5 Cycling Lessons Calgary Can Learn From Copenhagen

Here’s an unexpected fact about Copenhagen’s most prominent cycling ambassador: he learned to ride a two-wheeler in suburban Calgary. Mikael Colville-Andersen is best known these days as the founder of two high-traffic websites about riding, the Copenhagen way — Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a photo-driven site documenting stylish cyclists, and Copenhagenize, an urban design-obsessed counterpart — but he grew up in Canada and got his start as a cyclist riding the curving suburban lanes of Fairview. 

Colville-Andersen found his life’s work when he moved to Denmark in 1994 and discovered one of the world’s most bike-friendly burgs. Copenhagen inevitably lands near the top of numerous lists of the world’s most livable and sustainable cities, and one reason is because so many Copenhageners get around by bicycle — 35 per cent of the city’s residents (and more than 50 per cent of inner-city dwellers) use a bike as their primary commuter vehicle. And Colville-Andersen, in growing demand as a passionate evangelist for the Copenhagen way of the pedal in cities the world over, now presides over a bustling design and consulting shop, the Copenhagenize Design Co

On a recent visit, I persuaded Colville-Andersen to give me a guided tour of one of the world’s great cycling capitals. From the busy commuter streets of his home neighbourhood, through the meandering medieval core to the lovely harbourfront, I followed Colville-Andersen as he lectured from the saddle on the lessons his erstwhile hometown can learn from Copenhagen as Calgary becomes an increasingly bike-friendly city in its own right.

Lesson 1: More bikes, fewer cyclists

“Copenhagen,” Colville-Andersen says with a grin, “is a city where 500,000 people ride their bikes every day, but we don’t have any cyclists.” What he means is that, to Copenhageners, cycling is not a lifestyle and bikes are simply tools. 

He jokes about the North American notion of “cycling gear” — in Copenhagen, cycling gear is just whatever you happen to be wearing that day.

We are out back of his flat, which, like many Copenhagen apartment blocks, has numerous handsome bike shelters in its courtyard. Colville-Andersen mounts his elegant Bullitt cargo bike — a distended two-wheeler with a cargo bay between the handlebars and the front tire — and sets me up with a vintage Swedish-made Crescent bike. Like the vast majority of the bikes on Copenhagen’s streets, this Crescent is a simple, narrow-wheeled urban vehicle, not a sleek racer or knob-tired off-road vehicle. 

My tour begins as soon as we exit the courtyard. Colville-Andersen lives on a busy street, and we head toward his favourite café down a typical Copenhagen bike lane — a strip of asphalt with a low curb separating it from the road on one side and the sidewalk on the other. I understand his point fully within a block or two. We aren’t cyclists, just another couple of commuters getting from one place to the other. The pace is gentle, the ride effortless. We pass slower riders, get passed by a few faster ones.

At the café, we watch Copenhageners lean on their bikes on the roadside as they chat with friends. In Calgary, a bike is most often treated as an intrusion on the landscape, a deliberate shift away from the norm — the inevitable result of its relative scarcity. We are only just relearning the cultural habits of urban cycling. In Copenhagen, bikes intrude about as much as an umbrella would — just another tool of daily urban life.

Lesson 2: Bikes need lanes designed for bikes

After fortifying ourselves at the café, we remount our bikes to check out some of Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure. Often, we are on raised lanes like the one we took to the café — tidy ribbons of bike-only pavement raised several inches higher than the roadway to delineate unmistakably the dividing line between bikes and motor vehicles. Sometimes, parked cars provide a barrier, and, in very busy parts of town, there are tree-lined medians between cars and bikes. 

At a major intersection where the roadway crosses over one of the many lakes that rim downtown Copenhagen, Colville-Andersen stops so we can watch the cycling traffic on the city’s next generation of bike lane. 

“This is the busiest cycle track in the world,” he tells me, pointing to the busy commuter artery. The city recently widened bike lanes to the new standard, Colville-Andersen explains. The track is wide enough for two people pedalling broad-fronted three-wheeler cargo bikes to ride side by side.

The logic of Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure is simple: put the best lanes where the most people want to ride. This is one of the great failings of Calgary’s extensive recreational pathway system, Colville-Andersen notes — it’s fine if you’re riding for exercise, but the paths don’t connect the places where most people live with the places where most of them work and socialize. Riding from, say, the dense urban neighbourhood of Bankview to the heart of downtown is still a perilous journey on streets with no genuinely safe, dedicated space for cyclists.

Lesson 3: Do the math

Image from ebw.evergreen.ca.

