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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.

 

[intro music] 

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. 

 

[music] 

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. 

 

[music] 

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. 

 

[music] 

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. 

 

[music] 

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. 

 

[music] 

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 again.   

[music]

Transcription Sponsored by: Transcript Divas Transcription Services

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/inwoodist inwoodist

    A beautiful example of how civilized life can be in a well-designed urban environment.

  • Ian Turner

    This was fun to watch. Thanks for sharing.

  • dunz

    I am wondering why we couldn't make every 2nd avenue in the Inner Richmond in San Francisco a slow speed zone with room for kids & adults to play.

  • Moe

    Good stuff - in fact, though Denmark seems quite a bit behind on slow speed areas compared to Germany, Austria, Netherlands and other places where 30k/hr is ubiquitous (outside the very slow 20/15k/hr zones).  Most streets are 50k/hr, and the national police control speed limit policy.  

  • http://michaelgr.com/ Michael G.R.

    Awesome vid about an awesome city!

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/wklis W. K. Lis

    Beware of micro-managing by city authorities. That includes zoning. Better to have mixed-use multi-level buildings, for examples, instead of zoning for only single use.

  • Andrew D. Smith

    This blog's enthusiasm for slowing traffic has tilted into the absurd. Fast transportation is a benefit that makes life better. There are, of course, times when fast traffic is genuinely dangerous, and it's obviously appropriate to slow cars down in those cases. But much of the sentiment here is clearly about taking delight in slowing down those bastards who own cars.

  • Bob Davis

    It's been a few years since I first saw the term "traffic calming". The concept seems to have originated in somewhere in Europe (Holland?) and has been adopted here and there in the US. My quibble is that the term could be considered a euphemism for "traffic restricting". "Calming" sounds more peaceful and less "authoritarian".

  • Louis P.

    Mr. Smith that's a very inane comment. You actually admitt that speeds should be lower in some places because it is dangerous, which is exactly what this video exhales brilliantly. I didn't get where they said speeds in Copenhagen all need to be like 15 mph or something similar.

  • Sprague

    It is important to note that traffic calmed streets are usually quieter streets (unless they are paved with cobblestones). They are safer and also more pleasant for everyone who lives within earshot.

  • Neil

    Having just returned from Copenhagen, I can attest to their wonderful, pedestrian scale streets and squares. I would love to see what they're like in the winter though, and what affect, if any, the weather and daylight hours has on those streets.

    It does make me wonder what SF could be like 40 or 50 years from now if their was the political will right now (especially for experiments like the Noe Valley square that seems stalled). What if Powell was closed to cars? Grant street thorough Chinatown seems a no brainer, but how about closing it all the way from Market into North Beach? SF especially seems well positioned to make these kind of changes, since we already have (for the US at least), a relatively good public transportation system, and pedestrian-scale streets.

  • Da Muse

    I almost cried when I saw this. SF has so much potential, but the idiotic mayor and supervisors are too busy scoring points and maintaining status quo.

    We have so many vacant plots. In the Castro alone there's this huge spot next to Swedish Hall which is lying vacant. Why can't these be converted to public spaces while the owners sit around?

    People heavy streets like Castro, Valencia, 24th, etc. should have wider sidewalks so that outdoor cafes, restaurants, etc. can bloom.

    SF potential is only matched by the supervisors' ineptitude.

  • alex

    NEIL-

    I was in Copenhagen last winter, and the streets are just as nice then as they are when the weather is warm.  people do not linger at outdoor cafes when it is snowing or lounge on the cobblestones, but the city is still full of life as everyone is still biking and walking everywhere, waiting patiently for the sun to first emerge in the spring

  • Neil

    Alex, thanks, that's good to hear. Hopefully I'll have a chance to visit in winter sometime.

  • FJ

    @Andrew D. Smith.

    Every situation is unique. Downtown Copenhagen has some very narrow streets that, when they were "regular" streets with some kind of side walk and two way traffic were highly dysfunctional for ANY purpose. Cars idling in traffic, people choking on exhaust and so on. The solution was, over the loud protests of the business community, to close down ONE street and make it a "foot traffic only". Waddaya know. Business boomed and soon the business community was screaming for an expansion of the "foot traffic area" to include some side streets and business boomed some more. The rest, as they say, is history. Apparently business thrive where people thrive. There's PLENTY of big streets and, as far as I remember, no less that 3 beltways.. so go ahead bring your car.

    @neil
    I have some pictures from downtown Copenhagen in December '05. The streets are PACKED. Only, nobody's wearing sandals :)

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Eric Eric McClure

    Awesome, Clarence!

  • http://www.bikefilmfestival.org Andy Salkeld

    Am planning to screen this as header documentary at a 'Rec-cycling Cities' Q&A with Young Reporters from Leicester's Wave Magazine (All under 16) asking the questions of invited mayoral candidates (TBC).
    We will screen a selection of other Streetfilm shorts & plug the idea of creating a Leicester 'Streetfilms' group as part of our http://www.citizenseye.org community media network. Keep up the great work !!

