- Bicycle Culture by Design: The Transition of Copenhagen's Traffic Logic

This article first appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken on 27 November 2012. It was written by a colleague of ours and her co-workers at Center for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transitions

The Transition of Copenhagen’s Traffic Logic

by Anne Katrine Braagaard Harders, Jens Stissing Jensen og Erik Hagelskjær Lauridsen are researchers at the Center for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transitions, AAU København. The past weeks’ heated debate on cyclists’ behavior in Copenhagen reflects intensified tensions between the urban space’s different mobility logics and demonstrates a need for a transition of Copenhagen’s traffic. Cycling is, as an urban mobility form, of a different nature to that of the motorized traffic. A typical picture of the Copenhagen cycling traffic could be young men on their racing bikes, merging in and out between elderly women cycling slowly, dads talking with their kids on the large cargo bikes, and girlfriends chatting and cycling side by side through the city. This form of navigation in a assembled traffic flow is possible due to the low pace, and due to the fact that the cyclist is present through his or her bodily senses in a way different to the motorist who sits in a extended living room. In addition to this, cyclists often aspire to avoid stopping, since accelerations are physically straining. A common example is cyclists rolling ever so slowly past the stop line at a red light, anticipating the light changing. In contrast, the motorized mobility forms are often characterized by high-speed potential combined with a relatively limited opportunity for mutual coordination between the road users. The realization of the motorized traffic’s speed potential is thus contingent on a reduced need for mutual coordination with other road users. This is, for instance, ensured by the traffic signals that sustain a precise regulation of passage, as well as by segregated lanes. Controversies and accidents often happen at intersections where the logics of cycling and motorized vehicles collide; for example, when the mixed traffic becomes too confusing for the motorist, or when the cyclist misjudges the options for disregarding the precise regulations for passage. In these cases, the cyclist is the weaker party, which is also manifested in the fact that there are approximately five times as many seriously injured cyclists than motorists in the Copenhagen traffic. Copenhagen’s mobility challenge is, to a high extent, attached to the prioritizations and relations between the different mobility logics. The logics of cycling and motorized traffic are, however, far from equal. When cycling, for example, is characterized as ‘the cuckoo of the traffic’, as it was recently in Copenhagen, it is an expression of the motorized traffic’s mobility logic. A logic that is the current, common perception of rational mobility behavior. This perception is sustained through driving school curriculum; through public service information urging careful behavior and respect of cars; through traffic safety teaching at schools and through childrens’ books, like ‘Sille & Sofus’, where children are taught to keep their distance from cars and walk on the sidewalks away from the curb for their own safety. The city’s sharply defined segregation of mobility infrastructure which assigns cyclists, pedestrians and motorists their own space, reflects this normal perception, too, since the impact of this segregation is a limitation of the need for mutual situational coordination – and always in favor of the motorized traffic.

The motorized traffic’s status is also reflected in mobility planning. The latest example is the recently approved Havnetunnel (Harbour Tunnel) in Copenhagen. The prioritization of motorized traffic is also obvious in the resource allocation, where only about 10 % of the streets’ construction and maintenance budget is spent on bicycle infrastructure in particular and the accessibility of cyclists in general. This is despite the fact that the bicycle today in the most used and preferred transport option in Copenhagen (measured by the number of trips taken). At the same time, motorized traffic has an estimated area that is six times larger than that of the cyclists, and that doesn’t include parking.

The current behavioral debate about cycling in Copenhagen - where cyclist behavior is understood as a signal of selfishness and the means of correcting it are discipline, raised fines, information campaigns and traffic police raids - , is another example of the normal perception of motorized traffic’s status. The public debate, allocation of resources, laws and rules, planning, the physical infrastructure and even the raising of children all demonstrate the normal perception’s systemic character. No single person has the opportunity or power to change this system in it’s whole. Everybody acts based on isolated logics, taking the system for granted. Seen in relation to the existing traffic system it makes good sense that parents teach their kids to walk along the inside of the sidewalk, that the police fight to ensure that the traffic laws are obeyed, and that the politicians prioritize billions of kroner to overcome existing ‘bottlenecks’ in traffic. Unfortunately, the result of these efforts only serves to preserve the existing mobility system and doesn’t overcome sustainability problems or the traffic challenges in Copenhagen. There is a need for local experiments that support the urban development with concrete examples that create change in the city’s complex and conflicted space. One example is the ongoing project with the aim of creating a network of so-called ‘cycling super tracks’. One element in this strategy is a closer integration of commuting on bicycles and the public transport infrastructure. Another experiment is the reorganization of Nørrebrogade, with wider cycle tracks and sidewalks, and a prioritization of bus traffic. More radical experiments include prioritizing the mobility logics of cyclists and pedestrians over the motorized traffic’s logi by, for example, allowing right turn for cyclists at red lights and giving precedence to the cyclists to use the entire roadway - presupposing low speed limits like the Dutch Fietsstraat. The current debate hampers the discussion of long term solutions of Copenhagen’s mobility challenges in that it overlooks the fact that cyclists and pedestrians move about the premise of motorized traffic’s in the urban space. City and infrastructural development much be designed on the basis of a balance between the urban mobility logics. A continuous development and transition towards mobility patterns which effectively, safely and sustainably ensure the citizens’ access to the urban space’s different functions requires experiments, strategic planning and a public debate - and must dare to question the established prioritization of the urban space’s mobility logics.

Anne Katrine Braagaard Harders, Jens Stissing Jensen og Erik Hagelskjær Lauridsen are researchers at the Center for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transitions, AAU København.

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