In winter, bike lanes on main roads are cleared before the car lanes in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. The city spends millions every winter to keep the bike lanes open for traffic and the reasons are simple, writes Peder Bjerge

Global warming might be high on the agenda, but this does not mean that the Danes have escaped the snowstorms of the Scandinavian winters. The last two winters have brought heavy snowfall and frost which covered the entire country for months. Last year, the snow arrived as early as November and lasted well into March.

Even though the Danes are known for their love of the bicycle, a foreigner might assume that this kind of winter meant that bicycles were stored safely away until the frost and snow were long gone.

However, this is not the case the larger cities like the capital Copenhagen, where the local authorities make clearing bike lanes number one on their agenda.

The Copenhagen city council states that even though the winters are hard, it has to be attractive for Copenhageners to use their bicycles. That requires continuous investment in machinery and skilled personnel.

“We prioritize clearing the main bike lanes for snow before any other roads in Copenhagen,” says Andreas Røhl, head of Copenhagen’s bicycle programme. Røhl is responsible for the infrastructure that serves the cyclists in the city, which is no mean feat. In 2010, the city of Copenhagen had a total of 346km of bike lanes used by almost the entire population of Copenhagen. Some of more heavily trafficked lanes, such as Nørrebrogade in the city centre, have as many as 36,000 cyclists every 24 hours.

A survey published last year by Copenhagen’s Technical and Environmental Administration (of which the bicycle programme is a part) showed that 93% of the population of Copenhagen has a bicycle. This percentage covers all age groups, and while the number is 99% for the age group 30 to 39, the older generation has yet to put the bike away for good. Some 88% of the population aged 60 and older still have a bicycle.

The statistics show that Copenhagen actually has more bicycles than inhabitants, as Røhl points out with a smile. “Most people would agree that cycling is good for the environment, but this is not why the people in Copenhagen prefer to use their bike,” he says. “They do it because it is a fast, convenient and cheap way to get around the city. If it was not, some might still use the bike for transport, but they would not be a majority.”

Røhl goes on, “Using the bicycle is as mainstream as going to the café for a latte with friends. It is not something that you think about. People in Copenhagen do not see themselves as cyclists. You might as well ask them if they were using their toothbrush. Punk rockers and senior citizens use the bike as a natural thing, because it is easy, safe and cheap.”

“Cheap” is also a key word when one thinks of bicycling in the context of urban planning. Røhl explains: “Cycling is cheap for the city. The infrastructure for bikes does not cost as much as the ones for trains and cars. And that makes cycling a good value proposition for the city of Copenhagen, as we need to think carefully about costs. Cycling saves the city money that can be better spent on schools, or day care and other things that the taxpayers demand.”

So enabling cyclists to use this infrastructure is a vital part of the city’s financial planning. And that is why the fast clearing of the bike lanes are given priority over car lanes, as a hard winter can tempt people to leave their bicycle in the shed and take the car instead.

Cyclists in Copenhagen travel a total of 1.2 million kilometres by bike every day. This is the equivalent of cycling to the moon and back – twice.

In 2012, 35% of Copenhageners chose to use their bicycle to commute to work or to their place of education. This figure is slightly lower than the 37% of 2008 – much to do with the last year’s hard winter.

Despite the focus on bicycle transport despite the weather, there is still a risk that some people will leave their bicycle in the shed, as Marianne Weinrich points out. Weinrich is head of mobility at Veksø, a Danish consultancy which advises cities and municipalities on how to get more people using bicycles.

“The last two winters have been exceptionally hard and have taken a high toll on the cyclists. Some haven’t got back in the saddle after winter. That is not in the financial interest of the cities. The better the bike lanes are cleared during winter, therefore, the better the city does financially,” Weinrich says.

It isn’t just the money. Copenhagen wants to increase the number of people using bikes for daily transport to 50%, which will go a long way to meeting the city’s objectives in reducing the CO2 emissions.

Rush hours dictate much of the clearing operations. “We operate with a run time of eight hours, from when the main bike lanes are cleared from ice and snow the first time until the machines return to clear the same lanes again,” Røhl explains. The lanes must be ready for the cyclist to reach their destination safely and easily.

This means that the snowplough can’t allow excess snow from car lanes to block the bike lanes. According to Weinrich, cyclists are quick to complain about lack of service in the winter. “The sentiments will run high on Facebook and other online forums if the cyclist comes out to icy lanes, lanes blocked with piles of snow or if gravel instead of salt has been used on the bike lanes,” she says.

The cyclists expect the city to deliver lanes fit for cyclist even in the hardest of winters, as Røhl is well aware. “We have to have trained personnel in our department to handle this. In order to keep the conditions optimal for cyclists during the winter, we must pay attention to details like how we deposit the snow,” he says.

The Technical and Environmental Administration operates the winter service that consists of 22 diesel tractors, John Deere model 3720 and 4410, equipped with shovels, brooms and salt dispensers. The administration expects to acquire another five or six tractors in 2012 which will ensure that a wider surface of the lanes is cleared in the areas with the most traffic. The tractors have been in service between one and 10 years. They do not require a special licence to operate for the personnel in the winter service.

Copenhagen’s budget for the winter service for 2011 for clearing the road, bike lanes and sidewalks is DKK 23.4m (€3.14m), of which about DKK 6.2m (€833,000) is spent on keeping the bike lanes fit for traffic. For next year, the city has increased the budget for the bike lanes to DKK 8.2m (€1.1m). The winter service in its present form has been in operation since the winter of 2001/2003 and has a total of 244 chauffeurs attached today. Out of those a total of 44 chauffeurs work the bike lanes clearing them from ice and snow.

The winter service is in active service from the 17th of October till 23rd of April whether or not the winter turns out hard or mild.

Copenhagen is not alone in promoting bikes above cars, Weinrich points out: “The larger cities like Odense, Aalborg and Aarhus have done a great job, but the effort is concentrated in those cities and not in the smaller municipalities with fewer inhabitants. Out in the country we do not see the same effort. The bicycle is great for transportation in the inner city, but on a country road on a dark winter morning, the bicycle is not the most practical choice, mainly due to the lack of street lights and safe bike lanes.”

In Copenhagen, city officials are working to improve conditions for cyclist even further so that even more people will choose to transform the journey to their place of work or education into a bike ride. When the city reaches its target of getting 50% of Copenhageners cycling to work, it will reduce CO2 emissions by 80,000 tons per year from traffic.

It seems like everyone is hoping for a mild winter.

Bragt i Cyclingmobility nr. 4, december 2011