What I loved and hated about cycling in Copenhagen

A sign of a cyclist on a Dutch style bike lies on the ground in Copenhagen

Last weekend I visited Copenhagen. I fully expected to return full of gushing praise and write up a post on how Copenhagen is the most brilliant place ever created. Then, I could fill it with great pictures of fashionable cyclists riding around the city.

Indeed, there we many things that amazed me.

For a start, they actually care about cyclists on public transport. Instead of making cyclists feel like second class citizens, there is plentiful space for you to store your bike on the train. Plus stations are easy to access by bike, through ramps, lifts and plentiful cycle parking.

There are also cycle lanes everywhere. In the Danish capital you’ll find 400km (250 miles) of cycle paths. When the Danish say cycle lanes, they mean an actual lane separated from traffic, with clever junction design that prioritises vulnerable road users. Not a lick of blue paint over an already existing cycle route.

Copenhagen cyclists waiting at traffic light

Where we saw road works, the cycle lane remained fully accessible. In London, the first thing a construction company blocks is the cycle lane and they don’t tend to provide an alternative route. This is particularly pertinent, as one of the most popular cycle routes in London, with an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 trips per day, is being closed without any alternatives being provided. (Read more on this)

In amongst all the cyclists, there was an even split between males and females. In fact, at most times I believe there were more females than males on bikes. This is in stark contrast to London, where cycling is still predominantly a male pursuit. It is said that one of the best tests whether cycling has really taken off in a city, is to look at the gender distribution of the cyclists.

Cyclists side by side in Copenhagen

Another stark difference between London and Copenhagen is that cycling is an incredibly social way to get around. You see friends happily cycling alongside each other. This is vitally important for making a mode of transport more appealing. Thanks to the wide cycle lanes in many parts of the city, people can ride side by side.

That all sounds amazing – what isn’t to like?

Cyclist on a collission route with pedestrians

To discover what there isn’t to like about cycling in Copenhagen, you have to get off the bike.

As a pedestrian around the city, I always felt like at any moment I could be hit by a bike. Fortunately, the cyclists we encountered were courteous, but you couldn’t help but feel that a lapse in concentration could result in a painful incident.

This is particular noticeable when crossing the road. There’s always a cyclist speeding along and you really have to pay attention. Of course it doesn’t help that I kept looking right instead of left!

As a consequence of the sheer number of cyclists, is the sheer number of bikes everywhere. These often looked cluttered and many shops had signs up asking people to not leave their bikes outside. I prefer bikes everywhere, than cars everywhere, but I was surprised there wasn’t more consistent cycle parking provision.

As a proficient cyclist in London, I was shocked at how worried I was about cycling in Copenhagen. Layouts are different and its hard to tell when someone has priority. Everything feels very fast paced and as someone just starting out, I constantly felt I was doing something wrong.

That’s because you are a tourist

Bike for carrying goods in Copenhagen

Most of these issues I believe were only really noticeable to me because I visited the city as a tourist. I’m sure that the more I cycled in Copenhagen, the most comfortable I’d feel. Much like how I personally feel safe cycling in London, where a new cyclist would feel worried.

Cities such as Copenhagen remain a great living model of what London could one day achieve. The Mayor of London, and planners at TfL should visit these places, to see how to create conditions that make cycling more appealing to a wider group of people, not just those who are happy to take on London’s traffic.

I’m hoping to spend my next cycling holiday in France. I know that the provision there is no match for what I saw in Copenhagen, but I’m interested in continuing to visit different cities and seeing how they do cycling there.

As always, I’m interested in reading your thoughts. I’d be particularly interested in hearing from someone who lives in Copenhagen about some of the things I disliked and whether these are still noticeable to locals.

P.S. I’ll be sharing more pictures shortly on my Flickr.

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27 Responses to What I loved and hated about cycling in Copenhagen

  1. Danny Copues 27/11/2012 at 3:54 pm #

    A note on cycling in France. I have cycled quite a lot when on holiday there in the summer in and around Begerac and in the South in the Drome region. I would say that althought the French drive pretty quickly they are far more considerate to cyclist even on major roads. Also the lesser roads are almost deserted and make for excellent cycling

    • Liz 27/11/2012 at 3:58 pm #

      I agree with Danny. I went on a cycling holiday in Brittany a couple of summers ago and French drivers are surprisingly considerate. It was a bit of a shock coming back to the UK and getting cut up/rudely beeped at by British drivers.

