.

In fact, so keen are countries from Australia to Britain and America to emulate the clean and green Danish capital that a buzzword has been coined: to copenhagenise. Riding west to east across the city, alongside unhurried cyclists in skirts, sandals and suits, I started out in the Frederiksberg area to discover how 30 years of Danish know-how, epitmoised by locals such as renowned architect Jan Gehl and cult blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen, could help us reduce congestion, increase efficiency and regain a sense of community. (Crime, for instance, is low in Denmark, which has a murder rate of 0.98 per 100,000 compared with London's two-plus per 100,000.) "What I hope visitors take home with them," says Gehl, "is a memory of the happy faces of cyclists and pedestrians moving freely around Copenhagen."

Frederiksberg

Forty years ago, London and Copenhagen had similar ratios of car to bicycle use, and both faced an exodus of workers moving out of the centre and into the suburbs. But after ' the energy crises of the 1970s, the two cities diverged. Danes were restricted in how much they could use their cars and commuters began to campaign for a better infrastructure for cyclists. Today, there are almost 200 miles of bicycle lanes in the city, and 40 per cent of its 1.8 million inhabitants cycle to work. The city has evolved cyclist-friendly policies, such as the Green Wave – a sequence of favourable traffic signals for cyclists at rush hour.

Surprisingly, for a city with as many bicycles as people, Copenhagen's most fashionable bike company began life in London. Ken Bødiker, founder of Velorbis Bicycles, was a consultant at accountancy firm Deloitte in London when the terrorist bombs exploded on the Tube and buses in the summer of 2005 and Londoners hurried to their closest bike shop to get home that evening. "We saw a guy cycling in the rain without mudguards and immediately realised there was a gap in the market," says Bødiker. He'd noticed that his native Copenhagen had something to export to London: a culture of urban cycling. Three years later and Bødiker has opened a flagship store in sedate Frederiksberg and exports his German-made town bikes to the UK, US and Australia.

"I take the bike simply because it's easier," he says, although he will admit that Danes have also been prodded out of their cars: parking spaces are hard to find in the capital and car- registration tax is high (how does up to 180 per cent of the value of a new car sound?). He lends me a Scrap Deluxe, a pepped-up, Dutch-style model with lights, mudguards, a rack and kickstand that counts Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers among its owners, and I set off to discover how Copenhagen is offering a vision of the 21st-century city.

Vesterbro

Once a working-class neighbourhood (the 33-hectare site of Carlsberg's brewery there is being redeveloped over the next 20 years as a sustainable city within a city), hip Vesterbro connects Frederiksberg to the city centre. This is where Gehl Architects is based, just a 15-minute cycle ride along Gammel Kongevej. As I pedal, the nuances of Copenhagen's street design reveal themselves: cobbled pavements run over T-junctions so it is the car driver who feels out of place and is extra alert when turning. Railings and barricades, against which cyclists can be squashed, are absent. Bikes can be wheeled up and down city steps on stone slopes or retro-fitted metal troughs. There are racks and dropped kerbs outside many shops and, most importantly, the wide bicycle lanes along this main artery are slightly raised.

Gehl, now 74, is the closest thing urban planning has to a rock star. Over the past 20 years he has been consulted by cities around the world, from Melbourne, Perth and Christchurch down under, to London, Oslo and New York in this hemisphere, with one simple request: how can our city become more like Copenhagen? Gehl's message is straightforward: "If we wish for lively, safe, healthy cities we must improve public spaces for pedestrians and cyclists."

"We take a people-centred approach," says Helle Søholt, Gehl's partner in the practice. "It is not just about infrastructure but about reconquering our cities," she adds. From Gehl's decades of research, it is clear that the city environment affects how people behave and feel. There are three things that cities wanting to emulate Copenhagen must do to their infrastructure: improve pedestrian and cycle networks; improve the quality of public space to invite behavioural change; and invite people to spend more time out in public spaces.

It is a journey that New York has already begun. In 2008 the city's Department of Transportation (DoT) published the World Class Streets report, which used Copenhagen as a model city for personal mobility and sustainability. Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan acknowledged that the world's best cities are focused on quality of life, with streets designed as "great places for people and not just as utilitarian corridors for vehicles". Gehl's researchers noted that just 10 per cent of pedestrians were young or elderly, even though they represented a third of the city population. Times Square, they worked out, was 89 per cent road and 11 per cent public space. Swiftly, ' the DoT made changes: Broadway Boulevard from 42nd to 35th Street became a public gathering space with protected bike lanes. The annual Summer Streets festival closed a seven-mile route to cars from Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. And the city opened its first public toilet.

