Who Needs Bike Trails? Denmark Has a Bicycle Superhighway

Cycle highways are making the commute safer, faster, cheaper, healthier and greener in a country where many of the capital’s residents already bike to work.

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MARIE HALD / AFP / Getty Images

Danish Ministers pose on bicycles

In April, Copenhagen opened the first of 26 planned “bicycle superhighways” in the hopes that more of its residents would opt out of driving a car to work. To lure bikers, the city has equipped the 11-mile path from Copenhagen to the suburb Alberslund with “green wave” technology that times traffic lights for greatest bike efficiency and footrests where weary commuters can take a breather. A story in Tuesday’s New York Times highlighted the initiative.

Biking is already wildly popular within the capital because it is the fastest and easiest way to get to work or school. Copenhagen has been redesigning its streets for years now in order to make biking the norm. The city is now so bike-friendly that it has spawned a new urban planning concept: “Copenhagenization” or urban planning centered around making cities less car dependent. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, 36 percent of all Danish adults rode a bike to work and 45 percent of all Danish children biked to school in 2010.

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City planners hope that with the construction of bicycle highways, the cycling craze will catch on in the more distant suburbs. Many suburbanites still choose to drive to work out of convenience—the distance was too far, the path too winding, the roads too dark or too damaged. Superhighways will change that. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark website, the cycle superhighways could increase the number of cyclists by 30 percent, adding 15,000 more cyclists to the superhighway network, saving 7000 tons of CO2 and 300 million Danish Krones in health costs per year.

For this first highway, the city’s government joined forces with 21 local governments to create the highest-standard bike paths possible. A governmental body called Capital Region Denmark responsible for public hospitals and regional development, funded the superhighway project to the tune of 1.6 million dollars.

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According to Danish statistics, the investment will be well worth it: For every six miles biked instead of driven, Danes are saving three and a half pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and nine cents in health care costs. Those pounds and pennies add up. “It’s a common saying among doctors that the best patient is the patient you never see,” regional city councilor Lars Gaardhoj told the Times. “Anything we can do to get less pollution and less traffic is going to mean healthier, maybe happier people.”

This is not the first innovative, bike-friendly initiative to come out of Denmark. Bike paths across the country feature bike pumps every 1.7 kilometers (or every mile). In the suburb of Fureso, “bike buses” bring cyclists together in their commute, with each biker taking a turn at blocking the wind for the other commuters. There’s even a children’s “bike bus” for rides to school. In Copenhagen, a team of government officials take to the streets for the “karma campaign,” handing out chocolate to bicyclers who demonstrate good behavior like waiting at lights, wearing helmets, and signaling turns.

But not all bike superhighways are as idyllic as the one in Denmark. London built its own cycle superhighways in 2010 by basically separating a bike lane from the rest of the road with blue paint. According to The Guardian’s bike blog, a bike highway in Tooting, South London “varies from 1.5 meters wide to 2.5 meters, with seemingly no logic. At its narrowest, the traffic is still disconcertingly close.” And according to a Transport Select Committee report on London’s roadways released Tuesday, 3085 cyclists were killed or seriously injured last year, up 15 percent from 2010. The problems in London serve to emphasize how impressive Copenhagen’s convenient and safe cycling culture is.

READ: New York City’s Bicycle Wars