Postcard from... Copenhagen

  • @BawdenTom

Cycling around Copenhagen is a stark reminder of how brutal things can be in London. As cyclists in the UK capital weave precariously between buses and articulated lorries in a daily battle for survival, their Danish counterparts peddle around their city like kings. This Copenhagen biking paradise takes place on a 1,000 kilometre network of totally separated cycle lanes, some of them next to the main road, often with two lanes, and others standing completely alone. Many have their own traffic lights and, in places, a “green wave” traffic system prioritises cyclists over cars by enabling them to travel through a stream of green lights.

Surveying the scene just outside the City Hall that is home to the cycle-mad Lord Mayor and was immortalised by detective Sarah Lund’s frequent visits in crime TV series The Killing, it all seems a bit too good to be true. In the throng of cyclists, I am the 2,658th to pass by that morning, according to a roadside monitor, and it’s still only 9am. Parents cycle by with up to three children in boxes on the front, there are footrests at traffic lights and laneside bins are tilted at a 45 degree angle for easy access. Indeed this last accommodation may be a bit too much even for Copenhagen, says Marie Kastrup, head of the city’s cycling scheme, who suggests that the five of these angled receptacle currently in place might be enough. 

She says Boris bikes have, on balance, been good for London because they have got many people cycling again, or for the first time. Many have liked it but questioned the “infrastructure” creating pressure on politicians to make improvements that could help to make the culture more cycle-friendly.  She advocates targeting a reasonably large area of London, possibly around a university, and making it really cycle-friendly. If the area is large enough, the zone may cover people’s entire journey and they will enjoy the experience so much they will call for the scheme to be extended across the city, she argues.

Ultimately, she says cycling needs to become so much part of the culture that people don’t define themselves as cyclists. “We don’t call ourselves cyclists, it’s like brushing your teeth. Cycling is not a religion here, it is just part of life,” she said, of the city where more than a third workers bike to work.

Jorgen Abildgaard, Copenhagen’s climate director, says cycling in his city is a far cry from London but believes it is absolutely possible for the UK capital to emulate it’s success – but that it would take at least a decade.

He says he’d start by building some Copenhagen-style dedicated cycle superhighways running from suburbs 10 to 15 miles out right into the centre to convert people to the cause.

Copenhagen was recently named European Green Capital as it aims to become the world’s first carbon neutral city, by 2025. Although cycling will play a crucial part in achieving this goal, the man spearheading the drive, Mr Abildgaard, says the campaign is far wider.

The city opened the first three of 100 wind turbines planned for the city in January, one of which is owned by the locals.

The city is also pushing hard into organic food, with 75 per cent of the city’s 900 public kitchen serving organic food and a target of 90 per cent by next year. It is also not unusual to see locals swimming and kayaking in the harbour after a mass clean-up of the water.

The city recycles as much of its waste as possible, burning much of the rest to produce electricity and to heat buildings.