Friday, 11 November 2011


I think with many people, if they hear Copenhagen held up as an example city one more time they'll probably scream. This isn't Copenhagen, they say. You can't just take all of that and plonk it here in the same way that you can't install Windows on a Mac (they don't really say that but it is a good analogy).

It's not a case of simply transfering things though. Rather, what we can do is look at those things that work, not just in Copenhagen but other cities around the world, and adapt them to suit our own needs.

Copenhagen has a few similarities with Adelaide. They are both spread out, they have similar populations and both have wide streets. The spread out point is one to note. The centre of Copenhagen has a fair few apartment buildings (as does Adelaide increasingly) but once you get out of town, you see a lot of single family houses. Have an explore on Google Streetview (and if you ever watch Anna Pihl, look at where the character Mikala lives. There are lots of areas like that).

I visited Copenhagen some time ago. I remember being distracted by how good-looking everyone was so I did not take a great deal of notice of the cycling infrastructure although I do remember a lot of bicycles around the place. Also, back then, this sort of thing was not really on my radar as is the case with many people.

I found a good post on a blog called Rambers Highway. It seems its author took a trip to Europe and wrote about their travels but then stopped abruptly in December 2010. In any event, the post is all about Copenhagen and its particular style of bike lane. It's a good read and fairly accurate I think. What it shows is what we can learn.

We have all seen pictures of Copenhagen's bike paths. They are very different from Dutch ones. They are not quite as separate from the road for one thing but intead are a half height lane in between the road and pavement. There are some exceptions of course but that seems to be a common look. The lane is subtle but from what we have seen and heard, highly effective. It is something that would be very easy to copy here on our wide roads. There is plenty of space. The problem is that it is so often taken up by parked cars - and often not very many of them. This is on Wright Street:

And this is on Frome Street:

In both cases, all of that useful space is blocked by one car.

Central Adelaide has about 68,000 car parks and so the removal of a few like this on some wide arterial roads would surely not bring the city to a standstill.

The need for clear wide bike lanes was brought home to me on my way home last night. I forget which street I was on but it was one of the many with two lanes of moving traffic on each side and a third lane on each side blocked by parked cars. For of us were waiting at a traffic light in the turning lane (you do that to allow the motorised traffic to pass you on the intersection as you pick up speed). Once we had crossed the intersection, as is so often the case, our way was blocked by a parked car. A great big fat minibus was approaching on our right and did not seem to want to give more space than about half a metre. Unsurprisingly everyone stopped. It was all very polite though - lots of "no, after you". So much for taking the lane though. Self-preservation won over that this time. Not surprising when a Toyota Coaster is looming over you.

In side streets (particularly residential areas), the approach of the Danes is again quite subtle. If Ramblers Highway is correct, there are not separated lanes on every single side street. Rather, the practice is one of properly categorising the street and installing traffic calming devices that alert various different road users to each other's presence. Again, that is to generalise but it certainly matches my recollection of my visit there.

Junction design is a constant source of frustration and fear for Adelaide Cyclists. We can again learn from the Danes and adapt. The Copenhagen blue seems now as well known as Cadbury's purple colour. It's not used on every intersection though because if it is used everywhere, people get used to it and ignore it. And so it is used only on key intersections. For me though, the important thing to learn from the intersections is that the bike paths remain until the reach the intersection. In some cases, depending on how busy the intersection is, the bike path intersects with the turning lane for cars. In other cases, it lowers to road level but that width continues over the intersection and into the bike path on the other side. The consequence is that even though strictly speaking the bike path does disappear, provided both cars and bikes proceed in the same direction, there is no conflict. It's simple but ingenious.

You can see how they do it in this picture. It shows the lane ending and being shared with the turning lane for cars. It is far from ideal but seems to work where the traffic is low enough to permit it:

On busier roads the treatment is different again. There the lanes are properly separated:

This is a rather long-winded way of saying you can achieve a lot without much effort. We're practically set up for all this and it will only take some small changes to have a profound effect.

Subversive thoughts

Geoff McLeod had the unmitigated temerity to make a film that asks one simple question:

If tens of thousands of people in other countries can use their bike every day, including children as young as 8, without wearing a helmet and other safety gear, why can't we?

We are told it has "incensed" the authorities responsible for road safety.

Here's the offending film:

One thing that should be noted is that the images in the first half of the film are not staged. They are real people going about Paris on their bicycles. Another thing to note is that Paris (while it has improved a lot) is not up their with the Dutch and Danes for bicycle safety. And yet the people seem fine. It's not just in Paris either. There are pictures of people doing this all over the place. Outrageous.

That is what I wonder with our helmet laws. We and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world with them. Why is that? What makes us so different from everywhere else? I do not see any signs of other countries following our lead yet. Indeed, the Dutch Cycling Union's position is firmly against helmet laws.

The release of the film reignited the 20 year old debate about the effectiveness of the laws. On one of my favourite forums, Adelaide Cyclists, the debate raged for some time and at the last count had 135 replies. That then led to spin off posts including one asking whether helmets should be compulsory. Of the self-selected sample of keen cyclists, the majority said yes. Take from that what you will.

My own personal view is that whatever you might think of polystyrene helmets (and the newly developed airbag for cyclists), I cannot see that forcing people to wear them has worked. To me they are a distraction and a cop out. Making people share the road with fast-moving cars and trucks and then pretending that you are keeping them safe by forcing them to wear a plastic helmet that is tested only at very low speeds is not fooling anyone.

All of us have by now heard of the man of the people and architect to rock stars, Jan Gehl. He was in Melbourne not long ago as part of the Melbourne Conversations series. He gave a lecture which you can view on the ABC website. He discusses a number of things about cities, including bicycles, and also covers helmets. This is what he says (it sounds best if you read it aloud with a Danish accent) beginning at about 40:30 mins:

We don't have compulsory bike helmets. They found that if they introduce compulsory bike helmets, you can reduce bicycling by 50% overnight. And they say it's much better for health economy that we have many people bicycling ... much. And then we will take the risk of some of them getting injuries while they are young but it's much better that they continue and they're old whatever. And they have campaigns and now a third have bicycle helmets and I think it's very wise not to make it compulsory so we can choose. At certain stretches I always take my bike helmet but going down to the tennis club I don't or going to the corner store, whatever.

Is that really so unreasonable?