For instance, Nørrebrogade is claimed to be "the busiest cycle street in the world". It's certainly the busiest cycle street in Copenhagen. Being 3 km long and taking a straight line path right through the city, it and the bridge on it are a funnel for cycle-traffic which uses this as one of the most direct routes to several locations. Very many of the photos of cyclists from Copenhagen are shot on this road because it's the busiest.
A recent widely reproduced press-release from the city claimed that 36000 cyclists use the road every day. Some websites go further and claim 38000 per day. Usually you have to assume that such printed figures are correct, and that's what I did too. However, in this case someone pointed to me that it's unusually easy to check it for yourself. This count was made on the same street as a famous public bicycle counter which many of you will already have seen photos of. The counter displays both the current date and the number of cyclists who have passed since the 1st of January, so a a simple calculation can be done by dividing one number by the other. Take the photo on the left as an example (click on it to see it in greater size at its owner's website). It shows 1559492 cyclists had passed by the 4th of June 2010, which was the 155th day of the year. That's 10060 cyclists per day on average by half way through 2010. It is a respectable figure, but not close to some claims which are put forward for the street.
So what's going on here ? I don't know. It's surely good marketing to have "the busiest", but don't we need a bit more than that ? Before Christmas I emailed the two people who were responsible for a document about the street to find out where the numbers came from, but have not had an answer (see below).
Counters in many different places in the Netherlands record higher numbers than this. For instance, eight locations in Utrecht have more than 10000 cyclists per day, and one of them has more than 22000 cyclists per day. In Groningen, six different places have counts greater than 10000 per day, two of those are above 14000 per day. Bear in mind that Copenhagen's population is more than three times that of Utrecht and six times that of Groningen. Counters in larger Dutch cities almost certainly record higher figures.
It's just marketing.
Danish professionals, including the Cycling Embassy of Denmark give a slightly different perspective.
This is the inside back cover of one of their recent publications, giving some numbers. The Danes now cycle for 16% of their journeys. Sadly, this is lower than the 18 or 19% measured previously and that I have quoted in the past. The difference is significant. It's equivalent to one in eight cyclists giving up. This is not something to celebrate - it's terrible news. We need to know the cause of the decline and work out what can be done about it.
Some of the other figures are also interesting. 36% of Danish adults ride a bike to work "at least once per week". The percentage of daily commutes is not given, but it will of course be lower. 45% of Danish children "often" bike to school. Clearly this isn't the percentage who cycle every day, which again is not given and will be lower. "Often" is open to interpretation but could be less frequent than once per week. This is a startlingly lower rate of school cycling than is seen in the Netherlands, and that's important. Cycling has to start with children.
Note also the claim that 2/3rds of children under 11 use helmets when cycling in Denmark. This is not something which would be highlighted if it wasn't thought to be important. However, it is again very different from the Netherlands, where despite occasional ill-judged campaigns, helmets are still only rarely seen except on sport cyclists. It's another sign of cycling under pressure. People are scared for the safety of their children, and perhaps this has some connection with the reduced rate of cycling.
Lastly, note that 2.2 metres is the new standard width of cycle lanes in Denmark. That's somewhat narrower than the 2.5 metres which is standard here for single directional cycle paths, and it's again a thing which puts cyclists under a little bit more pressure.
It all adds up to a bit of a murky picture, similar to what I pointed out before. Copenhagen, and in the wider sense, Denmark, has a relative lack of subjective safety and this is stifling bicycle use, even in the top city of the world's second cycling country. Helmet promotion campaigns like this are only likely to contribute to the decline in Denmark.
I'm not happy about any of this. Cycling is extremely fragile, even in the two great cycling nations of the Netherlands and Denmark. It doesn't take much to stop people from cycling. If care is not taken, cycling in the Netherlands could also decline. We need ever better standards for cycle provision and no negative marketing. We all need to be able to learn from what has caused the decline in Denmark.
It's clear that Danish cycling policies are not succeeding as we all wish they would. This problem of declining cycling has not occurred in the Netherlands, and that is as good a reason as any why The Netherlands remains the best place in the world to turn to if you want to see what successful policies look like.
There's been quite a lot of discussion in the comments below this blog post of the discrepancy between counts which made up the first part of the post. Copenhagener got close to the answer by finding the cycle counts for a day in September 2009. However, I was also sent very helpful emails from Klaus Grimar, Project Manager, and Soren Zebitz Nielsen, Student Assistant, both of the Center for Trafik (Department of Traffic) in Copenhagen, explaining the numbers. They gave permission to reproduce the first long email, and also a shorter summary which you will find in italics below:
The survey that resulted in the number of 37.000 cyclists on Norrebrogade on the bridge where the counter is placed was conducted manually in early September 2009. We know that early September is a peak period for cyclists with good weather and due to the start of the academic year for the universities in the city. The number of 37.000 cyclists represents the average number of daily cyclist on a normal work day in both directions on the street during the peak season.
As an average in both directions on a normal working day throughout the year, the daily total number of cyclists on the street is around 28.000.
The counter relies on a sensor placed below the asphalt on the bicycle path only. We know that during the rush hour some faster cyclists overtake slower cyclists using the road, and some even the walkway. We find that the counter does not register all cyclists when the bicycle traffic is dense. It is our experience that the automatic counter generally counts around 10% less cyclists than the actual number during the peak hours and around 5% less in normal hours.
The idea of the counter is not to be an official measurement, but more to give the cyclists an idea of the approximate magnitude of bicycle traffic on the street as they pass by and a feeling that each individual cyclist contributes to make Copenhagen a City of Cyclists. The numbers counted by the automatic counter cannot be relied upon for academic purposes.
