Bicycle superhighways

Picture your daily commute to work. Wake up, get into your car, sit in traffic for an hour, listen to bad talk radio and get to the office late because you couldn’t find parking. Now imagine this: wake up, jump on your bike, and meet your friend at the bike path which is conveniently located near your home. Take a leisurely ride along a serene bike path free of car traffic and stop lights. Park your bike in a locker located inside your office, and arrive on time at work stress free. For some cities in Europe, this dream has become reality.

As of the end of April, Copenhagen, Denmark has completed an official bicycle superhighway. The superhighway was the brain-child of city planners looking to increase bike commuter traffic from surrounding suburban communities. “A typical cyclist uses the bicycle within 5 kilometers,” said Brian Hansen, head of Copenhagen’s transportation department. “We thought, ‘How do we get people to take longer bicycle rides?”

To encourage more bicycle traffic, planners designed the bicycle path to look more like automobile freeways. For the project, Copenhagen and 21 other local governmental bodies collaborated to ensure a continuous, standardized bike route was established. “We wanted people to perceive these routes as a serious alternative.” Mr. Hansen said, “like taking the bus, car or train.”

In Denmark, many commuters are choosing bicycles now as their main form of transport; not because of the environmental and health benefits, but simply because it is the fastest and most convenient transportation option. Simply providing easy access and a safe trip has increased ridership significantly in Copenhagen.

Some features of the new superhighway include air pump stations, foot rests and hand rails, and timed green lights if the cyclist continues at a speed of 12 miles an hour or faster. Smoothly paved bike paths that are clearly marked with proper signage are also impressive features incorporated in the superhighway design.

Copenhagen isn’t the first city to have conceptualized this idea.  The Netherlands already has five “superhighways”, and Freiburg, Germany also has an impressive bicycle exclusive pathway. This pathway is oriented along the Dreisam, an 18 mile river that cuts through the center of Freiburg. The bike route includes tunnels and bridges over main streets so cyclists aren’t exposed to crossing or riding in automotive traffic. 34% of all residents now commute via bicycle to and from work every day, and Freiburg is hoping to increase that number to 50% by 2015. Even the design of the city’s train station incorporates important bike-friendly design features including valet-checking for bikes. The station also contains a bike repair shop, a tourist office for cyclists, a café and a meeting place.

Copenhagen’s super highway project is far from perfect. The superhighway is actually a patchwork of smaller routes. Some parts are fully dedicated to bicyclists, but bikers must share the road with drivers in some places. Test bikers from Politiken, a Danish daily newspaper, have expressed dissatisfaction, claiming that there is nothing “super” about the super highway.

In order to create a better cycle superhighway, certain key design components should be involved. Ensuring these pieces are in place will increase ridership, and guarantee the safety of the rider.

Completely separate cyclists from pedestrians and automobile riders. Having a dedicated bicycle path that separates riders from slower moving pedestrians, and faster moving automobiles is an essential part of the design. This may mean building bicycle bridges or underpasses to avoid all intersections with busy highways.

Display proper signage and lighting. Signage should clearly indicate where cyclists should go, when to stop, and when crossing a pedestrian walkway or a street. Lighting helps ensure safety for the riders at night, encouraging greater ridership amongst daily commuters throughout the year.

Orient the bike lane along a scenic route. Bikers will be more likely to utilize a bike lane if it is surrounded by trees and other natural features.

Provide ample bike parking, easy access to air pump stations, repair shops, maps, water fountains and resting places. At a central bike station, provide a café, showers, and bike visitor resources. These simple amenities could be invaluable design features for the superhighway.

Many European countries are dedicated to creating and improving bike infrastructure. The Copenhagen bike “Superhighway” is an important step toward the establishment of a better bicycle culture, and lessening our dependency on automotive transport. While the design needs further improvements, this is a major step toward a better bike future.