Søholt shows me the Public Life, Public Space study the firm compiled on London in 2004. It's the urban planning equivalent of a gruesome slasher flick. To anyone who has experienced the graceful Danish urban environment, the photos of crowds spilling on to roads at bus stops, of elderly people with nowhere to sit, of cyclists duelling with double-deckers and pedestrians balancing along kerbs outside railings are enough to make you wince. The statistics make even worse reading: 30 per cent of Londoners jaywalked, perhaps because the railed-off, staggered pedestrian crossings were so poorly designed. Along Regent Street, Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, there were 74 unnecessary footway interruptions. A lack of dropped kerbs hindered wheelchair users. The typical noise level of a main London street was 70-75 decibels – too loud to hear a normal conversation.

The list of minor irritations grew: narrow footways, poor access, rubbish bags spilling their contents, broken paving, poor cycling conditions, cluttered streetscapes. Signs in London parks read "Keep off the grass" – why? Cyclists were "lured into the city with no coherent paths and no greater observance from vehicles". Indeed, cycling in London was deemed "generally quite dangerous" and only the "skilled, agile and dedicated took up the challenge". To cross St Giles' Circus, the intersection of Oxford Street, New Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road in the shopping hub of the West End, 23 per cent of people used the underpass, while 77 per cent preferred to dodge four lanes of traffic. Gehl's argument is that this chaos is the inevitable product of a chaotic urban environment: "Given the same opportunities, Londoners will make the same choices as people in other cities."

It took a visit to Mexico City this year for Søholt to experience the worst impacts of poor traffic management on physical wellbeing: "You can't get from one meeting to another, you feel like you're getting fatter [as you can't be active outdoors] and your social networks suffer because you can't see your friends. You don't lead a full life."

Melbourne is one of Gehl's most significant successes. From 1994 to 2004, he studied the city and, working with Professor Rob Adams at the city government, introduced major changes to the city's public spaces. Gehl recommended promoting the city's café culture, improving the waterfront area, opening up the historic laneways to pedestrians and adding more urban plazas. After a decade of work, there were 275 per cent more cafés and 71 per cent more people-oriented spaces. Wider, lighter walkways, lined with 3,000 more trees, enticed 39 per cent more daytime pedestrian traffic and 98 per cent more at night. Of course, the city expanded during this time, but more people also returned to live in the inner city (to almost 10 times more apartments). Once a classic doughnut-shaped modern city, in which the centre empties at night as workers return to the suburbs, Melbourne is now regularly rated one of the most liveable cities in the world.

The city

Mikael Colville-Andersen, film-maker and blogger, has chronicled Copenhagen's transformation on www.copenhagen cyclechic.com and www.copenhagenize.com over the past three years. Now billed as Denmark's bicycle ambassador, he has time for a coffee between delivering lectures in Budapest and New York. We take an outside table at Kalaset, a city-centre café popular with students, with Mikael's camera close at hand. His first website, copenhagencyclechic.com, has reached cult status in America and Britain, initially through publishing Mikael's street shots of photogenic Danish women cycling in skirts and heels. "In Denmark," he explains, "bicycles are like vacuum cleaners: we all have one and we all use them every day, but we don't think about them all day, we don't have 10 of them, we don't polish them ' before we vacuum. The bicycle is a tool. It helps me pick up my children and my groceries."

Nobody was more surprised than Colville-Andersen when his site took off, but for those outside Europe's cycling cities, it was a taste of an alien world. In Britain we have been conditioned to believe that cycling is something that can be done only in special places while wearing specialist safety equipment and clothing. Yet here were men, women and children cycling to work or school, looking stylish and feeling safe. It was cycling as transport, not sport.

"We have spent 30 years, not in great haste and making a lot of mistakes, figuring out how to get half a million people to cycle to work each day," says Colville-Andersen. He's no fan of the culture of hardcore cyclists that has evolved in the UK. "Once you get past the cycle subculture and make it mainstream, when you have grandmothers picking up their grandchildren from school on bikes, the aggressive riders become less noticeable. You still get people running red lights here but you just don't notice them." And he believes Critical Mass-style activism is counter-productive: "Is this selling cycling to drivers? No."

The key, it seems, is getting women cycling because only then has cycling become part of the mainstream. A recent poll by Sustrans, the UK cycling pressure group, asked women cyclists what would get them on to bikes and the answer was simple: better infrastructure, more bike lanes. Copenhagen's separate, raised bike lanes with their own traffic signals are a must. And the lesson learnt from Gehl's study is that infrastructure has to come first. Once it is in place, the message, says Colville-Andersen, is simple: "You don't tell them it's healthier to cycle, you don't tell them they're saving the planet, you just say that it is the fastest way from A to B. And they will come."

