Complete Streets Lessons from Copenhagen

Traveling on bikes in Copenhagen.
Traveling in a cycle-track in Copenhagen.

I was fortunate last week to be able to attend Velo-City, an international bicycle conference, held this year in Copenhagen, already world-famous as a ‘city of cyclists.’

Frankly, in the past, I’ve discounted the value of the European model in the United States. It has been just too different – and certainly has been rejected by most local elected officials in the US. Specific European treatments such as cycle-tracks (bicycle lanes raised from the road surface and separate from the sidewalk) seemed pointless to discuss. On this trip, however, I came away with greater clarity about what European cities have to teach the Complete Streets movement in the United States.

The cycle-tracks, and the accompanying blue bike lanes crossing intersections, get a lot of credit for the astounding outcomes: in Copenhagen, 55% of all trips are made on bicycles. Such techniques are employed in other European cities, notably Oulu Finland, where even with six months of winter, the bicycle mode share is 20 percent. Many an American has returned to the states convinced that installation of cycle tracks or blue bike lanes are the way out of our car-dependent road system.

Many choose the bicycle to commute Copenhagen.
Commuting in Copenhagen.

Yet scratch the surface of the Danish system and things get even more astounding. Engineers are trying signaling and lighting systems to ensure the safety of bike-riders from right-turning vehicles. They are timing lights to create a ‘green wave’ so cycle commuters never have to put their foot down on the way to work. And how do those cycle-tracks stay so clean? With specially-built street sweepers that traverse the system once or twice a day. No wonder that the Danes on bikes speed past cautious American visitors – they are confident that they won’t encounter potholes or debris.

So what is most remarkable in Europe is not a single engineering technique, but the political consensus that Complete Streets are a fundamental tenet of transportation system design, construction, and operation. From this consensus spring a whole host of facilities, policies, and attention to detail that results in a system geared to travel by people, rather than vehicles.

The American cities that are trying innovative street treatments have started to build that type of political consensus with Complete Streets policies. In places that have not begun to build that consensus, attempting installation of a cycle-track would be a heavy lift: it would likely face skepticism from both engineers and the public; it might provoke an uproar over taking space from automobiles; and it might soon fill with debris. In fact, fighting for multi-modal streets in the US has mostly occurred on such a project level, and has almost inevitably inflamed specific debates that obscure the real issue.

Sharing the lane takes on new meaning.
"Sharing the lane" takes on new meaning.

This consensus we see in Denmark is most obvious to us when looking at bicycles, but it extends to other modes as well: pedestrians have their space on the street, as do buses and trains – in rural areas as well as in cities. People using electric wheelchairs and scooters are common on the cycle-tracks, and those with vision impairments benefit from audible pedestrian signals. And in Copenhagen, even automobiles get their place with informational signs that help drivers avoid circling in search of parking.

The lesson for most of the United States, then, is not to simply import a technique or two (although it is encouraging to see a few American cities trying it): it is to learn how to build the political consensus that roads serve purposes beyond automobile travel. Granted, we don’t have the cultural roots of the consensus that exists in much of northern Europe. But we know it can be built, one step at a time, and this is where Complete Streets comes in. As shown in our Best Practices research, adoption of a Complete Streets policy provides a forum for road-users and political leaders to come to agreement on how to provide for everyone who will be using the street. From that agreement engineers and planners become empowered to think creatively and solve the balancing act in new ways.

Complete Streets policies may not immediately result in the spectacular transportation systems we admire in Europe. But they could be an essential first step toward a new way of treating our streets.

Complete Streets Local Leaders Council