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What the Danes Would Do: Lessons from Copenhagen

Author: Bike East Bay

Date: December 24, 2014

In April 2014, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Road Show rolled into Oakland, bringing top transportation officials from New York City, Boston and Chicago to the ‘Town’ to help jump start modern bikeway development. Oakland Public Works staff and leadership met with these leading national experts to learn more about new bike projects in other cities and to start strategizing how Oakland can build better bicycle facilities for the growing numbers of people bicycling here. Focus was on Telegraph Avenue and 14th Street in downtown Oakland. While much was learned about great things happening in large East Coast cities, there was a sense that designing great bikeways for Telegraph Avenue and 14th St would be a challenge.

Yes, Chicago and New York are taking the lead nationally to build protected bikeways, and have built more miles of protected facilities than any US cities. But they started on easy, one-way streets, with lots of capacity. Bikeways are placed on one side of the street and bus service on the other side, removing this potential design challenge. Telegraph Ave and 14th St are much different streets, especially Telegraph. New York and Chicago also use ‘mixing zones’ on intersection approaches, requiring bicyclists to jockey with car traffic, and thereby discouraging some potential new bicyclists to try these facilities for everyday bicycling.

Since the NACTO Road Show, Bike East Bay worked closely with Oakland to figure out how to take out a travel lane and add protected bikeways to Telegraph. Last Summer, Oakland was getting concerned about traffic flow with a redesigned Telegraph, and was leaning toward conventional buffered bike lanes with mixing zones and sharrows. Bike East Bay could tell something wasn’t right. With all of NACTO’s expertise, why was it so difficult to build a modern bikeway on Telegraph? To help solve the challenge, Bike East Bay joined with Calbike and went to Copenhagen in late August to learn what the Danes would do. Meet Tietgensgade, a busy downtown street with lots of traffic, buses and bikes. Take envy of Nørrebrogade, northern Europe’s busiest bike street and busiest bus street all in one, and say hello to a state-of-the-art Copenhagen cycle track intersection design.


Let’s start with intersection approaches, as this is perhaps the best example to assist with designs for Telegraph Ave. Copenhagen’s raised cycle tracks drop down to street level as they approach an intersection, but the designated bikeway markings of the cycle track remain. Cars stay to the left of the bikeway, even cars turning right at the corner. The more recently improved intersections have bicycle traffic signal heads that do several key things. One, they give cyclists an advance green light ahead of turning cars, which is safer and also helps clear the intersection of cyclists to allow cars to make their right turn. And turning drivers have to wait and yield to cyclists going straight, and yield they do.

Two, at the tail end of the green phase, right turning cars are often given a short dedicated right turn green light. Cyclists turning right get a similar bike light for right turns while straight thru cyclists get a red light. It’s all very bikey. It’s of interest to note that in Denmark rights on a red are not allowed, neither for drivers nor cyclists, although Copenhagen is experimenting with changing this for cyclists. And three, the bike lights further raise awareness to drivers that cyclists are present and to watch for them as drivers make a right turn. However, there are many cycle track intersections with no special bike traffic lights, and cyclists and motorists operate under the same green/red lights, and that works too. For Telegraph Ave, we want to see this intersection approach used, with the protected bikeway (cycle track) continued up to the intersection and the common traffic light design for both drivers and cyclists used at first but then eventually upgraded to bike traffic lights for enhanced safety.

Discourage Cut-Thru Traffic

Nørrebrogade is a fascinating street, because it was redesigned in the last 10 years, at first with continuous cycle tracks, then more recently with wider cycle tracks and a green wave for cyclists , one less car lane, bus islands to separate bus passengers from cyclists passing by, and one block that is buses only. The goal was to discourage through car traffic and prioritize local traffic. Over 100,000 people used this street everyday. The results were impressive although not entirely without controversy. Bus service improved, cycling doubled, car volumes decreased and local businesses did a brisk business. Yet, many businesses complained and the public process was not as good as the process to date has been on Telegraph Ave.

