Study tour of Copenhagen

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 103.

A suburban roundabout with clear cycle lane markings.
Image as described adjacent

The Danish people are said to be the happiest ‘folk‘ on Earth. Cambridge Cycling Campaigners were impressed by the Danes’ humour, their relaxed smiles and their enviable cycle chic.

How can folks who have so few cars and have to work so hard to pedal their cargo bikes be so happy? Or is the cycling the source of happiness? Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s Press Officer Robin Heydon organised an interesting and pleasant study tour of Copenhagen in which six members of the Campaign took part in perfect weather in late May 2012. Although Copenhagen built its first Cykelsti (bicycle track) in 1892, the standard of its current infrastructure, while high, does not seem to be of the same elevated standard found in Assen. But there are a lot of cyclists in Copenhagen with a surprising number of cargo bikes (more on these in the October/November newsletter). Copenhageners make half of their urban trips by bike, with cars accounting for 24% and bus and metro accounting for the rest. The bicycle’s dominance holds for all trips up to 10km in distance; it is only for longer trips that car and train start to outnumber trips on bikes, though bikes also make very many trips of over 10km.

A number of features of Copenhagen are inspirational and could be considered for Cambridge.

Green wave at 20km/h

Green wave sign.
Image as described adjacent

On Nørrebrogade, one of Copenhagen’s major arteries, planners have re-allocated roadspace away from cars. This relatively narrow street with many shops sees up to 35,000 cycle trips per day (a good part of these are cargo bikes). The width of the main carriageway was recently reduced and is now equal to the width of the hybrid cycle lane, and the footway is also about the same width. The traffic lights on this artery are adjusted to provide a green wave at a cycling speed of 20km/h. This ensures that cyclists maintaining this speed will be able to surf a wave of green lights through the city during rush hour, without putting a foot down. The green wave works inbound from 6am to noon and outbound from noon to 6pm. Copenhagen City Council’s analysis of the green wave shows that, for example, in morning traffic the very large number of cyclists going with the green wave (morning inbound traffic) save 5-6 stops, increasing their average speed by 21%, where the smaller number of cyclists travelling against the green wave (morning outbound traffic) see their speed reduced by 1% with no speed loss for cars which, presumably due to stopping at crossings, were already travelling at a low average speed before the introduction of the 20km/h green wave. The measured impact on bus speeds was insignificant.

Many streets have their speed limit reduced to 40km/h

40km/h is about 24mph. Slowly, general opinion in the UK seems to be warming to the idea that 30mph speed limits may be suitable for some urban roads, but not for all. Copenhagen already uses a wider range of speeds, with 30km/h, 40km/h and 50km/h speed limits where appropriate. There are roads in Cambridge where a well-enforced 25mph limit might be preferable to a lax 20mph. As I understand it, current DfT rules do not allow 25mph speed limits.

Cycle speeds

Travelling speeds of cars in Copenhagen have dropped from 34km/h in 1985 to about 27km/h in 2005, while measured travelling speeds of bicycles have fluctuated between 15.3km/h in 2004 and 16.2km/h in 2008. The general impression from the study tour participants was that cyclists in Copenhagen keep up an impressive speed.

Longitudinal parks along an urban green cycle-route

1,723 cyclists so far today.
Image as described adjacent

Inspiration for the Chisholm Trail. In the Bispebjerg area of ethnically diverse København NV, a former railway track has been converted into a longitudinal park with themed areas. At an event and music space a red square comes complete with a red star and slippery redmac (we were told that the surface’s shortcomings are the German supplier’s fault and to be corrected). Another section between high-rise flats provides cycle parking, chess tables, BBQs and a skating area; further north-east they were installing large play and exercise equipment, while further southwest they are experimenting with city gardens. The whole area is car-free except for arterial roads crossing the park and is connected through a segregated cycle path, which stretches from Nørrebro in the northeast to Valby in the southwest of the city.

