Lessons From Denmark: Day 1

IMG_1037I never fail to be inspired by what other cities are doing to revolutionize their transportation system. Across the US, cities are making better accommodations for persons riding bicycles or walking in order to reinvigorate local economies, improve efficiency for getting from point A to point B, and to make the quality of life for all citizens the best that it can be. Recent trips I’ve taken to Boulder, CO and Portland, OR have left me feeling proud of the work done here in Memphis and generated new ideas and strategies for making our non-motorized transportation system even better than it is today. Boulder is perhaps one of the best examples of how off-street trails complement the existing bike/ped network to allow residents and students car-free access and travelways to many of the regions key destinations including the University of Colorado. Portland has for a long time boasted one of the highest mode shares of bicycling in the US at 6%. The innovation and research conducted in Portland towards sustainable transportation is renowned throughout the world and has many lessons to offer us here in Memphis.

This week, however, marks a decidedly different experience. I’m in Denmark learning from the best the world has to offer. The experience here for bicycling and walking is markedly different and more improved than anywhere experienced in the US. To put it in perspective, I’m currently in Odense where the mode share for cycling is a lowly 25%. 25%!! That’s four times the mode share of Portland, arguably the best the US has to offer and Odense is considered on the low end of bicycle mode share by Danish standards. The country’s capital, Copenhagen, boasts more than 35% of all trips made by bike with goals to reach 50% in the near future. Truthfully, some of the things I’ve seen here remain in Memphis’ distant future – on some levels we have a lot of catching up to do before we can talk about about jumping from 25% mode share to 50%. However, the scale of impact doesn’t mean that we can’t learn a thing or two, bring them home to Memphis, and have greater and more rapid success than we would on our own. To that point, I’m going to share some lessons from each day. I expect that some of those inspirations will be new – things we aren’t considering but should. Others may be confirmations that the strategies we’re currently employing are setting the city along a trajectory that will make Memphis one of the best cities in the US, even the world, for bicycling and walking. Today’s lesson are the latter.

While many of the facilities here in Denmark are excellent examples of how detailed oriented planning and engineering make bicycling and walking an easy, efficient, and safe experience, the basic premise for how to move people around is quite simple in nature. It all comes down to application and the context of the environment in which the facilities are built. The Danes use a simple hierarchy of facilities to create their extensive cycling network and, believe it or not, it’s eerily similar to the strategy we’re using in Memphis.

Off-Street Trails (aka Cycle Super Highways)

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Even with a name like “Cycle Super Highways,” this isn’t rocket science. If you’ve experienced the Shelby Farms Greenline or Wolf River Greenway, then you get the gist already. These trails are for use by bicyclists and pedestrians and are being used to connect suburban and rural areas to center cities by dedicated pathways. Since most of the center city trips are already made by bicycling, walking, or public transit, the most impactful place to get residents to leave their cars at home are from areas where commuters make daily trips to the center city to work of go to school. Honestly, this may be the place where US cities are leading Denmark on development, engineering, and implementation of bicycling and walking infrastructure. Similar strategies are being used here in Denmark to implement these trails such as the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors to the trails themselves.

For the Danes, this is the most protected and safe infrastructure since interaction with automobiles only occurs at relatively few intersections.

Cycle Tracks

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Adjacent to busy roadways, most Danish cities have a slightly raised, six foot bicycle lane for the exclusive use of bicyclists. The grade is slightly higher than the roadway, but slightly under the sidewalk, clearly delineating the space for automobiles, bikes, and pedestrians without the need for serious amounts of signs or pavement markings. In the most restrictive roadway conditions, the cycle track in sometimes at the same grade as the road functioning more like a traditional bike lane, but never for very long and only because some context arose that required that particular application. The cycles tracks here would be our equivalent to protected bike lanes, but instead of using a horizontal buffer to separate the moving automobiles from bicycles, the Danes use a vertical separation, the grade change, to create the separation.

Cycle tracks are important because they provide separation and greater comfort on roadways where automobile speeds and volumes can be intimidating to bicyclists and pedestrians. In Denmark, if they can’t create a separate pathway, a cycle track is the next best thing.

Neighborhood Streets

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Perhaps the most influential design aspects for enhanced bicycle and pedestrian travel occur along neighborhood streets where only limited facilities are installed. Often times these are shared spaces where bicycling, automobile driving, on-street parking, and walking coexist in the same environment without pavement marking and signs indicating the speed, 30kph (~20mph). The conditions along these streets is very comfortable for walking and bicycling since no one is moving very quickly. Carefully planned roadway widths and adjacent parcel development help create a surrounding environment conducive to slow travel speeds and serve well to form a well connected network of bike/ped facilties without capital expenditure for dedicated facilities.

This is really the most prevalent bike/ped facility here. Its simplicity is its beauty.

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to the capital city of Copenhagen, probably the best city for bicycling in the entire world. Stay tuned for more updates while I’m here. I am not quite sure what I will be seeing, but I’m sure it promises to be inspiring.

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