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Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes

While Streetfilms was in Copenhagen for the Velo-City 2010 conference, of course we wanted to showcase its biking greatness.  But we were also looking to take a different perspective then all the myriad other videos out there.  Since there were an abundance of advocates, planners, and city transportation officials attending from the U.S. and Canada, we thought it'd be awesome to get their reactions to the city's built environment and compare to bicycling conditions in their own cities.

If you've never seen footage of the Copenhagen people riding bikes during rush hour - get ready - it's quite a site, as nearly 38% of all transportation trips in Copenhagen are done by bike.  With plenty of safe, bicycle infrastructure (including hundreds of miles of physically separated cycletracks) its no wonder that you see all kinds of people on bikes everywhere.  55% of all riders are female, and you see kids as young as 3 or 4 riding with packs of adults.

Much thanks to the nearly two dozen folks who talked to us for this piece.  You'll hear astute reflections from folks like Jeff Mapes (author of "Pedaling Revolution"), Martha Roskowski (Program Manager, GO Boulder), Andy Clarke (President, League of American Bicyclists), Andy Thornley (Program Director, San Francisco Bike Coalition) and Tim Blumenthal (President, Bikes Belong) and Yvonne Bambrick (Executive Director, Toronto's Cyclists Union) just to name drop a few of the megastars.

[intro music]
Yvonne Bambrick: [0:26] Copenhagen is best-case scenario for bicycles. They have properly integrated bicycles into the transportation fabric.
Felicia Williams: [0:31] I think one of the main things is the separated bike lanes because it makes people feel safer.
Andy Thornley : [0:35] And everywhere you go you have a sense of a very humane and human city.
Nicole Jensen: [0:40] And the people here, it's just part of their daily lives to cycle and I just find that so amazing.

[music]

[crowd crosstalk] [0:43]

Andy Clarke: [1:05] The fact that there are around about 100 people here from North America from the U. S. and Canada I think is cause for optimism because I think one of the things we've lacked in the U. S. is the real belief that this stuff actually works, that we've been making it up and saying Copenhagen's like this. But until you really see it, touch it, and feel it for yourself and you ride the streets of Copenhagen during rush hour, it's really hard to believe.
Martha Roskowski: [1:28] They have created a system where every single road works for bicycling. Some of them are quiet streets where you just ride right on the street. Some of them they have painted bike lanes. But more often they have cycle tracks, which are these elevated bike paths. It's only two or three inches of elevation with a little bit of curb and some asphalt filled in, but the difference that it makes is really profound.
Leah Shahum: [1:53] They've really made safe facilities, comfortable facilities, facilities that are welcoming for people of all skill levels. What you do have is a lot of cargo bikes that are often moving slower. You've got a mom or dad pedaling one, two, sometimes three. I've seen children in the cargo bikes. That slow speed is not only accommodated, but it's almost celebrated.
Peter Furth: [2:12] A lot of times in the U. S. when you're riding your bike, you feel almost like an outlaw. You feel like, "Oh, can I just find a little tiny bit of space for myself?" Here, you feel like they're just laying out the red carpet for you.
Jeff Mapes: [2:25] In American cities when you come to a really busy street, that's when you really tense up and you wonder, "Can I get across this street?" When you come to a busy street in Copenhagen, you say, "Oh, good! I know I'm going to find a cycle track here, and it's going to be a quick route. I'm going to be where I need to be in five minutes." I mean what a difference from just about any place else that I've been!"

[music]

Jackie Douglas: [2:54] I love the counters on the side of the road. It makes you feel like you should be on the road, that it's OK to be here. You don't feel like anyone's going to tell you to get out of the way.
Klaus Grimar: [3:05] We're here standing in Copenhagen at Nørrebrogade. And Nørrebrogade is the busiest street for cycling in Copenhagen. Last year we put this machine up. There's now 36, 000 cyclists per day in this street.
Andy Clarke: [3:18] To stand and see a couple hundred cyclists go through an intersection, and then realize that just a block away there's another hundred coming, it's a phenomenal experience.
Yvonne Bambrick: [3:28] We went by the counter last night, and I was cyclist 10,361. That is amazing! It is just feels really empowering to know what's possible.
Andreas Rohl: [3:39] In Copenhagen it's mainstream to go on a bicycle. It's everybody. It's all incomes. It's all age groups. It's both female and male, so that means the average cyclist is a pretty-well [inaudible] person.

