When I planned my trip to Copenhagen in late March, I was anticipating the first rays of spring sunshine. Unfortunately the beast from the east was still lingering over Europe and the wind chill was -10 and with snow.
What surprised me was the upbeat mood in the city. It was as cold as it ever gets in London, but the streets were buzzing with men and women cycling. At evening rush hour the main cycling lane on Norrebrogade was accompanied by chirpy chatter, a social life on wheels that drifted through the city. I could see that properly protected cycle lanes can be both social and transport infrastructure.
Cycling outfits, designed for both warmth and style, were very much part of the cultural engagement. Not a faceless sea of fluorescent high vis and helmets, but individuality, fun and creativity. The Danes have style and like the Japanese, it is something that imbues the everyday (even the most challenging everyday) with meaning, beauty, poetry and fun.
Building Bridges Copenhagen to London
I was primarily in Copenhagen to look at the Cycling bridges. The Danish architecture and engineering practice Bystrup, together with Robin Snell Architects, have been commissioned to build the walking and cycling Nine Elms to Pimlico Bridge. We don’t currently have any cycling and walking bridges in London, so I was interested to see what a walking and cycling bridge looks and feels like.
The proposed Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge, included in the Mayor’s Transport strategy, is a vital piece of infrastructure, along this part of the river Thames. It is the longest stretch of riverside in central London without a crossing point. According to a Transport for London feasibility study, the project would pay for itself twice over in terms of reduced journey times and other benefits.
The winning bridge design features a slender structure with spiralling ramps at both ends, the aim is to create a ‘seamless crossing’ with single spire masts and an “elegant” winding deck. The design celebrates the river and aspires to create a thing of real beauty.
I had met Henrik Skuboe (of Bystrup Architecture, Design and Engineering) at a presentation of the bridge in London. Henrik and his colleagues Elisabeth and Aliki kindly organised a cycle tour in Copenhagen, taking a very scenic route around the cycling bridges and other infrastructure.
We met at the new ‘Kissing Bridge’ (Kyssebroenat) at Nyhavn, recently opened in 2017. The bridge is 180 meters long and eight meters wide and is one of three inner harbor bridges that allows pedestrians and cyclists a quick and direct route from Nyhavn to the canals of Christianshavn and beyond. The funky coloured glass adds a turquoise and yellow tint to the deep inky blue of the Baltic sea. There has been some criticism that the Bridge is too angular for the natural flow of cycling but it certainly does create the wow factor.
Another funky bridge on our tour was the bridge designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson The Cirkelbroen (Circle Bridge) spans a Copenhagen canal and features a series of wire masts, based on ships’ rigging. The 40-metre-long cycling and footbridge is made from five interconnected circular platforms, where visitors are invited to rest and take in the view.
We also took in a walking and cycling bridge, designed by Bystrup, which crosses the railway. It is called “Langeliniebroen” / The Langeliniebridge. It is approximately 180 meter long and at 7,5 meter wide, it is very similar to the proposed Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge. It does not have a dividing central reservation between walking and cycling but that seems to work well in this environment. And it makes it accessible for emergency services.
Cycling bridges are a central and cultural focus for the cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen. They provide practical connectivity across the watery natural infrastructure of the city, but again embrace beauty and fun design. And of course this is dedicated traffic-free infrastructure, tailored to active travel. It made me feel like the red carpet had been rolled out for cycling. And it was liberating!
Priority walking and cycling
Whilst we were on our cycle tour, Henrik told me that every street in Copenhagen is priority pedestrian and cycling. This is a crucial policy that makes the streets feel far safer than in London. Motor vehicles give way to pedestrians and cyclists, in a way we never see on the streets of London.
Contrast this is the current attitude of Transport for London to safety:
‘Katherine Abraham, a project manager at TfL, said that 14 people had been injured at a crossroads on Euston Road in the past three years. She said pedestrian safety was “very much up their within our priorities” but added that Euston Road “keeps the London economy going” and this has to be balanced against making it safe?’
‘Keeping the economy going’ at the expense of safety is completely unacceptable. TFL consistently discriminates against people who walk and cycle, who are very much part of London and its economy. This is a key reason why we have hostile streets. Until recently TFL did not even include pedestrians and cyclists in its traffic modelling software.
Meanwhile in Copenhagen, city surveys aim to qualify the experience of pedestrians and cyclists, not just raw data. The city really cares about its citizens health and well-being, as an integral part of a successful economy.
Another ground-breaking way that Copenhagen prioritises cycling is the ‘Green wave’. Rather than prioritising motor traffic flow, lights are phased to give the cyclists going to or coming home from work a wave of green lights. A secondary aim is to calm the cycling to a safe speed. There is no advantage to cycling at high speed but an advantage to maintaining a healthy speed of 20km/h. This could also be incorporated into the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge with clever LED lights embedded into the surface of the bridge that are connected to green light traffic phasing.
In Copenhagen, walking hand in hand or cycling side by side or even walking side by cycling is enjoyable and part of the social life of the city. Well designed, consistent, generous, intuitive and traffic-free protected cycle lanes and connected bridges make this possible.
Centenary of female emancipation 1918-2018
In 2018 we are celebrating 100 years since women won the right to vote in UK and Ireland. In Denmark they celebrated that centenary in 2015. Again they are ahead of us in recognising the rights of women.
We need a timely re-evaluation of how women take up space in London, Are Transport for London, The Mayor of London and local councils taking their Equality Act obligations seriously when making decisions on vital active travel transport ? Where is the gender parity in cycling? A good measure of a civilised society is how we treat women. What does that equality of public space look like?
What I saw in Copenhagen was an emancipation of women. When women are not cowed at the margins of public space but are given quality space to cycle and walk, without being intimidated by motor vehicles, they own that space and it is more vibrant and happy.
Contrast that with this tweet
In London the stress and pressure to compete with motor vehicles, marginalises women. This is why we see such low female cycling participation. The stats speak volumes 29% of women cycle in London compared to 71% of men. In Copenhagen it is 55/45 in favour of women.
London was once a visionary place for female emancipation, but we have forgotten half of its population. In 2016, Sadiq Khan told The Evening Standard that ‘I don’t let my daughters cycle in London because of concerns over a lack of safety. He told of his fears of Anisah, 16, and Ammarah, 14, being injured as he pledged to make it “easier and safer” to cycle in the capital.’ I would like to ask him, will his daughters be safe to cycle in London by 2020?
And then we have all experienced reckless White Van man, beligerent Taxi drivers, selfish Uber drivers and the arrogant roar of speeding motorcyclists. These mostly male drivers elbow their way through London in a most ungentlemanly way. And according to research by Rachel Aldred, women cycling are far more sensitive to bad driving or dangerous routes than men.
The sad reality is that for many drivers women are at the bottom of the food chain. Slower average speeds of women cycling make them a target for drivers of motor vehicles who have a ‘need for speed’.
London cycle superhighways look like a peloton
Recently a male cycling campaigner in London celebrated on twitter that the Cycle Superhighways looked like a peloton. May I remind him and his fellow strava racers that this is not a sporting event. We don’t want to join a fluorescent high-vis peloton. We want to ride along side by side, not try and keep up with the pack.
As Copenhagenize advocates “dress for your destination, not your journey”.
So roll out the protected cycling carpet and make space for cycling for women as well as men….