Nikolaj Lasbo is a duel Danish and American citizen who works for the Seattle Times. He recently wrote a column for the paper comparing the experience of biking in famously-cycle-friendly Copenhagen to biking in Seattle. Needless to say, it’s a lot easier:
Bicycle infrastructure is so well-established in Copenhagen that riding a bicycle feels nearly effortless. Most streets have a raised, separated cycle track — protected bicycle lanes — and around 40 percent of the population commutes daily by bicycle.
On the other hand, biking in Seattle often requires people biking and driving to share busy streets, leading to conflicts and sometimes moments of danger. Even some Danes who bike all the time at home will not bike when they visit Seattle due to safety fears.
But with the recently-approved Bike Master Plan, Lasbo thinks Seattle is on the right track:
Copenhagen offers a casual, safe riding experience; Seattle cycling might be better left to the hard-core. The master plan could close that gap.
Copenhagen may be leading the pack now, but there were speed bumps along the way. The first cycle track was created more than 100 years ago. In the subsequent age of the car and suburban growth, not a single new cycle track was built until the early 1980s. Then, large cyclist protests prompted the municipal government to support new infrastructure. Now there are around 250 miles of designated bike lanes.
Seattle now is where Copenhagen was 30 years ago, and this city can learn from Danish best infrastructure practices. The master plan seeks to add more than 100 miles of cycle tracks and nearly 240 miles of “greenways,” side streets with traffic-calming features, over the next 20 years, rivaling Copenhagen.
In fact, he says, the city has already done the hard part: Figuring out what needs to be done. Now all they have to do is find the funding to make it happen.
But Seattle is hilly!
It’s true, Seattle has hills and Copenhagen is flat. And yes, hills can be an obstacle to biking. But as we’ve written in the past, they can also be the source of the greatest rewards.
And this is not just wishful thinking. The United States has many very flat major cities, yet two of the top five cities for commuting by bike are also two of the nation’s hilliest: San Francisco and Seattle. There are probably a great number of reasons for this. For example, hills also made it harder to build freeway-and-road-based sprawl the way flat US cities did in the 20th Century, which may have lead to more dense neighborhoods and a incentives to look for alternatives to driving.
No matter the reason, the result is clear: the number of people biking in Seattle continues to climb. May was the busiest month ever recorded by the Fremont bike counter, and there’s no reason to think that will be the last bike record the city breaks this year. With bike share and a downtown protected bike lane planned for September, Seattle is just getting started on this bike thing.
But Seattle is different than Copenhagen, of course. And a bike-friendly Seattle will look quite different than the Danish capitol. Hills do constrain the options for usable bike routes, for example, and the bike plan takes those constraints into consideration when recommending bike lanes and neighborhood greenways.
So don’t believe people when they say people can’t bike here. They are not looking out their windows and opening their eyes when they say such things. People do bike here. A lot. And the number of people doing so is growing with no end in sight.
Will we be Copenhagen in 30 years? Of course not. We’ll be Seattle, but with even more people finding it comfortable and convenient to get around by bike.