Many side streets on Nørrebrogade are traffic calmed as well, to enhance the pedestrian experience and limit the amount of cut thru traffic within the neighborhood. There are adjacent major arterial streets on either side of Nørrebrogade and it is these streets that handle the vast majority of car traffic entering downtown Copenhagen every day, which there is still plenty of, unfortunately. Bike commuting reached 40% of trips in 2013, and Copenhagen has set a goal of reaching 50%. They are taking comprehensive approaches to major commute corridors to discourage car commutes into the downtown and increase transit ridership and bike commuting.

The lesson for Telegraph Ave here is that the best approach is to set a goal of discouraging cut-thru traffic and design for moving people not vehicles. If we can do this on Telegraph, we can build a great bikeway on Telegraph from downtown Oakland up to 52nd Street. Cudos to Oakland for including bus islands on the designs for Telegraph Ave, as this will help speed up bus service.

Narrow Lanes

Above 51st Street on Telegraph Ave, traffic volumes increase towards UC Berkeley. Here, a redesigned Telegraph may need to keep 4 through lanes for cars, at least until UC Berkeley starts actively discouraging faculty, staff and visitors from driving. Copenhagen had a similar challenge and came up with this design on Tietgensgade, which is 70ft wide, just like Telegraph. There are 4 thru lanes, much like Telegraph Ave north of 57th St, but the travel lanes are 10ft wide and the parking lanes are 6.5ft wide. We know what you’re thinking–Danish cars are so much smaller and American parking lanes could never be so narrow. Oh contrare! Many Danish cars are just as wide as our cars, and in fact they are getting wider as Denmark as a country becomes more wealthy, with a thriving car culture that wants bigger cars. And by the way, Danish buses are the exact same width as ours and handle 10ft lanes just fine.

And the parking and cycle track lanes are reversed, as they are all over Copenhagen. Morten Kabell, the Mayor of Copenhagen with responsibility over streets, told us that Americans are crazy to place bike lanes to the left of parked cars–a frank challenge to American’s idea of safety. On Tietgensgade, the cycle track is about 8ft wide, allowing for two cyclists side by side. Here is how Telegraph would look with such a design. Do you like it? We feel its a major improvement over the conventional bike lanes that are proposed from 52nd to 57th St. This design could extend all the way up to Derby St in Berkeley.

Other Cool Concepts from Copenhagen

  • Malmö, Sweden, Copenhagen’s Neighbor: Unlike Copenhagen’s cycle tracks on each side of the street, Malmö’s go to design is a two-way cycle track. Malmö has built a network of two-way pathways throughout the city, each running on one side of the street. At intersections, cycle track junctions are created, with one particular junction having a mini traffic circle. According to Copenhagenize, Malmö has a bike commute mode share of 30%, so they are doing something right. A distinct advantage of two-way cycle tracks is that the cycle track is super-visible, being as wide and prominent as it is. Also, it’s a more comfortable experience being on a wider facility where you can ride side-by-side and chat or wave to your neighbor cycling the other way.


  • World’s Finest Bike Station: At Malmö’s central train station, which directly connects to downtown Copenhagen, there is a brand new bike station facility that is the most impressive new facility we have ever seen. Complete with space for 1500 bikes, dedicated space for cargo bikes, direct access to the train station, a lounge with real time train info while you wait, modern comfortable bathrooms, bike rentals, a backside ramp if you want to bike in and out. Copenhagenize’s take on the new facility


  • Technology: LED lights for the green wave. Copenhagen has created green waves for cyclists on at least three streets, where the traffic lights are timed for 20kph cycling. On one particular cycle track, as a pilot, Copenhagen installed green LED lights in the pavement, that indicate when you need to speed up in order to catch the light. It’s cool, but not exactly clear how necessary it is.


  • Channelization—turn pockets for cyclists: In a never ending effort to improve bicycle traffic flow, Copenhagen builds turn pocket for cyclists, to position them out of the way on straight thru cyclists.