[music]

Leah Shahum: [4:02] I've from some of the Copenhageners that it's 55 percent women biking here in the city, which is really impressive and it feels like that.
Felicia Williams: [4:09] One of the main things is the separated bike lanes because it makes people feel safer, and the slow speeds of cars also makes people feel safer with their kids. You see just like these buckets o' kids.
Nicole Jensen: [4:19] The cargo bikes, you're child's in the front with you. You can put your groceries in there, just total utilitarian everyday kind of stuff. Why wouldn't you ride? Why wouldn't women and children ride here? It just seems so practical and so obvious.
Martha Roskowski: [4:33] You see these women wearing skirts, dresses, and high heels, and just pedaling around. They obviously feel comfortable taking their kids on bicycles.
Tim Blumenthal: [4:41] One thing that I've noticed here are a lot of really little bikes. They're like four-year-old kids. They ride a straight line, and they're super on it and ride better than most American adults.
Mikael Colville-Andersen: [4:53] The kids have training at schools in the third grade and again in the ninth grade. They have to do proficiency tests on the bike lane signaling and all that stuff. My son who's eight was riding on the bike lanes to Kindergarten with me or to daycare when he was three and a half with his training wheels riding along. It's just the way it is. You have to. It's a practical solution. The kids have to start riding so you can get around the city.

[music]

Peter Furth: [5:25] The drivers get tamed. That's my expression, they get tamed. They look before crossing. Lots of intersections I've seen, a car wants to turn right and just sits there waiting while four, five, six bikes go by, and then, when the coast is clear, then they make their right turn.

[5:42] Drivers are so comfortable and familiar with what to do around cyclists that even when you remove all the infrastructure, in the sense that you're on a street without any bike infrastructure, you still feel very safe.

Felicia Williams: [5:53] There is sort of a driver education component, but the speeds are basically what do it. I think that's what brings people down, and people being accustomed to cyclists in general.
Mikael Colville-Andersen: [6:02] We trust them on such a fantastic level because that lady, or that guy in the car, they've got a bike at home. They were on the bike lanes when they were five years old, six years old, so we understand each other. We're all cyclists.
Tim Blumenthal: [6:14] The more people ride, the more the motorists expect to see cyclists out there, the safer it becomes. There is safety in numbers.
Ida Auken: [6:22] It's just a different brought up with this. I didn't think about all of this until I went to New York, for instance. That's when I really became aware of what we do here in Copenhagen, that biking is just part of our life.

[music]

Jackie Douglas: [6:46] I've never once had to lift up my bicycle. There's ramps at every stairwell. There's places to put your bicycle. Lovely.
Jeff Mapes: [6:55] One of the things that... Just is an incredible feeling of freedom here is to roll up to your apartment, or store, or restaurant. You slip your key into that simple little back tire lock, click it, pull the key out, and walk away. No wrapping a chain around a tree or a pole. It makes even shorter bicycle trips more possible.
Andy Thornley: [7:23] It's very impressive to see the special infrastructure, the special traffic treatments, the little tiny turn pockets, the traffic signalization. We have the Green Wave here, the signal timing that supports a continuous and comfortable bicycle movement.
Andreas Rohl: [7:38] You have a Green Wave adjusted for the speed of the bicycle instead of to the speed of a car. So we have, for example, a stretch where you can pass. If you travel at 20 kilometers per hour, then you can pass. I think it's 14 traffic lights. They'll all be green for you.
Tim Blumenthal: [7:54] Wherever they're doing construction, road construction, they always drop down these temporary asphalt ramps, so that... Even if it's just working on it for half a day, or a couple hours, you never have a curb where you approach. There always will be a transition.
Ida Auken: [8:11] This is the Danish Parliament, where I work. One of our big victories in recent years was we got about 10, 15 parking lots shoved down and turned into bike parking. Every morning you'll see Parliamentarians. You'll see all the people working in the Parliament coming with their bikes, placing them in front of the Parliament.

This is the most beautiful, wonderful bike city in the whole world.

[music]

Jeff Mapes: [8:45] Too much, in the United States, there's a feeling of the other. That somebody on a bicycle, that's not me. That's some different kind of creature. Here, it's very clear. A person on a cycle, that's just me using a different mode of transportation.
Martha Roskowski: [8:59] Copenhagen has hit some point of transformation where bicycling is cheaper, easier, quicker, perhaps safer than any other mode of transportation. And so, it's just what people do.
Leah Shahum: [9:12] I think if we can succeed in making our streets back home safe and welcoming for moms, for parents bringing their children out, we will have succeeded.
Andy Clarke: [9:22] The painted bike lane is great for the committed and enthusiastic cyclist, but for the next big swath of the population, that isn't going to be enough.
Andy Thornley: [9:31] We need to find a way to give bicycle riders a place that's comfortable, and inviting, and has a sense of safety. We don't have that yet. So, we need to move on that, and we need to accompany it with promotion, and education, and explanations.
Andy Clarke: [9:44] We could do this fairly easily and fairly inexpensively in just about any US city. The only thing that we would need to do is have the will and the political power to squeeze the cars a bit.

[9:56] We like to say, just to put people at ease, that Copenhagen didn't do it overnight. It took 40 years to get where they are today. We don't have the luxury of waiting 40 years to get to that point in US cities. We have to do it a lot more quickly.

Jan Gehl: [10:09] To me, it is fantastic to be in a city where every morning when you wake up, you have the feeling that the city is a little bit better than it was yesterday. It's remarkable to have that feeling every morning for forty fifty years. That is the case in Copenhagen.

