Bicycle-friendly Copenhagen a model for big cities

COPENHAGEN Mon Dec 14, 2009 8:59am EST

Several hundred protesters march during a Climate No Borders demonstration in Copenhagen December 14, 2009. Copenhagen is the host city for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP15, which lasts from December 7-18. REUTERS/Anders Debel Hansen/Scanpix

Several hundred protesters march during a Climate No Borders demonstration in Copenhagen December 14, 2009. Copenhagen is the host city for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP15, which lasts from December 7-18.

Credit: Reuters/Anders Debel Hansen/Scanpix

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COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The world is gathered in Copenhagen for the U.N. climate summit, but Denmark"s bicycle-friendly capital has also given its name to a movement of cities trying to find a kinder way to commute.

Nearly 40 percent of Copenhagen's population cycle to work or school on ubiquitous paved cycle paths. Many residents take to their bikes year-round, braving rain and snow through the winter in a city where the bicycles outnumber the people.

"Only when there's half a meter of snow outside would I consider using the underground," said 24-year old student Louise Kristensen.

Amsterdam and Beijing too are known for their bicycles, but the Danish capital is where urban planners from around the world have been looking for ways to get their people out of cars and up onto bikes, an effort known as Copenhagenisation.

"We're trying to strike a balance in our transportation network which means having streets that can accommodate everyone," New York Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said.

Klaus Bondam, Copenhagen's technical and environmental chief, calls himself a "mega cyclist" and says the bike's popularity stems partly from high taxes on cars which meant working-class Danes could not afford to drive in the 1930s and '40s.

"Today you'll meet everybody on the bicycle lanes -- women and men, rich and poor, old and young," Bondam said.

The municipality has during the last three years invested more than 250 million crowns ($49.42 million) in bicycle lanes and to make the traffic safer for bicyclists.

City Hall has also made a rule that when it snows, the bike paths get cleared before car lanes.

Today around a third of the population drive cars to work or study, another third take public transport, while 37 percent cycle -- a figure the city aims to boost to 50 percent by 2015.

Bondam said there are many benefits when citizens choose bicycles over cars: pollution and noise decline, public health improves, and more people on bikes or walking creates a sense of safety in the city.

Fewer parked cars leaves more space for playgrounds, parks, shopping areas and other useful public amenities.

Bondam said car traffic should be limited, though a car-less society is probably impossible. However, cars that cannot be avoided should be electric rather than run on fossil fuels.

COPENHAGENISATION

From 70 to 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions, blamed by scientists for global warming, come from big cities.

As more and more people have become concerned with the climate, officials from around the world have come to Copenhagen to learn about its bike culture.

But Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl, who coined the term Copenhagenisaton, says the concept is broader than that and entails cities becoming lively, safe, sustainable and healthy.

For the past decade Gehl has helped cities around the world, including New York, Seattle, San Francisco, London, Stockholm, Oslo, Melbourne, Sydney and Amman, to "Copenhagenise."

"Depending on culture, region, climate and topography, there are good solutions for every city," Gehl said.

He noted that in most parts of the world car travel has only been common after the Second World War.

"Sixty years is a short time in the greater perspective, so people should be able to change their habits once again," the architect said.

New York has initiatives to improve the look, feel and mobility of its streets, according to Sadik-Khan.

For instance, in the last three years, the city has installed 200 miles of bicycle lanes to boost safety for cyclists and pedestrians and has transformed old railway land into public spaces to improve the quality of life in residential and business districts.

"The response has been tremendous, and we hope to keep the momentum going by expanding it next year," Sadik-Khan said.

From 2008-2009 the city saw a 26 percent increase in bike commuting, and a recent survey in Times Square and Herald Square found that 93 percent said the plazas made the area a better place and one to which they wanted to return.

Gehl said that making cities better for pedestrians and cyclists is even smarter in poor, fast-growing developing countries and cities because it is cost-effective.

"It's a good solution for the climate, the economy and the poor," he said.

Though many officials want citizens on bikes for climate reasons, back in Copenhagen, Kristensen said: "Biking is just the easiest way to get around here."

($1=5.059 Danish Crown)

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