Cycles and cities30/11/17Environment
Marianne Weinreich of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark spoke to PEN about the country’s expertise in smart and safe cycling infrastructure.
Denmark has a reputation as one of the most cycle-friendly countries in the world thanks to a culture of cycling that extends far back over the last century. With decarbonisation becoming an ever-more urgent priority on the global agenda, countries around the world are putting more emphasis on a transition towards cycling – particularly in big cities where pollution levels are higher – and turning to Denmark for an example of how best to manage this transition and build safe, effective and useful cycling infrastructure.
To aid in this transfer of ideas, the Cycling Embassy of Denmark was established in 2009 by a group of stakeholders, ranging from local authorities and NGOs to cycling professionals and companies. The organisation acts as a network which allows the sharing of best practice both within the country and beyond. This is valuable because the country has a strong history and tradition of cycling that has developed alongside other elements of city infrastructure, according to the organisation’s chair, Marianne Weinreich. “It’s actually the reason we developed the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, because we have 100 years of best practice in cycling promotion and we want to share all that knowhow and experience with countries where cycling is just re-emerging. We’ve made sure that practitioners and decision makers and architects and whoever is interested in cycling promotion outside Denmark can now contact the embassy and get in touch with both real people that know about cycling, or dig into the extended database of knowledge that’s on our website.”
A smart, simple solution
The bicycle presents a simple solution to many of the major environmental and health concerns that local and national authorities are currently contending with. More cycling in cities could have an ameliorating effect on both the obesity epidemic and excessive CO2 emissions, and is relatively easy to implement compared with more technologically or politically complicated options. So, while cities are pursuing smart technologies to address many of their problems, they may be overlooking the minimalist smartness of the bicycle, Weinreich argued. “Cycling is healthy, active transportation. A lot of people in cities have health problems because of immobility. There are also CO2 emissions, climate change, noise – for many of the issues we have in modern cities, the bicycle is the smartest solution.”
Many cities are now developing smart and technologically oriented transport systems, which may monitor emissions, direct traffic more efficiently, and prioritise public transport as a means of reducing carbon emissions; but even these systems, if developed effectively, can support a greater uptake of cycling and improve road safety for riders, although this possibility is often overlooked by cities focused on emerging innovations rather than existing ones. In order to better design cycling routes, planners need to take into account data on how cyclists are travelling through their cities, and in the drive towards smarter cities, this data is already being tracked and collated. “The same things you’re counting and monitoring in your data on cars, you can apply to cyclists, and with that data you can make informed decisions about how to change things and when to intervene,” Weinreich explained.
One source of data that can offer a valuable insight into the behaviour of cyclists is bike share systems run by local authorities, which have been adopted in cities across Europe as a convenient way for people to travel by bicycle. These schemes can also motivate citizens to travel by bicycle instead of by car, which could significantly reduce CO2 emissions in city centres, and for this reason they are growing in popularity.
Weinreich noted that the sheer popularity of cycling in Denmark has rendered such programmes somewhat unnecessary in the country, but that nevertheless, they are beginning to gain some traction among more casual riders. “In Denmark, everybody has a bike, but it’s starting to happen in Copenhagen that local residents are using the public bikes. For commuters, if you’re going by train to another city and you have a bike available there to commute to your final destination, it’s great, and it’s proven to be a really effective tool in cities where people don’t have their own bicycle.”
However, cities hoping to make their citizens to view cycling as a viable alternative to a car on short journeys cannot simply introduce a bike sharing programme without first considering the type of infrastructure improvements they need to make to properly facilitate this type of transition. For Weinreich, the foremost concern in developing this is ensuring the safety of the cyclist: “Of course, people won’t cycle if they are at risk. You need to have infrastructure that makes it safe for eight to 80-year-olds.” Denmark’s cycling infrastructure has developed alongside its cities, and so many areas already have a lot of experience of incorporating the safety of cyclists into the design of traffic systems. “We have a lot of experience in traffic safety measures, and the design of streets and streetscapes.”
While safety is a primary element, practical considerations are also a factor for cities that want more cyclists and fewer carbon-emitting vehicles on the roads. “Every bicycle ride ends with a parked bicycle,” she continued, “so cities need to handle parking; both so that the city doesn’t become full of bikes, but also to make sure that cyclists can park their bike and feel pretty safe that it will still be there when they return, especially at stations, or other places where it will be parked for a long time.”
With better parking provided at train or bus stations, this could have the additional impact of encouraging people to use public transport to extend their journeys, particularly in the case of casual cyclists who do not want to ride for longer journeys.
Ultimately, public bike sharing can provide a solution to this latter problem, and if it is introduced in combination with improved infrastructure for cycling, these cities can see a big increase in uptake. To have the greatest possible impact, however, these efforts need to be coupled with marketing campaigns to make people aware of the new facilities. “If you’re in your car,” Weinreich explained, “you don’t necessarily see all these new developments, so they need to be promoted and sold like a product.” This also applies to building cycling for transportation into the culture, so that it becomes more accessible to everybody: “In many places, people picture a cyclist as a man in a Lycra suit, and a lot of them then think it isn’t for them. Especially in cities where there isn’t a culture of travelling by bicycle, people need to see others cycling in skirts, or dresses, or suits, all sorts of different people, in order to picture themselves doing it.”
This remains true even in Denmark, where cycling has become an intrinsic part of the culture, she added: “People love cars in Denmark, so if we don’t keep promoting cycling here, people may stop cycling.”
Cities for people
Aiding in the promotion of cycling as a viable, available means of transport is one of the main aims of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark. The organisation provides a service wherein practitioners, politicians and decision makers are invited on guided tours to view Denmark’s cycling expertise for themselves, something which Weinreich said was the most effective way to convince them of the importance of factoring cycling into overall transport planning. As part of its working in sharing information, the embassy has begun to join with a number of partner organisations in order to spread their reach and have a greater impact, including a current collaboration with Union Cycliste Internationale, the official body for sports cycling, to promote cycling as transportation.
Part of this collaborative work also involves planning for future developments which will impact cycling in cities beyond current innovations in the smart city arena such as the introduction of autonomous vehicles. “We’ve been talking a lot with the Dutch Cycling Embassy about the future with autonomous vehicles and how that will influence cycling in cities. It seems that the people working on autonomous vehicles have a lot of problems with the algorithms and the detection of cyclists, so we’re starting to discuss how we can engage with the industry to make sure that we don’t end up in a situation where cities are adapted to the autonomous vehicles, and not the other way around. In that case, we would see pedestrians and cyclists being pushed away from the city streets because of the need for the autonomous vehicles to move freely without the interference of people. It’s still very new, but we need to discuss what kind of cities we want. Do we want cities for autonomous cars, or do we want cities for people? That is a discussion that we are trying to start, at least internally in the Danish and in Dutch cycling industries.”
What is perhaps most important to the embassy, Weinreich concluded, is to conduct and participate in such conversations, and ensure that cyclists are given a voice and represented in broader discussions about the future of city transport. Certainly, with the expertise on display within the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, a compelling case for designing cities around people is being made, and the interests of cyclists in this ongoing discussion are well-represented.
Cycling Embassy of Denmark
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 24, which will be published in January, 2018.