UEP Colloquium: Urban Planning and Bicycling in Copenhagen and Amsterdam

UEP second-year Nathaniel Fink and Boston Hubway Bikeshare’s Pat Kelsey spent much of this past summer studying bicycle infrastructure in European cities. Cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht (Netherlands), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Malmö (Sweden) are famous for the importance their urban planning systems place on bicycle infrastructure, reflecting the cultural importance of bicycles in their society.

Things weren’t always this way. In the 1970s, like the United States, most European cities focused on car based infrastructure. People’s behavior responded as expected: more cars on the road and a high number of cycling fatalities. Nathaniel, focusing on Amsterdam, cited citizen activism as an important component leading to the transformation we see today. Popular demand for better bike lanes and an end to “kindermoord” -deaths of children in bicycle related accidents.

Pat’s research focused on Copenhagen. His research noted a constant state of construction in the city to improve bike protections. Most of the infrastructure in the city is retrofitted, including blue bike lanes painted over ordinary car infrastructure. More so than in the United States, cyclists in Denmark use cargo bikes for services and deliveries or dropping their kids off at school. Audience members noted a lack of helmets and general mediocre quality of the bikes being ridden in time-lapse video of a busy street in Copenhagen. In an informal study Pat found that women were less likely to wear helmets, but neither men nor women wear helmets more than 10-15% of the time. What the audience perceived as a lack of high quality bicycles, Pat compared to American attitudes about vacuum cleaners. Danish people see their bicycles as a tool that everybody needs to get a job done rather than a status symbol.

Pat stressed the importance in Denmark of “meeting people where they are”: creating regulations and structural changes based on people’s actual behavior rather than their ideal behavior. Copenhagen’s bicycle planning works on the assumption that “no street is ever complete.”

In the United States, Nathaniel pointed out, 40% of car trips are under 3 miles. This is a distance easily traveled by bike, Especially true considering that bikes have a greater ability to navigate and access smaller roads. In a city like Boston, where some roads are many centuries old, cycling can be faster than driving a car. An important distinction to be made between Boston or the United States and the European cycling cities is that it’s more than just infrastructure. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have a cycling culture, rather than a subculture. If American cities can foment this kind of culture, better infrastructure will go much further.

The next UEP colloquium will be next Wednesday, October 21 in the Crane Room at Paige Hall, 12-1pm. Massachusetts Senator Ben Downing will talk about state level urban and environmental policy.