City Stories | Capital Region, Denmark: Cycle Superhighways in Capital Region of Denmark

2023-02-17 11:21:43

Editor's notes

On December 12, 2022, a report, Learning from the 5th Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, was released at the 2022 Workshop for Thought Leaders and Guangzhou Award 10th Anniversary Celebration. The report features interviews with the protagonists and stakeholders involved in these fifteen outstanding initiatives in urban innovation and evaluation on their systemic impact and global relevance.

Cities have always been a source of innovation. The 15 shortlisted cities for the 5th Guangzhou Award in the report will serve as a guiding reference for cities around the world to find new solutions. This section will share the knowledge and experience of urban governance innovation with readers by selecting excellent urban innovation cases from the report.

Capital Region, Denmark
Cycle Superhighways in Capital Region of Denmark

When Mie Allersted was younger, she had two main criteria when selecting a place to live in: How close was the nearest supermarket and how close was the nearest bar? But once Allersted, now 41, met her husband and had three children, her priorities changed.

“We were looking for a little more space,” she said. “And we were now looking at where there are daycares, schools, swimming places for the kids, access to nature, and less traffic.”

But even as Allersted sought to move her family to the suburbs six years ago without straying too far from her compliance job at a Danish bank, she did not want to give up her mobility habits from Copenhagen. “None of us had grown up with having a car so it was a very big priority that there was some public transport and it was possible to get to Copenhagen by bike,” she said. “That’s where cycle superhighways enter the picture. There is a good stretch from where we live to the city center, so that was one of our considerations.”

By cycle superhighways, Allersted refers to a Danish innovation in cycling infrastructure to build wide, straight, smooth cycle paths well-spaced from roadways and without at-grade crossings. Cycle superhighways cross municipal boundaries and stitch together the metropolitan region in order to facilitate long-distance cycling commutes.

For Allersted, that means she can traverse the 21 km from her home in Værløse through another suburban town and to her office in central Copenhagen in 50 minutes on her electric bicycle. Even though the cycle superhighway portion of her journey is two-thirds of the total distance, she is able to cover that stretch in the same amount of time as the final one-third of her journey through the city center where she must wait at traffic lights.

When Allersted first moved to Værløse, she commuted by public transport. Soon she switched to biking one-way and riding the train home. But with three children, the commute turned into her only opportunity for daily exercise. She finds it takes about the same amount of time as traveling by train, although showering and dressing at her office adds an additional 15-20 minutes when she travels by bicycle.

Allersted’s adoption of the cycle superhighway is precisely what regional officials had in mind when they established the Office of Cycle Superhighway in 2009. The city of Copenhagen already had a goal for half of all commuters to travel by bicycle, but as the central city of a larger metropolitan region, officials quickly realized they needed to work with surrounding municipalities. The effort started with a single project manager whose salary was paid by the City of Copenhagen and who coordinated cycle superhighways along arterial roads and highways in 15 surrounding suburban municipalities.

As the cycle superhighways began to roll out, the idea gained traction. That early success led to an additional realization. “We also need to connect our municipalities not only in and out of Copenhagen, but also across the whole region,” said Head of Office Sidsel Birk Hjuler. “That’s how the network evolved and how we ended up with 30 municipalities.”

The office subsequently grew to five full-time employees. The Capital Region of Denmark, a regional government, contributes 3 million DKK (US$492,000) and the municipalities voluntarily contribute per capita for a total contribution of 1.5 million DKK (US$246,000). The office resides in the City of Copenhagen, which remains home to the region’s foremost technical expertise on cycling infrastructure.

As of 2021, there are 174 km of cycle superhighways across nine routes with an eventual goal of 850 km. The office considers long-distance commuters those who travel between 5 and 30 km one-way, with the average distance 11 km.

“The Danish Superhighways are an amazing achievement,” said Brian Deegan, Technical Director for Walking and Cycling at the UK firm Urban Movement. “It is incredible how they can achieve such high quality over such long distances.”

The Office of Cycle Superhighway’s job is one of coordination between municipalities with different fiscal situations. While the office has secured funding from the national government for every cycle superhighway, local governments are expected to contribute as well. “Municipalities understand it is important to make a regional network, but they face local discussions with local budgets,” Birk Hjuler said. “It can be very tough to argue for a regional cycle lane when your school is falling apart.”

Among the 30 municipalities that participate in the regional office, there is wide variation from affluent suburbs with robust tax bases to the most distant member, Halsnæs, which has many summer homes but little tax base to support the infrastructure. The office’s challenge is to make these political discrepancies invisible to the cyclist. “You want to be coherent and consistent so that no commuter can feel the difference from one municipality to the next,” Birk Hjuler said.

Deegan singles out this aspect. “The key innovation is that the cycle route continuity is maintained in different contexts and the approach and style is instantly recognizable by all users,” he said. “This is worthy of the highest praise.” He also noted the exceptionally high maintenance standards. “The office employs sporting cyclists to constantly monitor the network and report back any minor surface defects. This is a level of service unheard across the world when it comes to cycle infrastructure,” he said.

Due to vagaries of politics and budget, some cycle superhighways have taken as long as eight years to complete. In the early days, a few municipalities even backed out of the collaboration, but later rejoined as the effort gained momentum. “Both the fragility and beauty of this collaboration is that nothing binds these municipalities together, but they want to collaborate,” said Birk Hjuler. The office is also at the whim of the regional government, which has elections every four years. The next ones will take place in November 2022 after which elected officials will set a new budget, though in the three previous budget rounds the office has always been renewed.

Meanwhile, the cycle superhighway concept is spreading. East Jutland began planning for a cycle superhighway in 2021, as did the Swedish region around the city of Malmö. There is talk of a European network of cycle superhighways. Deegan credited Copenhagen with inspiring London’s cycle superhighways, for which Deegan’s firm made multiple technical study trips to Denmark. “This is an inspiration to the rest of us in the bicycle developing world,” he said.

Gregory Scruggs

Journalist and freelance writer with a focus on urban affairs

The Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation is co-sponsored by the City of Guangzhou, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the World Association of the Major Metropolises (Metropolis). The aim of the Guangzhou Award is to recognize innovation in improving social, economic, and environmental sustainability and good urban governance in cities and regions and, in so doing, to advance the prosperity and quality of life of their citizens. So far, five cycles have been held, attracting over 1,300 initiatives worldwide. It has become a global platform for city-to-city learning on urban innovation and the documentation, dissemination, and analysis of the local implementation of global agendas including SDGs and New Urban Agenda (NUA). The 5th cycle of the Guangzhou Award, held in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, received 273 submissions from 175 cities and 60 countries around the world.

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