      • k8 30/11/2012 at 6:57 pm #

        Can I third that emotion? I spend a lot of time cycling in the south of France (Perpignan and surrounding areas) and always feel really safe and happy there. Drivers are kind and give good space. Same when cycling in Spain – drivers will lag behind nonchalantly waiting until it is safe to pass, so much so that I feel embarrassed by their courtesy. If only I could experience this on my cycle commute in London!

        Even in the north of France and close to Paris, drivers seem to somehow glide past unthreateningly, giving good clearance, rather than perform the jerky aggressive manoeuvres we see so much in London. How do they do it?

        I had to complain to TfL about a London taxi driver the other night (taxi number 18086 if you are interested in not coming across him) owing to his huge uncontrollable rage and aggression at me cycling in front of him in the bus lane. I have never, ever, experienced this level of hatred and ignorance in France or Spain. How do they do it, I ask again?

  2. Liz 27/11/2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Good blog post! I would have to say I slightly disagree with your summary of the situation as a pedestrian. Given that most pedestrians are cyclists and most cyclists are also pedestrians, I think it is less dangerous than it might be perceived. Perhaps this might also relate to the change of mindset that occurs when a significant amount of the population cycles?

    I rented a bike and rode around Copenhagen for a day a couple of months ago and really, really enjoyed it. As you said, the cycle lanes are well-designed and well thought out. I liked the cycle route along the river too. Did you get to cycle that route?

    • Andreas 28/11/2012 at 1:28 pm #

      I didn’t cycle there Liz. I did a circuit around the centre and around meatpacking district. Then slightly towards Frederiksberg. I tried to get a sense of the city, but I’m sure route along river would have been lovely (in fact we walked a fair bit around there)

  3. Stefan 27/11/2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Its nice to read a post about Copenhagen cycling that’s not just praise. You’re spot on with the bicycle parking, and Copenhageners agree that its rubbish, only 38% of cyclists believe that parking is adequate. The Dutch are so much ahead of us in that game.

    The intimidation factor is also a valid point, although I’m terrified about cycling in London, especially since there are so little space for cyclists, and the drivers are beasts compared to the (relative) angels we have in this city. It *is* also true there is too little space for too many cyclists during rush hour. The solution is the 2.7-3 meter wide cycle tracks (room for 3 cyclists abreast) that is planned to become standard on 80% of the network, but progress is really slow in implementing this.

    But one thing that baffles me (and we also have this debate inside Denmark) is the pedestrian perspective, would you feel more safe crossing the street if there had been twice the amount of cars? Would it have been any different if all those bicycles where on the street instead and there had been two extra car lanes to cross? Wouldn’t you rather be struck by a bicycle than tons of metal hitting you with 50kmh?

    • Barton 28/11/2012 at 3:11 pm #

      The Dutch are ahead of you? Speaking strictly of my Amsterdam experiences, I am not sure they have a parking “solution” so much as a parking problem that has been just given up on. If there is a bit of post, barrier or fence, you are sure to find 20 bikes locked onto it. With their already narrow sidewalks/pavements, the 100s of bikes chained to the barriers along the canals really limit the space available for parking.

      I think we all need to work on available parking.

      • Jan 30/11/2012 at 11:08 am #

        The very center of Amsterdam (inside the canals) has indeed a bicycle problem. Most of the streets are too narrow, and since a most buildings have monumental status, it’s very difficult to create more parking spaces beneath them.

        However, it’s still a very nice environment, and just try to image that every bike parked would be a car…

        Outside of the canals, parking is sufficient. It isn’t pretty, and crowded on busy streets and certain times, but it’s far better than car parking. It’s always possible to find a safe spot to park your bike within 50 meters.

        You shouldn’t judge Amsterdam by the square mile that makes up it’s center.

    • David Cohen 30/11/2012 at 5:57 pm #

      My thoughts exactly re being hit by a car vs being hit by a bike. So, if bike usage really gets high, then there may well be more pedestrians incidents, but the level of injury would surely be far less than cars. I don’t think this is anything to really lose sleep over.