Getting around Copenhagen has been simplified over the past 30 years, from insurance (stolen bikes are registered by the police and cheques are sent out within a week) to gear. "There are a lot of companies selling 'cycling clothes' in the UK. Is it overcomplicating it, as the sports industry has for 40 years? I think it might be. Open your closet, it's full of cycling clothes. Anything you can walk in, you can cycle in. Let's move on."

Although the bicycle is not fêted or fetishised in Copenhagen, Colville-Andersen does believe it brings intangible benefits to a city. "Just a couple of hundred years ago we were face to face with our fellow citizens. If you're sitting in traffic today you see maybe two or three fragments of people. If you're standing shoulder to shoulder at a red light with 100 cyclists, so close you can smell perfume, that must give some kind of sense of community."

Christianshavn

"Denmark is a nation of old hippies." I'm sitting with Kirsten Brøchner-Mortensen, managing director of Brøchner Hotels, a group of four CO2-neutral hotels in Copenhagen. It's a point with which some Danes, including Helle Søholt, will disagree – especially those who don't approve of the "free state" of Christiania and its infamous Pusher Street on the island of Christianshavn. But it is one explanation for the Danish social and environmental conscience – this is one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the world. Quite apart from that CO2-neutral beer at Nørrebro Bryghus and organic treats at Bio Mio, 51 per cent of food provided in city institutions is organic. The city's harbour, with two bathing areas, is clean enough to swim in. "We are surrounded by water and forest, so we notice the traffic and how it smells," says Brøchner-Mortensen.

There is no great gulf between rich and poor in Denmark, according to Bengt-Åke Lundvall, economics professor at Aalborg university, and no rigid hierarchies at work or play. And then there's the Danish paradox: "We pay the highest taxes in Europe [the highest band of income tax is 59 per cent] yet are the happiest nation in the world," says Brøchner-Mortensen. "From birth to death we have all our needs met so we are able to think about the world and our children; that security is liberating. Good ideas come when you're calm."

Ørestad

The United Nations conference is being held in Ørestad – Copenhagen's equivalent of Docklands – a modern district close to the airport, 15 minutes east of the city centre on the M1 Metro line (get a seat at the front of the driverless trains if you want to see where you're going). In the 1990s, a 500m-wide strip of marshland, three miles long, on either side of the metro line was opened up to development and a procession of spectacular buildings followed. Jean Nouvel's concert hall, swathed in blue fabric, is immediately recognisable, while Bjarke Ingel's Mountain Dwellings, 80 apartments each with a roof garden, won Best Residential Building at the World Architecture Festival in 2008. And Daniel Libeskind is slated to design an entire neighbourhood at the end of the line. I ride the Metro down and walk back, with the sun in my face.

Helsingør

On a free afternoon, the conference delegates should take an S-Train north from Nørreport station along the Danish Riviera to Helsingør – services are so frequent that timetables aren't necessary. The Louisiana Museum for Modern Art in Helsingør, which combines indoor galleries with a wonderful sculpture park overlooking a small cove, is Denmark's most important art museum. Its Green Architecture for the Future exhibition, extended until 18 December, gives a thought-provoking vision of the future of cities. The world's urban population will double in the next 38 years; by 2050, 75 per cent of us will be living in cities. "We face many challenges today, from increasing carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels to social segregation and obesity," Gehl tells me. To be even vaguely inhabitable, more cities worldwide will look closely at Copenhagen as a model for a safe, sustainable, healthy city. "The main thing I have learned from 40 years in planning," says Gehl, "is that many of these challenges can be addressed simply by thinking 'people first' when planning cities. It comes down to what the English architect Ralph Erskine said when asked what it takes to be a good architect: 'You have to love people.'" n

Smoke signals: How the UN conference is shaping up

Representatives of 192 member nations are expected to attend December's UN Climate Conference, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) – though Barack Obama has yet to confirm.

Expectations of a new or amended climate-change treaty are being raised and lowered by competing parties, but Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has set out four principal areas for discussion: How much are industrialised nations willing to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions? How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to limit the growth of their emissions? How will the help needed by developing countries to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change be financed? And how will that money be managed?

Also on the table will be mooted updates to the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in February 2005. It has been ratified by 183 nations, the notable exception being the US. Kyoto commits signatories to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions back to 1990 levels – something the US does not believe is possible.

The Danish government hopes "an ambitious global agreement" on cutting emissions can be forged, although de Boer believes a whole new treaty reflecting the rapid growth of the developing world is too ambitious an aim.

December's meeting will be held in the Bella Centre, a 1970s conference venue in Ørestad. Though it is not the most energy-efficient building, the Danes decided that a greener alternative to knocking it down and starting again was to spend €1.5m from 2007 to 2009 reducing its CO2 emissions by 20 per cent.

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