If you lived in London or Paris ten or twenty years ago and you cycled to work, you were part of a small, elite minority. Taking your life into your hands each day, you would thread your way through traffic jams, perhaps in a filter mask to protect you from the fumes. There was little or no dedicated cycling infrastructure.
Fast forward to this decade. Urban cycling has grown hugely. There is hardly a major junction in London without a crowd of neon-clad cyclists during rush hour, and cycle lanes abound. What has happened to change things so much?
The rise of Copenhagenization
The answer lies at least partly in Denmark. Over forty years, Danish design consultant Jan Gehl has promoted bicycle use in cities, primarily Copenhagen. His term for this—Copenhagenization—has been picked up and popularised by design firm Copenhagenize, and its CEO Mikael Colville-Andersen. The company advises governments and cities on how to make a more bicycle-friendly urban environment, through infrastructure, planning and urban design.
The thinking behind the work of the Copenhagenize Design Company is simple. To increase bicycle use, you have to design for bicycles. The main tenet of its work is to enable cyclists and pedestrians to go the quickest, straightest way between A and B, and then, and this is really crucial, to make it really hard for cars, with diversions, changes of route, longer journeys and higher costs.
This is at least in part what is behind the changes in London, with two key elements of transport policy combining to change the thinking. The first is the creation of a congestion charging zone. This has made it much more expensive to drive around central London, and provided an incentive to find an alternative mode of transport. The second is the introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’, a scheme along the lines of Paris’ Vélib’, with bikes that can be conveniently hired from stands across the city and ridden in normal clothes, without the need for Lycra™.
The greatest urban experiment of our time?
The experience in London shows that the idea could work, although there are still a lot of cars around the city centre. But experience in Copenhagen last year is even more conclusive.
An article on Copenhagenize.com, the Copenhagenize company blog, discusses the effect of the construction of a new metro system in Copenhagen. Quite by chance, the construction project—involving as it does some 17 separate building sites around the city—has made it really hard to drive in the city. Bicycle use in Copenhagen had been stubbornly stuck at around 35% of the population for many years. Almost overnight, it exploded to 45% of all those commuting into and around the city, including those coming from outside the immediate city environs. And when you look just at those who live in the city, it’s a massive 63% who arrive at their place of work or education by bike. Only 10% travelled by car.
It’s a moot point whether the city authorities in Copenhagen will see their public transport project in quite the same light as a bicycle-advocating design consultancy. They might, however, be tempted to see at least some ways to build on the inadvertent lessons, now that they have been pointed out by said consultancy. Copenhagenize, it would seem, is all about seizing opportunities for advocacy.
The Copenhagenize Index
But Copenhagenize does more than just provide advice and commentary on designing for bicycles. Over the last five years, the organisation has published an annual index of bicycle-friendly cities. The Index marks cities around the world on their efforts to re-establish the bicycle as a valued means of urban transport.
Cities are given a score of between 0 and 4 points in each of 13 categories, including advocacy, bicycle culture, facilities and infrastructure. There are also bonus points available for particularly good efforts or results. If there is a tie, the baseline points take priority over bonuses. This year, Copenhagen overtook Amsterdam for the number one slot for the first time; new entries to the top 20 included Buenos Aires, Vienna and Minneapolis. The index is almost certainly not perfect, but it does give cities some kind of benchmark, and enables comparisons over a wide range of criteria.
The idea of bicycles as urban transport is not new, but they have been squeezed out by cars over the last fifty years. The work of the Copenhagenize Design Company, and others like them, is helping to redress the balance, and make cities around the world pleasanter, more human, places to live, work and travel around.