Copenhagen’s Car-Free Streets & Slow-Speed Zones
In Copenhagen, you never have to travel very far to see a beautiful public space or car-free street packed with people soaking up the day. In fact, since the early 1960s, 18 parking lots in the downtown area have been converted into public spaces for playing, meeting, and generally just doing things that human beings enjoy doing. If you're hungry, there are over 7,500 cafe seats in the city.
But as you walk and bike the city, you also quickly become aware of something else: Most Copenhagen's city streets have a speed limit of 30 to 40 km/h (19 to 25 mph). Even more impressive, there are blocks in some neighborhoods with limits as low as 15 km/h (9 mph) where cars must yield to residents. Still other areas are "shared spaces" where cars, bikes and pedestrians mix freely with no stress, usually thanks to traffic calming measures (speed bumps are popular), textured road surfaces and common sense.
We charmed you last month with our look at bicycling in Copenhagen, now sit back and watch livable streets experts Jan Gehl and Gil Penalosa share their observations about pedestrian life. You'll also hear Ida Auken, a member of Denmark's Parliament, and Niels Tørsløv, traffic director for the City of Copenhagen, talk about their enthusiasm for street reclamation and its effect on their city.
Jan Gehl: [00:22] In Copenhagen we had a great influx of cars starting in the middle of the ‘50s. We call it the car invasion. And by the early ‘60s it started to be really bad. And in 1962 it was decided to take the cars out of the main street of Copenhagen. It’s a one kilometre long street. There was great debate/discussion, it will never work, all the businesses will go broke, and the weather’s not good enough for being outdoors in Denmark. But it was closed anyway. That was the start of a long trek where, in small instalments, improvements have been made to the pedestrian landscape to the public spaces.
Ida Auken: [01:03] We actually have eighteen squares now that used to be parking lots. And when they started shutting them down, and when they made the main pedestrian street here, people were saying, no, this is not Italy, people do not use the public space, what are you thinking, they don’t go walking, like to take a stroll. And look what happened.
Gil Penalosa: [01:31] I think one of the wonderful things of pedestrian places is that they always surprise you. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Can we even imagine for a second what this pedestrian space would be like if there were cars on it? For example, these kids here with their hat, that’s a symbol of graduation, they just finished their high school, they are graduating today, they’re going crazy, they’re going into the fountains. And we see people also sitting on the floor. I mean it’s so nice and so well taken care of that people can sit on the floors.
Ida Auken: [02:00] People want to be with people and that means we go where people are, whether space for walking, for expressing yourself. For instance, yesterday I went down by the water and in front of the Royal Theatre, there’s this boardwalk, and there was outdoor tango all night.
Nicole Jensen: [02:19] I mean they’re meeting each other, they’re having a coffee, they’re just chatting, they’re riding their bikes, they’re walking, they’re walking their dogs, they’re hanging out with their kids. Like it’s just amazing, they’re just living. It’s like the perfect example of public space and how to do it right.
Jan Gehl: [02:31] So we’ve seen this gradual transition of the city of Copenhagen from a traffic infested city to really a people oriented city, which is quite lovely.
Niels Torslov: [02:49] The philosophy is that if you can keep speed down, say 30k or 40k, you won’t have so many accidents, and if you have accidents they will not be very severe. So that’s the basic idea that if you want transfer our urban environment into something for human beings, I mean you had to reduce the speed, it’s one of the first things. We have very few examples of 15k actually.
Jan Gehl: [03:10] We have a number of streets called pedestrian priority streets where pedestrians have the right of way, but you can have bicycles, you can have cars.
Gil Penalosa: [03:19] One of the reasons why it’s such a wonderful workable place, Copenhagen, is because they have lowered their speed in all of their neighbourhoods. I think that in North America we need to create fantastic pedestrian facilities and cycling facilities along the arterials. But in the neighbourhoods we have to lower the speed below 20 miles an hour. And not only just by putting up signs, but put in a physical barrier.
Niels Torslov: [03:44] One of the best ways of keeping speed down is actually to use our humps, because by the humps you are very, very sure that the speed stays down, because if you don’t have this, you will have guys, usually guys, going much too fast in a low speed area because they can.
Niels Torslov: [04:06] We’re standing in front of the old meat market in Copenhagen and some years ago there was a lot of heavy traffic coming in, in the mornings especially. So when they closed down the meat market, we thought we got to better change the street and this is a very central part of Copenhagen, so there’s a lot of people living here, and a lot of enthusiasm about also using space for everything else than traffic.
Gil Penalosa: [04:27] This is a wonderful street, and can you imagine the difference of quality of life from all of these thousands of condos, and in the middle they build this fantastic park.
Niels Torslov: [04:37] What’s left is actually only a very narrow, we call share space solutions, where cars are very slow speed and also bicycles and pedestrians can move around reach other without really any kind of regulation, as long as the speed is low.
Gil Penalosa: [04:51] There are some places where they have nice benches and restaurants on the side. You go to the next block and there is a small basketball court. And you go to the next corner and it has a skateboard park. And then in some of the sides you have fruits and vegetables that are being sold on the street, and then in another block you have flowers.
Mikael Colville-Andersen: [05:06] In the meatpacking district we have a lot of new bars opening up and there’s… if you… all the bikes that are standing around here, sort of looks like this outside every bar. It’s an amazing social network. You ride past cafés and you see bikes parked next to the café. It makes the whole city accessible and very, very human.
Niels Torslov: [05:21] You know these environments are very attractive for urban living and really attractive for people to be on the streets and it also raises the price for those apartments up here because this is an attraction. I mean this is urban trendy lifestyle that we are offering here by redesigning our street for human beings.
Jan Gehl: [05:45] We have 7,500 outdoor café seats which are out for ten months a year. As all over Europe, in a capitalistic society, if things are not good for business they will be changed. And what we see in Denmark and all the other European countries, and we even now also see it in New York in the Broadway area that when these people friendly schemes go in, the businesses actually thrive.
Gil Penalosa: [06:15] From 6:30/7 o’clock in the morning till midnight you see people, constantly people, coming by and it’s also great for the business. When they were going to create these pedestrian places, initially the retail were very much opposed to it. But afterwards they found that the best commercial places in the city are their pedestrian streets.
Mikael Colville-Andersen: [06:33] It’s anthropology, it’s part of the social fabric of the city that there are pedestrians and cyclists, you know, all around you, at all time. It’s human. It adds an amazing level of social community to a city, and I really think that this is one of the main reasons that Copenhagen is, you know, time after time selected as one of the world’s most liveable cities.
Ida Auken: [06:50]
I can’t even imagine what would happen if somebody said, hey, let’s
turn this square into a parking lot. That would be drama in Copenhagen.
So as soon as you win it back, the public space, win it back for human
beings and pedestrians, then it’s ours, then you can’t take it away
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