Earlier this month, UM went on a two-day fact-finding Streettour to Copenhagen. As usual, we wanted to see how other people do stuff; and we were particularly keen to experience how the city has dealt with providing for cycling on complex urban streets.
Arriving at the airport, we headed straight to the Metro that took us to the city centre in 15 minutes, something that is rather enviable (especially after it took me about an hour and a half to get back home from Gatwick). Alighting at Nørreport station, home of the new and fantastically popular Torvehallerne food market, we immediately encountered upheaval associated with the works to create a new Metro line. On taking to the streets and walking to our hotel, I was quite pleased that (admittedly by complete fluke) we had arranged to stay on what seemed to be one of the most recently improved streets in the city: Vester Voldgade. A wide street, it caters well for reasonably heavy use by pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles alike, as well as accommodating plenty of trees and cafe seating. And all in granite that’s not just tough but also pleasing to the eye.
Staying on this boulevard afforded me time to watch how the street worked and how people behaved. The carriageway is generally made up of one lane in each direction with, as seems to be the case at junctions throughout the city, turn lanes separated from the straight ahead lane. The cycle lane (one in each direction) was outside the carriageway and grade separated both from it and the adjacent footway. Cycleways and footways were laid to granite (see pictures below). One instantly striking element of the cycle lane was its width, about 3m, allowing enough space for cyclists to comfortably pass one another or ride side-by-side chatting. The vertical separation from the cycle track to the footway was small, approximately 25mm and with a slightly bevelled edge, allowing cyclists to ‘bump up’ onto the footway should they need. The line between the two was also marked very neatly by white dots painted onto the stone, providing an additional element of visual separation. The vertical separation of cycleway and carriageway was more pronounced (around 50mm).
We walked everywhere on Day 1 and cycled all of Day 2. Whichever mode we used ourselves, it was evident that the city is much more of a pleasure to cycle around than London because its cycle infrastructure is not just more developed, but because it is consistent: wide cycle tracks on both sides of the street, going with the direction of traffic and grade separated from both the carriageway and the footway. Generally, cycling is treated like a separate mode of transport, with established, standard terms of negotiation with motor traffic. On the whole, cyclists don’t have to mingle with vehicles if they do not wish. This standardisation is one of the greatest assets of the city, I think, as cyclists never get the rug pulled from under their feet (so to speak) when they turn around a corner and the cycle lane they were on has not been continued, or simply stops on a street as there was no width to fit it in after the carriageway was kept at a consistent width. Cyclists know they will be catered for and looked after on streets and designers know that this provision is simply what must happen.
As well as the physical provision, another equally important factor in the city’s cycling success that I observed is people’s (drivers’, cyclists’, pedestrians’) manner: their consideration, if you will. (This, I am sure, has taken a good while to develop, and is ‘encouraged’ by law; but this should only give us more impetus to get going sooner in the UK.) What I mean by people’s consideration is that all street users are constantly on the lookout for others. Right-turning (left in the UK) drivers expect to have cyclists coming up on their right hand side (where the latter are going straight ahead or turning right), and they both look for them and wait for them. They expect this, as cycle provision and cyclists are on every busy street. This is not to say that Danish drivers are better than ours; it’s simply to say that expecting to see a cyclist ‘on the inside’, checking for them and giving way to them is an engrained part of the Danish driving culture (not an anomaly, as is the case for the most part on UK streets at the moment). Having a standard situation that drivers and cyclists encounter on the vast majority of streets is easier and safer for everyone involved.
The same culture of ‘giving way to the more vulnerable user’ also applies to cyclists. While pedestrians respect, and generally stay out of, cycle lanes, there are situations – such as at bus-stops and where footways may be over-crowded – where pedestrians and cyclists find themselves temporarily in the same space. From my observations, cyclists are used to watching out for such situations and yield to pedestrians if necessary. The interaction of buses, cyclists and pedestrians at bus stops was fascinating. Sometimes the cycle track passes behind the bus stop, but commonly buses simply pull over next to the cycle track and passengers simply board and alight by walking across the cycle track from/to the footway. Often, there are no zebra-style or any other markings to encourage cyclists to give way; but they still do. Consideration again.
Moving on from cycle infrastructure, another thing that stuck in my mind throughout my stay in the city (which extended another two days beyond the ‘official’ UM tour) was the inclusion of elements of recreation, spontaneity and fun throughout the public realm. It is something that I’m never that aware of in London, although it may help being a tourist in order to see these things. If we don’t do them here it could be for many reasons: maybe because (rightly or wrongly) designers are afraid of law suits if someone hurts themselves; maybe the process would get too tied up in ‘red tape’; or maybe the maintenance burden is something authorities simply don’t want to take on. Whatever the reason, I don’t see these elements much in the UK, and I would really rather like to.
What I mean is things such as those pictured below. We were all walking down by Nyhavn, the picture postcard historic harbour area, and came across a run of trampolines: just there in the public realm. They were not fenced off and even on a rather wet and cold day there were people playing on them, and thoroughly enjoying it. As well as this, the recently implemented Superkilen public realm scheme in the Nørrebro district has transformed a rather busy but shabby and uninspiring space, into a vibrant, fun and active (and colourful!) place that people use and obviously enjoy. Skateboard areas, a mini velodrome, basketball facilities, a boxing ring and outdoor gymnasium equipment, are all dotted around a public space where people sit and chat, walk through and cycle through en masse. This desire and ability to have a place for numerous activities, in an open public space, is something that I would like to see more of in London; rather than having sports facilities fenced off and down quiet streets.
Like many, I think Copenhagen is a good model for progressing the state of cycling in London. The streets are busy with vehicles as well as cyclists and pedestrians, as indeed are ours. Cycle infrastructure is important to the city and is a great asset to it; it’s not always pretty, but it’s always there. While newly-improved streets, like Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard, are extremely well detailed and look great, so are many of London’s; but the latter hasn’t had cycling so high up the list of ‘design drivers’ for its streets.
The most important thing to take away from Copenhagen, in my opinion, is the desirability of deciding on, rolling out, and sticking to a consistent approach for cycling infrastructure (which could happily be Copenhagen’s). This would enable everyone – drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike – to get used to how it works, and get used to new ways of how they interact with one another. This change would, ideally, come hand-in-hand with legislative/regulatory change; but I believe that, over time, we can reasonably hope it will become more and more about “This is just what we do”, rather than “If I don’t do this I’ll get a ticket”.
Having cycle infrastructure on the majority of London’s streets will raise the profile of cycling and increase the numbers of people who want to do it, something that we sorely need. It will also lead to London drivers autonomously looking when they want to turn left across the cycle lane, knowing cyclists will be going straight on and they will need to wait. It will lead to London cyclists knowing that they need to give way to pedestrians at bus stops and other situations of potential conflict.
I think London needs this. We have been governed for a long time by old thinking that ‘the car is king’, even though our rhetoric and guidance has been against this for a good while now. I think if we develop our cycle infrastructure and give people using our streets more protection, and a fairer share of the street, then I think everyone (including drivers) will benefit and become more considerate to the others on the road. Call me a romantic, but I’m certain it will work. So shall we give it a go?