Copenhagen on Two Wheels – Part 1

From Kim……. A big welcome to a guest author for the “between yellow and blue” blog to Cyndi.  She is a friend and former classmate from my Georgia Tech days.  Cyndi endured our endless years at our favorite college in the architecture building.  She is one of the few witnesses that I have that can say,  yes Kim did indeed pull one allnighter! One and one only.  

Currently life finds Cyndi newly married (ahhhh newlyweds) and living in Copenhagen.  When we reconnected a few weeks ago, we got talking about things green and one thing led to another.  Here she is to share her sustainable experiences with us from an European view.  You can also keep up with her European life on her personal live journal blog at cyndirella107.livejournal.com.  Thanks Cyndi, I am looking forward to your contributions!


Trading in my car for a bicycle was one of the best things about moving from the United States to Denmark.  A large number of residents in Denmark use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.  The established Danish bike culture makes it easy for cyclists to feel safe and encouraged, but how can a city that is addicted to automobiles embrace the bicycle and encourage citizens to make the switch?  The answer is in the infrastructure.  The most crucial step is to add protected bike lanes to existing roads.  Many cities in the United States are already adding bike lanes in an effort to accommodate cyclists.  The problem with these lanes, in all the cases that I have witnessed, is the fact that they offer NO protection from car traffic.  These attempts are cheap, dangerous, and most likely just a political move to pacify activists.  The flush painted bike lanes are seen by drivers as opportunities for on street parking or turn lanes.  There is a wonderful website based in Atlanta, Georgia that documents these infractions around the city.  I am particularly disgusted by the police vehicles caught in violation.  http://atlanta.mybikelane.com/


The Danish solution is extremely simple yet amazingly effective.  Bike lanes on high traffic streets have a small curb just like a sidewalk.  Cyclists can and should be protected by this simple 3-6 inch difference just like pedestrians.


There are two additional features to Denmark’s bicycle infrastructure.  The next is the existence of traffic lights for bicycles separate from automotive ones.  At some complicated intersections, it is important to give bicycles their turn.  Even at simple intersections, the bike lights change from red to yellow a little earlier to give the cyclists a chance to start pedaling.  The final feature to the infrastructure is the design of intersections with regard to bike lanes and crosswalks.  An illustration will better explain this than words, so I will start with that.

The crosswalks are pulled in from the the sidewalk corner 6-10 feet.  As a general rule in Denmark, cyclists are required to make a wide left turn where they cross the perpendicular street and wait to cross the original one.  The space between the crosswalk and bike lane becomes a waiting area for the cyclists turning left.  Those who are continuing straight are supposed to stop before the crosswalk.

Many years ago, I attempted to learn the American hand signals .  I have never been able to remember which is which, and I am sure that a majority of others feel the same way.  That does not make an effective system.  The Danish system is much more simple and clear.  If a cyclist is planning on turning left or right, he extends his arm in the respective direction.  Some people point, but my winter mittens do not allow me the pleasure for a good part of the year.  If a cyclist plans on stopping (most commonly when approaching the waiting area for a wide left turn maneuver), he holds up one of his arms as if to take an oath.

All of these features and rules have been developed over time.  Cities that are trying to become friendly to cyclists should study Copenhagen rather than haphazardly trying to reinvent the wheel.

[Next up, Part 2 will cover the cultural aspects of cycling in Denmark]

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7 Responses to “Copenhagen on Two Wheels – Part 1”


  1. 1 james April 8, 2009 at 7:49 am

    I was in Copenhagen a few years ago and was amazed at the civility with which pedestrians, bicycles, and autos all follow their respective traffic lights and signals. This coming coming from New Haven, Connecticut, where I’ve been for the past 7 years. We have terrible drivers here who are blatantly disobedient to traffic laws, and inconsiderate pedestrians who cross wherever they like without even looking up–and if you dare to ride your bike (taking your life in your hands for sure), it’s not unusual to be threatened verbally, with horns, or “loving” hand gestures. I’m so happy you’ve found bike culture so organized in Copenhagen–I wish we had that here. Oh, and I was astounded at the lack of bike locks in Copenhagen. Out of all the many thousands of parked bikes I saw in my few days in Copenhagen, I think I only saw a handful locked up. Amazing! –James

  2. 2 Tiko April 8, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Not sure about the law there, but here in TX cyclists can legally use the hand signals that you describe here. The “American” hand signals are simply for a driver located in a left-handed driving position vehicle. I suspect drivers in Denmark use identical signals when required.

  3. 3 cyndirella107 April 8, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Hey James, I knew I’d hear from you. The locks are a little deceiving. Almost every bike here IS actually locked even though they are not locked TO something. Many bikes have wheel locks which visually blend into the bike. I hear they are pretty difficult to remove. They kind of act like The Club. It also helps that Danes are held to a strict social code (Jante’s Law) and crime is very low. I lock my bike, but I am also employing the “my bike’s not worth stealing” method.

    And Tico, I certainly would not hesitate to use the simpler hand signals in the states. I’d feel in danger trying to use the others. You must live in Austin…

  4. 4 cyndirella107 April 8, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Sorry, Tiko.

  5. 5 james April 8, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Interesting. I suppose I was looking for chains or U-locks on bikes–I didn’t even think about locking the bike to itself! :o) Here in New Haven, we like to observe what we call the “dinosaur bike” phenomenon. That is, a bike locked up to something for a substantial length of time. Within the first few days, the seat is gone, followed a few weeks later by both wheels–sometimes the chain even goes, leaving just the skeleton of what the bike once was. I would love to be able to use the “my bike’s not worth stealing” method!

  6. 6 cyndirella107 April 8, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Ah yes, bike leprosy…

  7. 7 Tiko April 8, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    So, to sum, there is no “American” system or “Danish” system. There is a bicycle system and a vehicle system of hand signaling.


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