[music]

[10:28]



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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  • Prala

    And now the hot parliament member is the minister of environmental issues

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  • Gugo321
  • Phurley

    Although the video is very positive about riding bikes. I would also like to see information on how many accidents there are between bike riders and cars. How many bikes are stolen each year.

  • Tallycyclist

    This website has some statistics about what you were asking:
    http://www.cycling-embassy.dk/2010/03/08/cycling-statistics-from-denmark/.  If you take into consideration how many people and trips are made by bikes, it is very safe to cycle in Denmark.  Holland, with it's considerably better infrastructure, is even safer for cyclists despite their being a lot more in comparison.  I have personally been to Copenhagen twice and cycled in the downtown and surrounding suburb areas.  It is very relaxing and feels very safe and the vast majority of drivers watch out for cyclists.

    Here's an excellent site about cycling in Holland:
    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/ 

  • http://profiles.google.com/juleskills Julie Hardee

    This video is like bike porn. They are living the dream. I'm so jealous and at the same time hopeful. 

  • Teri Iverson

    I loved watching this video.. cyclists riding and talking on a cell phone, sleeping child leaning back towards his mother as she pedals peacefully along. Cargo bikes with children smiling and happy (or we could say cars  here with children fighting in theback seat.They move quickly, with total cooperaion and courtesy with the vehicle traffic.  They seem to be a city that is friendly and "alive".  Not only would this sort of transportation, especially in the larger cities be a challenge for those of us here, it would promote a healthier lifestyle, which  would also help with much of our  physical problems.   Also noted, few wore helmets!

  • Fisher5051

    I enjoyed the video and the concept of bike traffic co-habitating with autos on busy streets without a lot of expense.  U.S. cities need to take a serious look at a bike environment.    However, it seemed a minority of the cyclists wear helmets and am wondering why safety would not be stressed more.

  • USbike

    They do stress safety in many ways, hence the developed system that exist presently.  Helmets are just not the primary way used to achieve this.  The biggest threat are the cars, and helmets have very limited protection against being run over anyway.  Get the infrastructure built and the safety in numbers.  Then add the little details like turn pockets, advance stop lines, advanced green signals for bikes, clearly marked road signals, etc. and that should be all you need to become like Cph.  Take a look at videos of cyclists in Holland, the most advanced cycling country in the western world (perhaps the entire world).  Virtually no one wears a helmet, yet they have the safest road system for cyclists.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QW53WEE5EBQ6AJ2KPU33D2NU74 Asymptote

    I want a Copenhagen for Christmas!

  • Mariewalshkilmurry

    Just saw your video and am just back from the hospital in Copenhagan which changed the way I looked at the attitude of many cyclists in the city , they are too many bikes on very narrow pathways and no slow lanes, very few helmets, and some people think they are in for the cycling olympics .
    My daughter is after a very bad cycling accident broken knee and crushed foot two large bikes and a lady fell onto her leg at the traffic lights ;It should be compulsary to wear helmits.
    Its great to have cycling and so many people cycling but what about the people who rule the cycle paths at speeds which are completly off the wall in tight cycling paths .
    Has anyone done a study of the accidents from bikes in Copenhagan ? how many people die from head injuries .My daughter is in a wheelchair for three months and she is studying the Danish health system right now .

  • Edward

    I am sorry to hear about your daughter. I hope she gets well soon. It sounds as if her injuries were caused by someone falling over at a traffic light,
    A helmet probably would not have made a great deal of difference to her foot and knee injuries. You will have seen that a number of people in Copenhagen choose to wear a helmet. That is a matter for them. If you check the figures, you will find that Denmark has a let fewer injuries than less friendly American, Australian and UK cities. It has nothing to do with helmets and everything to do with proper design.

  • Gilles

    You are marvelously beautiful.
    You very included/understood.
    From France I envy you.

  • Poul Madsen

    I've seen this video sooo many times and it makes me amazed and proud. So thanks a million! I grew up in a small town north of Copenhagen and went to school by bike in the late sixties and early seventies. The elevated cycle tracks that they mention in the video has always been there. I never thought of them as something special. I always took them for granted, so I am amazed to learn how the North Americans see them in the video. Wow!

    Thanks a million for sharing... I think I'll watch the video one more time... or two.... :-) 

  • Poul Madsen

    Like Edward, I am sorry to hear about your accidents. I grant you there are many bikes in Copenhagen and even cyclist idiots as well - of course there are... unfortunately. The number of idiots however compared to the number of considerate cyclists is small, fortunately, and I'd rather see them on a bike than driving a car. Judging from your name and location you could be from Ireland. I used to ride a bike in Dublin between the north west and the city centre and I didn't fancy the narrow gap between cars and cyclists. Cyclists in Dublin don't think that trafic rules apply to them, and my Irish girl friend used to give out hell to them.
    Not sure a helmet should be compulsary for many reasons.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Poul, Just seeing this comment. Thank you for so much for your comment. It makes me feel like the work we do is so much appreciated by many.

  • Yvonne Lunde-andreassen

    I lived there in the 50's - what a great city- we biked everywhere and motorists were so very civilised - Bliss for a biker !