Traffic counters

At a number of locations removed from motorised traffic (e.g. on the path under Cutter Ferry Bridge) Cambridgeshire County Council has traffic counters which officers can read in real time. Copenhagen has such counters, too, with displays on some of them for everyone to see the stats on bicycle journeys. Segregated routes (e.g., Coton Path, The Tins, the commons, etc) mean that drivers stuck in traffic on the ring road see only relatively few cyclists. Therefore I would very much welcome traffic counters at locations like the Gonville Place or Regent Terrace crossings so that cyclists and motorists could see the number of cycle trips being made.

Cyclebahn by the ‘Motorvej’

On ‘fast cycle routes’ interruptions are minimised, with underpasses where necessary.
Image as described adjacent

Cycleways alongside motorways are noisy and polluted, but provide a fast, direct route with minimal interruptions, as these ‘cyclebahns’ tend to have their own underpass at junctions, just like motorways. As always, building such cycleways at the time a motorway is being built represents only a marginal increase in the cost of a motorway, while adding a path with tunnels later is prohibitively expensive. So, even if you don’t fancy the thought of cycling alongside the M11 or A14, think how much such direct routes could benefit cyclists in places like Bar Hill.

Super-cykelstier – fast cycle routes

Copenhagen has a network of fast cycle routes radiating out in all directions. Going out far into Sjælland’s (Zealand’s) countryside, these routes cater for faster commuter cyclists as well as leisure riders. We tried the 17.5km long C99 ‘Albertslund Routen’, which goes from Albertslund on the outskirts to Vesterport in the centre of Copenhagen. These fast cycle routes are well marked with signposts and a continuous yellow line on the ground. Interruptions have been minimised, with tunnels where necessary, and for additional comfort whilst waiting for a green light they provide a footstool and hand rest at most traffic lights. These routes have their own website at and are financed jointly by the 20 local municipalities in Copenhagen’s metropolitan area. They feature outstanding quality in four areas:

Route maps with ‘stations’ along major cycleways.
Image as described adjacent
  1. Access to the network
    Super-cykelstier connect the areas where jobs, student places and homes are concentrated and provide access to public transport terminals.
  2. Continuity
    Super-cykelstier provide commuter cyclists with the fastest possible route between home and work or study. They must be direct and with as few obstructions and stops as possible and with sufficient width to allow cyclists to hold their own pace and overtake others without being delayed.
  3. Comfort
    Super-cykelstier should make a bike ride to and from work or study a pleasant experience for cycle commuters. They should have a smooth surface, be well maintained, offer additional services (such as repair services, air pumps) and allow for good cycling experiences – for example via green spaces.
  4. Safety and security
    Super-cykelstier reduce the already low number of accidents and commuter cyclists feel safe both in traffic and in isolated stretches. This specific assessment is based on the lighting and visibility of the cyclist in the surroundings. Beyond these criteria, it is assessed qualitatively whether a route meets the requirements.

We were truly impressed by the quality of the surface, the maintenance and the continuous lighting even in rural sections of the C99. They are several steps ahead of the St Ivo and the Great Kneighton Cyclebahns. But the council still has a chance to improve standards when building the Chisholm Trail. Coincidentally, one section of the C99 goes alongside a railway track with only a low fence separating the two.

Cycle bridges

Steps with a ramp wide enough to push up luggage or a buggy.
Image as described adjacent

The 190 metre long Byggebroen (designed by Dissing + Weitling Arkitektfirma A/S in 2006 for 47.6 million Danish Krone – about £5 million) connects upmarket housing in a revitalised port area to a large shopping mall and the city centre. The 63 metre long bridge over Ågade was built in 2008 for DKK 30.2 million or about £3.3 million excluding ramps. It connects Nørrebro with Frederiksberg. For comparison, the total length of the Riverside bridge (2008) is almost 200 metres (though the river itself is only about 20 metres wide) at a cost of about £3 million, substantially less than the 77 metres long Jane Coston bridge (2004), which cost about £7 million.