At the point where Copenhagen’s busiest cycling street — thus, quite possibly, the busiest in the world — enters the medieval heart of the city, Copenhagen’s bike planners have mounted a sleek black pedestal with LED counters tallying the daily and annual numbers of bike commuters passing by. Colville-Andersen and I sit alongside the busy avenue, watching the numbers tick up as one bike after another zips past. (A sensor embedded in the bike lane itself does the counting.)

The sign serves two purposes. It reminds Copenhagen’s cyclists that they are vast in number and growing every day — a little bit of positive reinforcement. More importantly, though, the digital counter tells Copenhagen’s city officials exactly how successful their latest traffic innovation has been. Since the municipal government tracks bike traffic as meticulously as most cities count cars, it learned a few years ago that this street was the busiest in town. And so it was chosen as the first “Green Wave” — a street where traffic lights have been synched to the speed of cyclists instead of cars. Travel at about 20 km/h, and you’ll hit nothing but
green lights the whole length of your commute. The program has expanded to other streets, and there are even digital signs tracking cyclists’ speed to remind them to aim for the sweet spot. 

Even in Copenhagen, there was significant skepticism that cyclists could move at such predictable paces, but the Green Wave has proven them wrong. Another vital lesson for Calgary and beyond: cycling shouldn’t rely on hunches or untested common sense any more than traffic flow on the Deerfoot does. The data tells the real story.

Lesson 4: Safety in numbers

If you want to make Colville-Andersen mad, ask him why he doesn’t wear a bike helmet. The ensuing rant will carry you through a pint or two on a Copenhagen patio. 

The main takeaway is this: of all the bike safety measures attempted by cities around the world, only one has consistently and effectively made cycling safer. The magic formula? Get more people riding bikes on city streets. Plain old safety in numbers — so goes Colville-Andersen’s argument, backed by data from Denmark to Manhattan. And the way Copenhagen and the cities that have followed its lead do that, he insists, is by making cycling easy and welcoming. No need for body armour or Lycra. No gladiatorial weaves through automobile traffic. Just easy, orderly rides on well-built bike lanes. 

In Copenhagen, the whole notion seems absurd. I’ve never felt safer on a bike in the heart of any city than I do pedalling after Colville-Andersen, both our heads lidless. The bike traffic is steady and smooth, the sense of herd safety palpable. It’s only halfway through the ride that I fully unclench — I’d been maintaining a Calgary cyclist’s hyper-alertness, despite the excellent infrastructure and the steady flows of bike traffic ensuring we’re all visible to passing cars. Once I do, though, I start to see things Colville-Andersen’s way. Here I’m more likely to suffer a head injury behind the wheel of a car. Why bother with a helmet?

(Full disclosure: In Calgary, I do wear a helmet if I know I’ll be riding in heavy traffic on busy streets, but rarely do so for short rides or rides on quieter streets and pathways. Colville-Andersen’s point still stands: I can choose when to wear a helmet, but making them mandatory for adults will stifle Calgary’s burgeoning bike culture before it really gets rolling.)

Lesson 5: Be detail-oriented

Near the harbour, Colville-Andersen makes an abrupt turn as we roll down a hill. It looks at first like he’s turned right into the hedge that runs alongside us. When I reach the spot where he turned, I see a break in the hedge. A small ramp the length and height of a couple of standard stairs links the bike lane we’re on to the broad public square up ahead. 

Copenhagen’s bike network, though second to none, is not yet flawless, and the route from the road we’re on to the harbourfront (lined with bike lanes and many other recreational had a gap in it. So the city’s bike planners installed the handy connector.

Fine details like this are commonplace across the city. Later in the tour, Colville-Andersen shows me another — a garbage can mounted on a pole at cyclist height and pitched at a 45-degree angle toward oncoming bike traffic, just right for pitching in your trash as you pedal by at 20 km/h. At every turn, Copenhagen reminds you that biking is welcome and expected, free and easy. And that is how you get the kind of vast cycling hordes that make Copenhagen not just a great cycling city, but a safe one. 

Calgary, Colville-Andersen tells me, has a good way to go before anyone needs to worry about cyclist-friendly garbage cans. It’s comforting, though, to know some of the fine details have already been thought through here in Copenhagen. 

By the Numbers

City size in square km: Copenhagen 88, Calgary 726

Average temperature in winter: Copenhagen -2, Calgary -3

Record low temperature: Copenhagen -18, Calgary -45

Average annual precipitation: Copenhagen 613 mm, Calgary 412

Percentage of people who commute to work or school by bike: Copenhagen 37, Calgary 3

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