  • http://www.bikefilmfestival.org Andy Salkeld

    Sorry forgot to add - the screening is part of Ride Leicester Film Festival - http://www.bikefilmfestival.org at 5pm on Saturday 28th August - Any Streetfilm fans in the UK will be welcome !

  • Glenn

    What makes Copenhagen so amazing is that this was a conscious choice they made long ago to make their city more livable for everyday common person instead of yielding to the car. Copenhagen was just like most cities in the 1950s - making roads wider, building highways, narrowing sidewalks, even creating car-oriented suburbs. But then they said "Enough" and switched gears, retrofitting what existed and making public space people oriented. Any city can do what Copenhagen did and that's what makes it amazing!

  • Ed Pino

    Another example of how Europe is so far in front of us in terms of Human functioning.
    People first.

  • http://www.shareleaf.com Martin Tychsen

    I live in Denmark - and have been in Copenhagen many times.

    It sure is a wonderful city - just as my home town Odense.

    Odense is announced to be Denmark's National Cycle City :)

    You can read and see pictures from this maybe old article:
    http://www.friefugle.dk/poland/odense_ta_en.html 

    Hope it is in your interest :)

  • Stu Butler

    As a keen daily cyclist I was very proud to be one of the first to sign up for the London cycle scheme (£45 p.a.), along with 35,000 other Londoners in the first week!

    There are over 6,000 bikes everywhere across London. With a electronic key you unlock a bike from a docking station and cycle anywhere within 30 minutes for free and then re-dock it.

    The mini-video on Copenhagen must be the inspiration for 6K bikes to become 60K bikes by 2012 Olympics. To make Oxford St, Regents St, Bond St, Piccadilly, The Strand, The Mall, Soho all pedestrianized.

    The most poignant comment in the video is "people want to be with people". Is London really to evolve to follow Copenhagen? For health, for community, for the environment, for the economy, for life.

  • Lars Barfred

    @Moe

    I live and bike in Copenhagen, and agree, 50k/h is the limit for almost all streets. Recently the City Council wanted to lower to 40K as the guiding principle for most streets. For some stupid reason the police both can and did refuse this. 
    In my mind larger streets should be 30 and residential streets should be 20. Copenhagen is not a big city, lowering speed limits will not seriously affect commuting time for anybody, what affects commuters is traffic congestion. 
    Any distance across the city of 10k or less is faster by bike, metro or s-train, than a car.

    Really what is most annoying in danish traffic though is mopeds, 50 cubic motorbikes, they drive 30-50 km/h are allowed on the bike-lane, they think bikes should make way for them, because they are faster than most bicycles and pollute much more than cars, they should simply not be allowed

  • Wally

    So jealous!!! Come on San Francisco!!!! WAKE UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jamie

    I wonder if there were any adverse impacts on street usage as a result of the implementation of slower speeds, shared space or removal of parking spaces. It’s great to see that there were a lot of benefits as a result of these changes but it would be interesting if there was anything they would recommend doing differently to any other cities that are planning on taking this sustainable route.

  • http://ipbbe.blogspot.com/ Ulrich Jager

    Without any doubt, Copenhague is an example of how all our cities should be. Cities were built for people and not for cars.

  • Norm Milstein

       A video like this brings unashamed tears to my eyes.  I watched the destruction of Los Angeles many years ago in the name of the automobile.  By 1965 the pollution and traffic had reached absolutely obscene levels. I moved away in 1980, never to return.
       It's time to resurrect our cities and make them great places for people to live and move about in.  Copenhagen is one great example of what is needed.   Thanks for this video.

  • Justin S

    In North America, we created significant policy framework in the mid-20th century that supported expansion of automobile based urban development.  Half a century later, the foundational inclusions within this policy framework remains and continues to make it extremely difficult for planners, engineers, and politicians to support even small changes to the urban environment that foster "liveable" streets as depicted in the film without exposing themselves (and ultimately tax payers) to legal/liability concerns - it's sad really.
     
    Until we undergo serious efforts to strategicly deregulate or modify these technical standards and policies that hold strong, places like New York's revamped Time's Square will continue to be a rarity.
     
    ____Justin S
    @urban_future

  • http://www.facebook.com/Andrew.Riesmeyer Andy Riesmeyer

    I don't understand the elevation of New York's Time's Square in the video and like you said. People go there as a tourist destination. From a quality of life standpoint  though, it's horrible. It's overcrowded and inefficient. People don't live in midtown, if you live on Manhattan you try to avoid TS at all costs. . It is basically a giant outdoor mall with big box retailers, scam camera shops and billboards the size of buildings.