Blue cycle lane around a roundabout

In a suburban residential setting with reduced speed limits we found a roundabout with a blue-surfaced cycle lane as an outer ring. This design positions the bike on the right-hand side of the car (UK: left-hand side) and can only work in a low-speed environment with drivers used to looking out for cyclists and giving way (not in the UK). It is not comparable to Dutch roundabouts with a fully segregated cycle way.

Cycle lane as wide as a road lane, with a left turn cycle lane across a traffic lane.
Image as described adjacent

Free bike scheme

Copenhagen operates a free bike scheme called ‘Bycyclen’ (town bike). It operates with a coin such as you find in shopping trolleys. The bikes are small, simple and not suitable for longer distances. They come with a map of Copenhagen indicating the ‘free bike stations’ fixed to the handlebar. There was one station at the Copenhagen City Hostel, but I only saw a bike available there once. But we frequently saw these bikes in use.

Removal of car parking

The city of Copenhagen is committed to removing 2% of on street car parking per year. This means for many residential roads in the centre roughly about one space per block per year. They remove car parking spaces by providing cycle parking spaces, planting trees or setting up benches.

Image as described adjacent

Trial with LED light signals for cars turning across the cycleway at traffic lights

At most crossings in Cambridge green lights signal a free road and lead to some drivers driving almost mechanically through junctions. In Copenhagen, every fourth or fifth phase pedestrians get an exclusive four-way green, keeping them off the road during the other four phases, when cars are crossing. In Denmark (and many other countries) cyclists and pedestrians cross in line with the main carriageway. Therefore right-turning traffic (equivalent to left-turning in the UK) will still have to stop, check and give way to cyclists and pedestrians to their right. We noticed that drivers proceed with great care, but cyclists are often difficult to spot, as they remain in the wing mirror’s blind spot when approaching. At one crossing on H.C. Anderson Blvd near the Tivoli, Copenhagen is experimenting with a row of LEDs blinking towards turning cars’ wing mirrors when sensors detect that a bicycle is approaching. While this experiment shows how the Danes are willing to try out new technology, it may lead to false security when the lights are not blinking.

LED traffic lights

Almost all the traffic lights we saw in Copenhagen were using LED signal heads. LEDs last much longer than incandescent light bulbs (hot lamps) and their light is emitted at an acute angle, reducing problems from infalling sunlight. LEDs use less electricity, as they emit far less heat. In the USA, Switzerland and Germany, where LEDs are widely used, it has led on occasions to traffic lights staying covered in snow, which would soon have melted under the heat of incandescent light bulbs; but if the Danes can deal with it, snow-covered traffic lights should not represent much of a problem in Cambridge. Transport for London (TfL) announced in 2009 plans to install more than 10,000 LEDs, each of which is expected to cut energy use and carbon emissions by 60 per cent compared to traditional bulbs. The £2.4m project should cut total annual carbon emissions by 600 tonnes, reducing TfL’s energy bill by about £200,000 in the process.

Image as described adjacent

Taiwan has changed all its 690,000 traffic lights signal heads to LEDs, saving enough energy to power 70,000 homes! Silicon Fen is following, and all new traffic lights currently being installing in Cambridge use LED technology. For example, at the A14 interchange at Impington it is planned to spend £485,000 on replacing the old traffic lights with new toucan crossings. Each modern signal head saves about 324kwh per year. The 24-30 LED signal heads on a single interchange can save up to 10,000kwh per year, enough to power two family homes.

Accident reduction at a major crossing through improved design and advanced greens

One of Copenhagen’s busiest crossroads peaked at 15 cyclists killed or seriously injured in a year, before the authorities decided to redesign the crossing through the narrowing of trunk roads, reallocation of road space from the main carriageway to the cycleway and the introduction of waiting areas for bikes, with the traffic lights for cars set on the near side of the crossing, so drivers won’t invade cyclists’ space. They also added what all British traffic lights bar one are missing: advanced green lights for cyclists (also see ‘Advanced Greens for Cycles’ in this Newsletter). These give a few seconds lead time to get started and to move out of the danger zone of left-turning (in Copenhagen right-turning) heavy goods vehicles. The combination of these measures saw a reduction of fatalities in over 90%. It is good to know that since our return from Copenhagen the ‘Bow Roundabout’ in London has been given advanced stop lines and an advanced green for cyclists. The DfT is also allocating £15 million for improvements on the most dangerous crossings and roundabouts outside London, with Cambridgeshire County Council applying for funding.

