Chicago Meets Copenhagen

Today I’ve got guest blogger Jay Clark here on Ding Ding Let’s Ride ,  with his rundown of a transit presentation by a couple of Chicago’s Aldermen after their recent trip to Copenhagen. Jay is an old friend and a long-time Chicago resident, runner, and cyclist.  Check out his 100 Signs – 1,000 Steps blog – a very cool way to look at the urban environment.  

Recently the Swedish-American Museum in Andersonville,  held an informational event on a “bike transit fact finding trip” taken by several Chicago Alderman and CDOT officials. Yours truly was there to take it all in.

The premise of the night was to relay learnings about the bike culture in Copenhagen- a metropolis of roughly 2 million people, with rough winter weather and bounded geographically by a large body of water on one side. Sound familiar, Chicagoans? But Ald. Harry Osterman (48th Ward) and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th Ward) along with Scott Kubly and other staff from CDOT actually visited three distinct Danish cities (Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense) to get a feel for their biking infrastructure. Their findings should be  be popping up in various parts of our city in the future where budgets and sensibility allow. So on to Copenhagen…

Despite its reputation as an environmentally friendly city, Copenhagen was quite automobile dependent until the 1970s energy crisis. Most of their great strides on two wheels have taken place in the last 30 years. These days nearly 50% of all Copenhagen citizens commute to work via bike. In fact, 59% of all transit trips between 0-3 miles around Copenhagen are taken by bike – only 12% by car. (It should be noted that car ownership figures in Denmark are roughly equivalent of that to the U.S.)

Bike lane counter, Copenhagen , Sept 2012. ( photo via Eric Gilliland)

Lest we get buried in statistics, Kubly made an important point about a growing a progressive program for biking and urban transit; it can’t just be about getting people from “Point A to Point B” expeditiously and safely. It has to be partly about cultivating community and even engendering, yes, economic development. In the US when we look to economic development for local businesses we immediately start counting car traffic instead of actual people. That is a paradigm in need of change, as Osterman says.

The Danish bike transit goals are met through a variety of different methods, all encouraging cycling naturally. In terms of practical execution they take the shape of bike repair stations, leased ‘lock boxes’ to store your ride in a regular space, roadside and digital traffic counters with time/temp/traffic level indicators for cyclists.

A self-service bike repair stand in Chicago, near the Lincoln Park Whole Foods. (photo via


On street parking for four cargo bikes in Copenhagen. Each compartment has a lock. (photo via Mikael Colville-Andersen)

But it doesn’t stop there. There are Stop Sign foot rests, “bike boxes” that put bikes at the front of intersections with stop lights,  “Bike Butlers” for commuter issues and angled trash bins for disposal “on the go”. Speaking of trash, yes the Danes encounter debris being swept into their bike lanes as you might imagine. No problem- they’ve designed slimmed down ‘street sweepers’ to clean the bike lanes; a similar unit will be prototyped and tested in Chicago soon. One of the more intriguing ideas has a US counterpart- the “Kiss-n-Ride” concept. Commuters drive to a transition point and finish their commute on bike- lowering inner-city congestion and  pollution. But the other goals of community development and mental / physical health are simultaneously more challenging and easier to achieve. And it all starts with youth.

Denmark has a unique set of Kindergarten and Pre-K programs to encourage kids not only to ride bikes, but to get comfortable riding them in an urban environment. Osterman notes that the City of Chicago is testing some of those programs now in the form of ‘bike camps for kids”. The idea is fairly straight forward- if you grow up on a bike in an urban environment you’re more likely to  bike throughout your life, to incorporate your bike into your transit life (not just bombing along recreationally on trails come the weekend), and civic life (more neighborhood and spatially aware, health benefits, etc.)

Looking to the future, the Danish are exploring the concepts of ‘bike superhighways’ and reducing “cycling congestion” (!) through alternative bike-only routes and counter-flow lanes on designated streets.

Each Alderman followed with a small segment on how they plan to put their findings into action. While they both have ambitious long term plans, very soon you will soon see a cycling transit hub by the renovated Thorndale red line. This should provide parking for approximately 70 bikes along with a small repair stand. Again Osterman hammers the point of making transit about people– there are a myriad off issues near that particular L stop and the hope is that the cycling and added pedestrian traffic will benefit businesses and create a safer environment with the added foot traffic.

Residents and visitors to Pawar’s 47th ward may see a slightly different take- the realization of the Berteau Greenway project stretching from Clark to Lincoln Avenue. The project has kicked around for quite some time but now has “legs” as the saying goes and “it should be a winner for cyclists, for cars AND pedestrians”. The alderman noted it has not gone without controversy but controversy can be a good thing- residents often end up  being honest about other issues that are bothering them in lieu of the the original object of their ire.

If you’re looking for more of the details and more photos , you can view the pdf of Scott’s presentation  that he gave to  CDOT over at  And the guys  at Grid Chicago have a nice recap up as well.

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