A city made for cyclists (Hint: it's not Toronto)


LISA ROCHON Friday, June 26, 2009

There's a big, disturbing gap between what's normal for cyclists in Toronto and what's normal for cyclists in Copenhagen. Normal in Toronto means biking as an edgy urban sport. Normal means risking life and limb to dodge cars, pedestrians and, during the winter, ice and snow on roads and dicey bike paths. Normal in Copenhagen means bike paths receive the same kind of snow removal as the city's main arteries. In Copenhagen, half the city's population uses some of its 350 kilometres of devoted lanes, which is normal.

An hour after arriving at my hotel in Copenhagen, I rented a bike from the front reception and was gliding past medieval water courses toward the historic downtown, cyclists' signage clearly marking my route. I rode alongside people of all ages – young people, for sure, but also elderly people looking relaxed and fit on their upright bikes. The path was a two-metre extension of the sidewalk.

In Toronto, cyclists sweat about the possibility of flying over a suddenly opened car door, or having their legs skinned by the tires of passing traffic. Not an issue in Copenhagen. I travelled on a slightly raised corridor between the sidewalk and parked cars, an innovation of urban design called the Copenhagen bike lane. Even jet-lagged, wearing a dress and sandals, I found there is nothing to biking there, a city of 1.7 million people where up to 30,000 cyclists travel along the main street of Norrebrogade every day. From what I could tell, there's no war being waged between cars and bikes.

That's a stunning revelation. And it's not a matter of political tokenism. The city actually has a director, Andreas Roehl, who oversees its cycling program with a $15-million annual budget and a staff of seven. “We just see the bicycle in Copenhagen as a mode of transport just like all other modes of transport,” said Mr. Roehl. “And that means that you treat it just like anything else. We use normal asphalt for bike paths. It's mainstream. It's normal. Apart from the cycle paths, we're also building a network of green cycle routes – away from the roads, and that's the icing on the cake. But, generally, we don't want to confine cyclists to some special path.”

Copenhagen's bicycle program was officially launched in 2007 when the city committed to becoming an “eco-metropole” by 2015. The goal is to become a quieter, cleaner, greener city in which pedestrians and cyclists command more of the public amenity space. About 90 per cent of all building waste is reused and the energy from burning household-waste material is used for electricity and district heating. The Copenhagen harbour has been cleaned up – you can fish for cod there, or go swimming in a sea pool newly designed by Danish designers, BIG Architects. New cars are taxed at 180 per cent, and taxis cost about three times as much as they do in Canada. Copenhagen, which boasts one of the world's highest standards of living, has beaten back the car. Now, the city exudes the pleasures of urban life.

If Toronto is serious about promoting bike culture in the city, it needs to stop treating it as a lovely way to travel through the ravines on a Sunday. Bike paths need to allow people to travel efficiently from point A to point B, which often means aligning them to same grid as cars. For safety, bike paths need to be separated, with a curb, from roads. We love the Toronto streetcar, its history and its use of clean energy, but its tracks can be lethal.

Ask Lillian Bayne, a senior health consultant who often advises on ways to improve the urban environment in Canada. Last week, during a visit to Toronto from her base in Victoria, her bike got caught in a streetcar track at Queen Street East and Coxwell. She went down hard, smashing her face on her handlebars and knocking herself unconscious for 15 minutes. She's now back in Victoria waiting for reconstructive surgery on her eye and cheek. “In Toronto, often people question why we should make all of these changes to bike paths when we can only use them 20 per cent of the year,” says Ms. Bayne. “Twenty years ago, Scandinavian countries faced similar questions and they made a conscious effort and created the policies to enhance bicycling throughout the year.”

Toronto planners need to understand that bicycling in itself should not be the goal. The goal should be creating a great city to live in. Often, we think of Toronto as a place bursting with cafés and restaurants, dynamic cultural institutions and a brilliant music scene. All of this is vitally important, but big cities need to account for levels of carbon dioxide and congestion, as well as noise pollution. Travelling by bike to the city's heart should be elegant and efficient.

In Danish, this translates to hundreds of bikes parked at countless bike racks outside the city's subway stations. It means the taxi drivers I spoke to applauded the expansion of bike paths that leads to less congestion for cars. It means a city where people linger on the sidewalks and in the cafés, even on a chilly spring day when couples are seated outside wrapped in red fleece blankets provided by the proprietors. The practicalities of urban life motivate much of what goes on in Copenhagen but, to a North American, it's also an enchanting urban romance. If there is a problem in Copenhagen, it's that its bike lanes are sometimes too congested. That's one problem I'd wish upon Toronto.