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The Quickest Traffic Planning Guide for Modern Cities You’ll Ever See

Back in 2014, the news in Copenhagen was that the modal share bikes exploded between 2012 and 2013, from 36% to 45%. A whopping 9% increase in people arriving at a destination in the City of Copenhagen for work or education. That had never happened anywhere before. At the same time, the modal share for motorists fell from 27% to 23%.

We were in the midst of one of the greatest urban transport experiments in the world, and didn’t really realise it.

For years I’ve espoused the benefits of following the simple traffic planning guide at the top of this article. Prioritise the three, inherently inter-modal transport forms on the left — bikes, pedestrians and public transport — and make driving a car a pain the ass. Make it the slower option, make it more expensive and difficult, and you’re on your way to a bright transport future. I call it A2Bism. It’s what every human who has ever lived wants the most: to go quick from A to B. Humans are like rivers — we’ll always seek out the quickest route.

So what happened between 2012 and 2013 in Copenhagen? The City made it a pain in the ass to drive a car. Not on purpose, mind you. The construction of a new Metro line, with 17 stations, was underway and, in a glorious coincidence of bad municipal communication, the city also dug up streets to upgrade the pipes for our district heating. The city was one big squiggly line — primarily for cars. In biannual surveys since the 1990s, a continuous majority of Copenhageners have declared that their primary reason for riding a bike is the fact that it’s the quickest way from A2B. The City inadvertently enabled them to go to the next level, at the expense of car traffic.

Fast-forward to late 2019. The new Metro ring line has just opened. The contstruction hoarding has been removed and roads are returning to how they were before the work began. This great urban experiment is going to go one of two ways. Either the City learns from it and keeps that squiggly line or we just return to the car-centric status quo we started with.

I’ve never been a fan of the Metro expansion. A city this size doesn’t need a metro — it needs tramways like so many other cities in Europe. I don’t advocate shoving citizens underground. They should be on street level on foot, on bicycle and in trams. My colleagues around Europe basically point and laugh when I tell them that we have bus routes with 50,000 passengers a day and the City ISN’T building tramways. The main problem in Copenhagen is that we have so much money and we have delusions of grandeur.

But hey. I guess I didn’t succeed in talking the city out of building the metro expansion. The new M3 line doesn’t go anywhere new. It just spins around in a circle and goes to places that have been easily accessible by bike for over a century. The Metro has been falsely advertising travel times for years. Advertising station to station, but not the first and last mile to and from the station. I sent out a team a few years ago to map travel times using real world scenarios and — no surprise — the bike usually beats the Metro in Copenhagen.

There are more great statistics from the glorious period of 2012–2013. The average bike trip length in Copenhagen rose 35% from 3.2 km to 4.2 km between 2012 and 2013. That means that the oft-quoted statistic about how Copenhageners cycle 1.2 million km a day needed to be upgraded to 2,006,313 km per day.

When the results of the travel survey came out back in 2014, journalists were scrambling for answers. Two researchers at DTU were “surprised”. They were quoted in the Danish press as saying things like, “uh… the City’s new bridges and traffic calming on certain streets seem to have worked. Giving cyclists carrots encourage cycling.”

The detail they forgot was that the new cycling bridges weren’t finished yet, nor was the traffic calming on Amagerbrogade. The Nørrebrogade stretch is from 2008. Cycling rose on that street by 15% but that was BEFORE 2012. Duh. Basically, there hadn’t been much carrot dangling in this city for a few years. So forget about THAT hastily thunk up theory.

It was simply a combination of construction sites and district heating pipes being upgraded. It was a fantastic urban experiment.

In the original feasibility study for the new M3 line, I found an alarming statistic buried in the document. It was estimated that cycling levels in the city would drop by 2.8% after the completion of the new line. Then we saw that fantastic, unexpected rise of 9% between 2012 and 2013.

Can we now expect a drop in the modal share for bikes of 12% in Copenhagen? Perhaps. You read it here first.

Unless, of course, the City of Copenhagen has the cajones to embrace this experiment and use it to finally make The Leap — as described by author Chris Turner — into the future of our city. Expanding and widening the cycle tracks. Reallocating space from falling car traffic to bicycles and public transport. The new BRT route in Copenhagen is a good step. Let’s see how much farther we can go. Designing cities instead of engineering them.

They can listen to me or they can just listen to the simple logic of children.

The citizens have shown us that they will be on our side if we do the right thing.

Otherwise, this rich petri dish experiment will just rot and be forgotten.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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