  4. Miro 27/11/2012 at 5:53 pm #

    Funny how we slag off cycling in London whenever the opportunity! Yes we are behind many European cities so comment instead on how we could learn from the Danes.

    I would also like to point out If that was a Dane writing an article about cycling in London then he would say what a brilliant cycle hire scheme we have and how there are hundreds of parks and safe areas to enjoy with a bike in London.

    • Jan 30/11/2012 at 12:11 pm #

      Although I’m dutch, not danish, I think we would likely have a similar opinion. And I’m sorry to disappoint you, but when I would write an article about cycling in London, I would only discourage it. Dangerous, annoying, just take the Underground and ignore cycling.

      The Dutch (and the Danes) have two categories of cycling (likely done by the same people, on different times).

      The first category is functional cycling: Transport from A to B. Fast, convenient, cheap. This accounts for 90% of the bike trips. (And about 40% of all transport) For distances between 500 meter and 5km, the bike is usually the best option in the Netherlands. In London, I never use a bicycle, because it’s not the easiest, cheapest or fastest way of getting around. I did quite some cycling in Edinburgh, where it’s “appalling but still usable”, but in London, I found it terrifying. Using Public transport is usually a much better option.

      The second category is recreational cycling. Not necessarily ‘racing’, you might just do some slow cycling through the countryside, but speed cycling, lycra, helmets, mountain biking, downhill, et cetera would all fit in this category. However, you’d usually leave the city to do this. A city park, however nice, would be much to small for this kind of activities.

    • SteveP 30/11/2012 at 1:23 pm #

      There’s a big issue in the (west) centre of London, and that is Hyde Park (+Ken Gardens) where the powers that be refuse to provide for ever-increasing numbers of bicycle riders. The most recent SE Bayswater Resident’s Assoc (SEBRA) newsletter even had a letter from a (self-defined) bicyclist who lives nearby exhorting them to not permit more cycling in the park. ???

      All this is in vain with the Barclays bikes so available (there is a large location just inside the park) – many rented by tourists who don’t know (or care) about the regulations or perhaps can’t even read English. What looks like a nice wide cycling lane is verbotten, for unknown reasons.

      Most of the park (and most parks) should be “cycle-free”, but not the access routes. Look at the map and try and get from Queensway to Hyde Park Corner on a bike. Big park in the way, no? And what do they do to facilitate your transit? Pretty much nothing. Either go down to Queen’s Gate and across or down Bayswater Road, then around the Lancaster Gate gyratory and down the Serpentine – convenient it ain’t. Of course people are going to ride in the park. Now – how do we make it work for everyone?

      I might also add that the number of cycle riders riding through the zebra crossings (like the one in Hyde Park) as “pedestrians” is equally irritating. Funny thing happens to people – whichever mode of transport they are on always should have the right of way :-)

      I’m hard-pressed to think of a “safe” area to ride bikes in W2

  5. Ellie 27/11/2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Interesting point on the pedestrian side of things. I was in Copenhagen last year for the World Championships, though I didn’t get a chance to cycle myself. I liked the overall feeling that it was just another form of transport, rather than like some sort of club. All bikes and abilities. Didn’t have the same experience as a pedestrian, though it’s always hairy abroad with the roads the opposite way.

  6. Steve A 28/11/2012 at 1:39 am #

    That would be my fear about road cycling in Britain – that my cycling experience in the US would result in my looking the wrong way. That is one reason for all those pedestrian “look right” advices given in areas where tourists abound. At least driving in Britain, sitting on the wrong side of the car is a reminder to stay left.

  7. Wolfram 29/11/2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Mostly I agree with Andreas (http://innercitymobility.blogspot.com/2011/10/cycling-in-copenhagen.html).

    The cycle lanes are wide enough so that You can actually overtake someone – try that on a German cycle path.

    And I fully agree with Ellie. Like in Flanders there is a different mind set in relation to cycling, it is so NORMAL, plain ordinary to go by bike.

    Regards,

    Wolfram

  8. SteveP 30/11/2012 at 1:28 pm #

    We spent a week in Spain (near Girona) riding in the country and towns and had a fantastic time. The infrastructure and signage was great, the drivers were great, the weather was great, food, wine, etc. etc.