However there is no doubt that there has been an increase of around 7000 cyclist daily on the street of Norrebrogade as a consequence of the project there, since the manual surveys of bicycle traffic before and after the project were made using the same method and the traffic was counted at same time of the year in the surveys before and after the project was initiated.
Thanks to Klaus and Soren we now know that the widely reported "average" picked up by the marketing people and the media was actually a peak, and we also know the official average for a working day over the year, including a compensation for the cyclists missed by the automated count (other places could perhaps use the same compensation), but still not the average for all 365 days of the year. I'm of course very pleased to see that the improvement in conditions for cyclists on this street resulted in an increase in cycle traffic in this location. However, it has to be viewed alongside the unfortunate decline in cycling overall in Denmark.
See previous articles about Copenhagen. There are also previous articles about helmets, and particularly amongst them, this one which points out that the "danger" of cycling really has been blown out of all proportion next to that of driving. Others have pointed out that a lack of sufficient investment could be behind the lower cycling share in Copenhagen vs. Dutch cities.
September 2012 update
This year, some people I know from Cambridge visited Copenhagen and wrote about their experiences.
They also took some photos, including the one on the right, which while it's supposed to be representative of a street along which "up to 35,000 cycle trips per day" are made, actually shows that something unpleasant has happened on the "busiest cycle street in the world". The photo shows the state of the sign on the 27th of May 2012. By that date, the 148th day of the year, 1261731 cyclists had passed the sign. In other words, in the first five months of 2012, the number of cyclists riding past this point averaged 8525 per day.
A 15% decline over two years in the busiest street in the city sounds catastrophic. Why has this happened ? Why did Copenhagen choose to hype the cycling rate on this street if it were actually in decline, and why do they continue to hype the amount of cycling in this street in the light of such a decline ? A 15% drop is in line with an acknowledgement by the Cycling Embassy of Denmark last year that cycling had dropped from between 18 and 19% to 16% of journeys within Denmark, but they were referring to a different decline which had happened over a much longer period than two years.
The article from Cambridge also reports a statistic that "Copenhageners make half of their urban trips by bike". However, this has no basis in fact either. We need to start with a little history:
|All trips within Copenhagen 2002.|
Bicycles "slightly less than one
fifth", cars just over half.
The 50% target sounds great of course, and that is what is supposed to do. It's an artifact of marketing for Copenhagen, not of the real cycling modal share. At best it's only a target, and it's a target not for all journeys but only for commuters. No-one should reproduce this figure as an achieved modal share, because it has never been any such thing. In 2009 when I estimated that Copenhagen's true bicycle modal share was around 22%, the head of Copenhagen's bicycle programme wrote a supportive comment on this blog. If the same rate of growth has been continued for the last three years then we would expect that the true modal share for Copenhagen in 2012 is around 23-24%. However, this is rather difficult to determine because the numbers are no longer easy to find.
|All trips within Copenhagen 2010.|
33% for bicycles, 40% by car, 27% public
transport. They missed out walking.
While the figures for 2002 (in this document) were truly for all modes, the figures issued for 2010 which appear to show dramatic growth do so in large part because they have omitted to mention the approximately one fifth of all journeys within the city which are made by walking. Assuming that around a fifth of journeys still being by foot, the diagram on the right would indicate that approximately 26% of journeys are now by bike in Copenhagen, which is more in line with my estimate. However, note that these figures are for trips "starting or terminating in" the city and we don't know how this phrase is defined nor how the figures were calculated. We have to be wary of tricks, especially when we're looking at figures from a place with a history of exaggeration.
Any claims for growth in cycling in
Copenhagen have to be judged against the
steady decline in Danish cycling since 1992
The Danish people deserve much better than this. Selling the "cycling city" of Copenhagen as a brand does not help people to cycle in the city. From the evidence that is available it appears that cycling is dropping and not rising, both in Denmark as a whole and on some main streets of Copenhagen if not across the whole city. Less hype, more substance and maybe even a little humility is required before Copenhagen can achieve its potential. More investment is needed to give the city any chance at all of meeting the old target, let alone the new one. The environment needs to be transformed to be truly safe for cycling.
Bad infrastructure designs need to be abandoned and no longer presented to the world as something to copy. In particular, the "Copenhagen left turn" is not, and never was, a good design. Drivers turning right should not be encouraged to merge with cyclists as they approach traffic lights. Advanced stop lines (aka "bike boxes") are not advanced cycling infrastructure - they create conflict which should be avoided and they should not be promoted. Unfortunately these ideas are still being presented to the world as something to emulate.
Not just Copenhagen
Many cities across the world publicize commute only figures. This includes Cambridge in the UK and Portland in the USA. Neither of these cities gets remotely close to the modal share for cycling which is normal in the Netherlands, nor to the wide demographic of cyclists which is not only a curiosity of Dutch cycling but necessary for any place to achieve a high modal share.
Why exaggeration is harmful
Cambridge's campaigners were left wondering how it was that a city where infrastructure "does not seem to be of the same elevated standard found in Assen" should have achieved the high modal share which Copenhagen claims. The answer unfortunately is very simple: they haven't. Rather, they are telling impressive sounding stories which are not necessarily based in fact.
Wherever it is done, playing with statistics in this way harms us all. Without reliable figures, how can any comparison be made between countries or even within the same city on different years ? If facts are obscured by smoke and mirrors, made up figures are shouted from the rooftops, half the audience is distracted by photos of pretty girls on bikes, and a good many people are simply more interested in a nice sounding story than whether what they are being told is factual, then how can anyone tell what works from what does not work.
Extraordinary claims need to be looked into and challenged, wherever they come from. Exaggeration needs to stop.