  • Safety at freeway on ramps: Copenhagen does not really have freeways, but they do have major arterial streets that carry a lot of traffic. The on ramps to these busy streets can be difficult to navigate, much like the difficulty of bicycling across an American freeway on ramp. Copenhagen completely signalizes these, stopping car traffic turning onto the freeway, and giving cyclists the green light, and visa versa. It works and is completely safe.

  • People space: being a dense city with many narrow streets, Copenhagen has taken it upon itself to repurpose as much space as possible to people. They have numerous pocket parks, public plazas and squares, linear parks and closed off streets, and at the intersections of minor streets and busier streets there are nice planted bulb outs with trees and benches. Copenhagen has been voted the ‘most livable’ city in the world and for good reason—people love being outdoors, at least when the weather is good.

  • New Metro: not satisfied with 40% bike mode share and northern Europe’s busiest bus system, Copenhagen is building an underground metro system, scheduled to open in 2018. One nice benefit of all the current construction is that the numbers of people bicycling and taking transit has gone up because of added construction-related congestion.

  • Bikes allowed on S Train: this is Copenhagen’s commuter rail and it just recently allowed bikes on for free at all hours. And they designed space on the cars for bikes that works great, both for positioning your bike during the commute and for people to sit when bikes are not present. It would be great if BART could get this right.

  • The Snake (and other new bridges): Copenhagen has moved its shipping operations out of the harbor (just like Oakland is doing) and as a result, can now build more affordable low rise bridges. The Snake recently opened and it is best explained by a video. Construction also continues on several other new bike/ped bridges linking Christianhavn, the south area of Copenhagen, to downtown.

  • Cargo bikes galore: of course Copenhagen is the world capital for cargo bikes and there are all kinds and types, and countless people using them to haul their kids, groceries, musical instruments, you name it.

Why Oakland Can Learn from Copenhagen

Copenhagen distinguishes itself from Amsterdam in one important way. Both have bike commute rates of around 35-40% and inspiring bike culture. But Copenhagen achieves this within a prevalant car culture. Outside of the Copenhagen metro area, bicycling rates drop by half or more and driving doubles. Not the case in The Netherlands, where bicycle usage is generally uniform throughout the country–30% or higher vs 10% in Denmark outside of Copenhagen. The reason for this difference is that The Netherlands maintains more authority over roadways at the national level, while Denmark allows local jurisdictions to set traffic priorities.

This is important and further makes Copenhagen one impressive city because they are achieving high rates of bicycling and transit ridership in an environment that still values car trips in its suburban areas. People commuting into downtown Copenhagen are coming from neighborhoods where they are accustomed to driving for most of their other daily trips. This places great pressure on the City of Copenhagen to accommodate car travel in ways that Amsterdam does not have to. Against this pressure, Copenhagen is learning how to balance the needs of everyone while still maintaining adopted policies to reduce greenhouse gases and increase bicycling rates. Oakland has these same policies.

At the same time, Copenhagen is struggling. For the past 10 years, Copenhagen systematically removed 1-2% of its on-street car parking as part of projects to widen sidewalks, widen cycle tracks, and improve bus service. Then just recently the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen capitulated and added back 1,700 parking spaces, negating 10 years of progress. Many people were frustrated, but businesses appreciated it, the same businesses who customers walk, bike and take transit to get to at a rate of 75% of shoppers. Do these concerns about shoppers sound familiar?

Another lesson from Copenhagen is to try something that can work and don’t be afraid if at first it does not succeed or is not perfect. Street transformation is an iterative process and following smaller improvements with more small improvements is OK. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Copenhagen has also learned to improve its public process, something that Oakland and Bike East Bay are learning a lot with the Telegraph Avenue campaign and which we intend to use for the 14th St bikeway campaign, and other campaigns still moving forward.

Finally, there is a noticable public commitment in Copenhagen to invest in the city. Construction crews are everywhere, a new metro is being built, wider sidewalks and public spaces are being created in many neighborhoods, two new bus rapid transit lines are going in, six new bike/ped bridges over Copenhagen harbor are being constructed because shipping traffic no longer uses the channel, and of course cycle tracks are continually being upgraded to improve the ‘level of service’ for bike commuters. Oakland needs to make a similar public investment. 


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