    I have few complaints about riding in the countryside in the UK (OK, weather) but Catalonia really does it right.

    BTW – another option for French cycle riding is the Lot Valley – very quiet with many secondary/tertiary roads almost traffic-free. We’ve stayed several times with http://www.lotcyclingholidays.com/ – John and Aileen are British but have lived there for years – fantastic food and accommodations, bikes provided and many great routes.

  9. Markku Klubb 30/11/2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Great blog post! I found Copenhagen very similar to cycling in Sweden and Finland. In all three countries, there is a differentiation between cycling for commuting, shopping and social purposes, and the “harder” riders. The hard riders typically travel in the auto lanes, wear safety helmets (sometime tights) and cycle fast! The others ride upright and dress casually with no special headgear.

    Tokyo is an exception with its wide sidewalks that carry both cyclists and pedestrians willy-nilly, with very few cyclists on the roadways (but if they do they too are often dressed for speed). I found riding in Tokyo the last few years that it took two or three trips before I learned to respect the exceptional cycle handling ability of the average Japanese cyclists. Incredible how they avoid collisions with out blinking. In several trips I have never experienced any anger or other reaction to my awkwardness as I cycle amongst them.

    The Japanese solve the cycle parking situation. New high end malls have huge cycle parking lots with older gentlemen wearing brightly colored vests directing the cycle parking and righting any that are upset by others or the wind

  10. Chris 30/11/2012 at 8:36 pm #

    I’m always surprised at the number of people in comments like this who dismiss cycling in London as too dangerous and utterly terrifying, seemingly on the basis of very limited observation.

    I’ve commuted over 1200 miles so far this year on the much maligned CS7, and in that time I’ve only seen two cyclists get hit, and one of those was being overtaken by another cyclist!

    Someone else suggested that most cycle journeys in Amsterdam are between 500m and 5km. That’s great for somewhere like Amsterdam which is very compact compared to London, as it allows people to all toddle along at a similar slowish speed on segregated paths without worrying about how long it takes them to get there. My ride is more like 24km, so has to be done at a higher speed, or it becomes impractical. From my experience, a much higher proportion of London cyclists share my sort of riding distance than anywhere else I’ve ever been, which really suggests London needs to find its own approach, rather than going Dutch our Danish.

    On another point, I have noticed far more lady cyclists on CS7 recently. Does this mean as suggested above that cycling is maturing in London?

    • Jan 03/12/2012 at 11:25 am #

      Amsterdam is indeed very compact, but average travel distances in London (for all modes) is 15 km per day, with an average of 2.3 trips, giving an average trip distance of 6.5 km). Since this is an average, I assume that a large chunk of that is between 500m and 5km, just like in Amsterdam.

      I think there are two ways of approaching this:

      In London, there’s a small part of the population cycling. These are likely people that like cycling, are physically fit, might like to cycle faster, and can cover greater distances. If you want to make them more comfortable, you need long-distance cycle facilities. I think the dutch have a slightly larger number of these ‘avid cyclists’, but they are less then 10% of the population.

      In The Netherlands, there’s a huge part of the population cycling. 80% of entire population including babies is using a bike at least once a week as a cyclist, even bigger numbers if you count the kids carried on a bike. These are also the elderly, small kids, mothers with children, et cetera. They won’t cycle long distances (personally, I’d prefer public transport or car above 10km / half an hour in nice weather, which goes down to about 5 km / 15 minutes in bad weather), won’t cycle fast (average 15 km/hour). For them, an entirely different kind of infrastructure is needed, which might not benefit (or even hinder) the first group.

      So the main question is: Do you want to cater the current cyclists, or the potential new ones?

  11. Shaumik 01/12/2012 at 7:56 pm #

    I agree – I’ve cycled on lanes in Copenhagen and in Paris and they are slow! For London, whilst you need to make it more friendly for cycle novices, you also need to allow for the many cyclists doing 10k+ each way commuting and therefore need speed and are likely averaging a higher speed over the journey than motorists.

    • 3rdWorldCyclinginGB 03/12/2012 at 10:34 am #

      Yes and let’s make the speed limits hgher so that fast motorists can get to work more quickly and from greater distances too. 13 cyclists dead in London so far this year. Meh.