Sheffield-type stand with built-in air pump.
Image as described adjacent

‘Luft’: Sheffield stands with air pumps

Along the main cycle routes we found stations with air pumps about the size of a telephone exchange box. They have a foot-pedal on one side to pump the tyre up. As they don’t require electricity they can be easily installed on rural leisure routes as well as in urban settings. One variant has the pump built into a Sheffield stand and all of us present on the study tour agreed that every cycle parking location at our railway station(s) should have at least two Sheffield stands with a built-in air pump.

Stairs and bikes

Pushing bicycles up stairs is never an optimal solution and will always put the frail or disabled at a disadvantage. However, guide rails on stairs provide the vast majority of cyclists with the option to walk their bike up or down stairs when a longer detour would be required to achieve a 1/20 gradient. If well designed, guide rails can also benefit those with pushchairs or luggage.

The whole of Clay Farm in one building: 8Tallet / BIG-8

We cycled a path going through the building like a helix, from the bottom to the tenth floor and back to the bottom again

As a special treat towards the end of our first day Robin Heydon took the group to a large building at the outskirts of Copenhagen. The building is described as a mixed three-dimensional development for residential and office use. Taking roughly the shape of the number 8, it has two large patios, is up to 11 floors or 30 metres tall, occupying a 230×110 metres space. It provides 500 dwellings plus 10,515m² of commercial or office space, which is about half of Orchard Park in one cool building (though Orchard Park’s land-grab is a lot bigger). It was built in 2007-2010 and designed by architects Bjarke Ingels Group ( and directed to maximise the residential dwellings’ exposure to incoming sunlight, with commercial spaces at the bottom of the building. A path goes through the building a bit like a helix, on which we cycled from the bottom to the tenth floor and back to the bottom again. The building has a large and well-used cycle parking area, but we noticed that many residents preferred to ride more valuable bikes up to their patios. BIG-8Tallet and other interesting high-rise developments in the area are served by cycleways and a railway link into the centre of Copenhagen.

8Tallet / BIG-8: cycle ten stories right to the top.
Image as described adjacent

Copenhagen cycling city

Copenhagen is inhabited by about 550,000 people in the city and nearly 2 million in the metropolitan area. Copenhagen City is 88.25km² (34.07mi²) small, less than the footprint of Cambridge, resulting in a population density about five times the population density that Cambridge currently has. Naturally, Copenhagen doesn’t have much space for cars.

I didn’t notice any red-light jumping and I doubt this was due to enforcement. Well thought-through design makes a difference and Cambridge Cycling Campaign needs more people checking planning applications and influencing councillors and officers to improve conditions for cycling both in Cambridge and elsewhere.

Registration tax on cars: 180%

Its 180% car tax sets Denmark apart from other European countries. Value Added Tax ‘moms’ is applied on top of it at 25%. Buying a car like a £12,000 VW Polo (£10,000 ex VAT) will set a Dane back the equivalent of £35,000 (£10,000 for the car, £18,000 registration tax and £7,000 VAT on top). This puts cars out of reach of many young families and makes a £3,500 cargo bike look like a bargain. The 180% registration tax is not levied on taxis and utility vehicles, which get a different number plate. As electric cars are also exempt, Denmark already had in the 1990s a more electric cars than any other country in Europe. The British car industry is big, influential and its workforce largely unionised, which means that any UK government will find it difficult to introduce such a tax to disincentivise car ownership. On the other hand, if any government wants to make serious progress with electric cars without directly subsidising them, there is no better way than the Danish one.

Klaas Brümann