  12. James Walford 02/12/2012 at 2:16 pm #

    As a Londoner that’s been exiled in Copenhagen since the mid nineties I found that I had to learn how to cycle again. The standard London cycling attitude – claim your place on the road, travel fast etc. – isn’t appropriate in Copenhagen and just leads to unnecessary aggravation. I’m not sure I could cycle in London again now.

  13. MA 06/05/2013 at 8:55 pm #

    As a Dane soon moving to England and trying to find info about the safety of cycling, this was a fun read. I have to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with your assessment of the safety of pedestrians in Copenhagen – or rather, I agree that it’s because you were a tourist. ;-) Just like you would never cross a road without checking for cars, a Dane doesn’t try to cross a road without checking for cyclists. In Copenhagen, you’ll sometimes see pedestrian tourists “hanging out” or walking in the bike lane, maybe because they don’t realize that it’s a bike lane or because they think this is ok – Danes consider that equivalent (and equivalently dangerous/obstructive) to pedestrians hanging out in the middle of the road. If you were to spend a bit more time in Copenhagen, you would very quickly get used to all of this, and I think you would find the whole thing to be very orderly and safe.

    However, it is true that we always need additional bike parking spaces despite ongoing investment in this.

  14. Jarppi 30/06/2013 at 7:54 pm #

    Hi, I just read your post. I am from Finland and I have lived in Copenhagen for 2 years now.

    I’ve heard from Danish friends who have visited Finland, that they’re intimidated driving the bike in Finland, because there often are no bikelanes and you must drive on the car lane. Most bikers don’t dare to ride there and illegally drive on the pedestrian lane. However, I don’t feel intimidated in Finland because I know where and where not to drive.

    Ok, experiences from Copenhagen. First I was like any tourist: As a pedestrian, didn’t remember always to look before stepping to bike lane. That is a mistake, but I was never really intimidated. Danish bikers drive on their own lanes and don’t pass unexpectedly you. In Finland they do that, high speed on a pedestrian lane. As long as you respect bikers and understand to look before stepping on the lane (as you do with cars) you’re fine. After all, they don’t ride on pedestrian lanes either.

    In a short time I learned the biking system and then forgot the whole thing. It comes naturally now. I notice that even when I “overtake” someone walking, I quickly look back-left :) Maybe there is a runner coming faster!

  15. Jarppi 30/06/2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Sorry for my retarded English. I should proofread before posting :)

  16. Peter 04/11/2013 at 3:31 am #

    I am currently in Copenhagen on Holiday for 4 days. Sadly my trip here come’s to an end today.

    I was amazed at the number of Bicycles there were, and had concerns about the limited Parking Spaces. How so many Bikes would clutter the Pavements, yet from my observations nobody seemed to mind. I rode a Bicycle twice here, and saw no signs of aggressive behaviour from either Motorists, Pedestrians, nor Cyclists.

    I saw people riding in stylish Clothes to a Concert on a Saturday night. Many arrived by Bike. On Sunday, I saw a young Woman riding a Bicycle with an Umbrella up.

    I myself, felt totally safe riding a Bike in this beautiful City. Night and Day, I would watch Cyclists in Copenhagen happily ride Bicycles wherever they needed to go. Rain or Shine, they were out on their Bikes. Children placed in Cargo Bikes by their Parents, didn’t seem to mind at all braving the elements.

    It’s going to feel strange going back to mid Wales where I live, and coping with much more “aggression” than some of our European neighbours contend with.. Copenhagen is a good example of daily life cycling a Bicycle. Not all the Fanfare of winning Medals, but how it’s just an ordinary mode of transportation for getting about. Men, Women, Children, young and old ride, in Copenhagen, and even when I was just walking as a Pedestrian, it was wonderful to watch so many out on Bikes.

  17. Tom Payne 08/06/2014 at 7:15 pm #

    This article is ridiculous. Cycling in Copenhagen is bad because there are too many people on bikes!?? Come on, seriously. Are you trying to encourage people to ride and governments to invest in cycling infrastructure, or are you just throwing a ‘spanner in the works’ to make an attention gravbbing headline? It seems like the latter to me.

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