If you ask any visitor to Copenhagen what they did during their time in the city, the majority will tell you that, at one point or another, they traversed the city by bike. Cycling in Copenhagen, as well as elsewhere in Europe, has evolved from a pastime into a primary mode of transport over the years, with Copenhageners cycling an average of three kilometers (1.8 miles) each day. It is no coincidence then, that one of the tools that has emerged to calibrate the success of a city’s cycling infrastructure in the Copenhagenize Index.

The Copenhagenize Index, a byproduct of Copenhagenize Design Co., has been producing an index of the world’s most bike-friendly cities since 2011. Copenhagen has been head-to-head with Amsterdam since the first index was made, holding its first rank since 2015.

The Danish capital has become a model for success in making biking part and parcel of the urban day-to-day, and the Copenhagenize Index treats Copenhagen as a standard for success for cities that are looking to make biking a legitimate means of transport. And while Copenhagen has become the biking capital of the world, the city’s model may not necessarily work for other cities trying to do the same.

What makes the Copenhagen model – arguably the European model – so successful is a mixture of the city’s urban infrastructure, legislative processes, citizen engagement, and government support. In other words, the way European cities are built and the way they function allows the model to work well. And while this bodes well for other European cities looking to learn from Copenhagen, cities elsewhere in the world are adopting slightly different models to make cycling a means of transport, a recreational activity, and a cultural trope.

We take a deeper look at the Copenhagenize Index – and examine how other cities have done it differently.

More Bikes Than People

(CC: Hanlu Cao)

As much of a staple as biking has become of most European cities, Copenhagen continues to raise the bar for cycling on the continent. The Danish capital, known as ‘the city with more bikes than people,’ has stayed true to its reputation. In 2016, there were almost 13,000 more bikes than there were people in Copenhagen. By 2025, the city hopes that 50 percent of its residents will cycle to school or university.

Copenhagen’s cycling culture, however, is not necessarily inherent to the city. And the reasons for its persistence in the city are multifaceted. For one, Denmark is light years ahead of other countries in regard to its environmental track record, and Copenhagen is no exception.

But what is especially notable about Copenhagen’s thriving cycling culture is its urban infrastructure. When the world’s cities were becoming more car-centric in the 1960s, Copenhagen was investing in its cycling infrastructure.

Between 2005 and 2015, Copenhagen invested €134 million ($157.4 million) in equipping its urban infrastructure to accommodate such a large number of bikes. By 2008, the city had constructed eight bicycle and pedestrian bridges, and eight more had been built or were in the process of being built by 2015.

Also in 2015, the city finished constructing the Havneringen/Harbour Ring bicycle route, which runs for 13 kilometers (eight miles) and developed the ‘Green Wave’ System, a system that enables cyclists to whizz past traffic lights by directing traffic based on the flow of cyclists at any given point during the day.

A large portion of these infrastructural upgrades have been pointing to a near future for Copenhagen where urban infrastructure is not car-centric, but rather bicycle-centric. Today, only 34 percent of residents of the city move around by car. 

The Copenhagenize Index

Copenhagenize Index

Courtesy of Copehagenize Index.

In line with the growth of cycling in Copenhagen, car traffic in the city has been falling steadily in the past few decades. For Danes living in the capital, bicycles are faster, easier, and cheaper to use as a mode of transport. Their positive impact on the environment as well as their convenience in a city with the infrastructure to support them has contributed to the growth of Copenhagen’s cycling culture.

The city’s bicycle-supportive infrastructure is the main reason that Copenhagen has topped the Copenhagenize Index of the most bike-friendly cities for the past two editions. In fact, the Copenhagenize Index provides a list of 14 different criteria upon which cities on the Index are chosen. And while these criteria provide critical insight into whether or not a city has the facilities, infrastructure, and capacity to become friendly to cyclists, it may prove to be limiting when evaluting other models’ experience with cycling.

This immense effort to legitimize cycling as a means of transport treats Copenhagen’s model as a guide for other cities, which goes against the very flexibility of urban planning that allows cities to develop models that best suit their respective configurations.

In an attempt to better understand how to integrate cycling in cities, we will take a look at how the Copenhagen – and the European – cycling model compares with other cities that are working to accommodate bicycles and those who ride them.

Advocating For Cycling

There is merit in recognizing the role that advocacy plays in making on-the-ground changes effective. This, however, is not as simple for many cities where socio-political and legislative processes are disorganized and largely ineffective.

For Cairo, Egypt, known for its hours-long traffic jams and car-centric infrastructure, integrating bicycles into the city’s infrastructure could save lives, the environment, and many people’s road rage. Due to Egypt’s larger socio-political framework, civil society has a limited capacity to instigate change without backing from the government or other political entities.

Sekketak Khadra, an initiative started by the Danish Embassy in Egypt, UN-Habitat Egypt, and social enterprise incubator Nahdet El Mahrousa, among others, and supported by Cairo Governorate, installed bicycle racks in two major Cairene neighborhoods this summer. And while Sekketak Khadra garnered support from numerous organizations, it couldn’t have installed the bike racks without the backing of the Cairo Governorate office. 

Although cyclists remain rare in Cairo, the number has been growing in recent years as more residents take to two wheels to escape traffic. As such, the installation of the bike racks is a big step for Cairo – a city with little to no bike-friendly infrastructure.

And so to look at Sekketak Khadra as a stepping stone for Cairo, where policy decisions are made very differently than they are in Copenhagen, is to recognize that the city’s residents are sending a message. For a city like Cairo, where right of way is claimed by cars and infrastructure for cyclists is non-existent, Sekketak Khadra is a step towards accommodating cyclists in the city.

Comparing Copenhagen, where bicycles are used as a mode of transport, to Cairo, where cars are often markers of social and economic capital, is to compare apples to oranges: the two are inherently different cities. This, however, doesn’t mean that Cairo shouldn’t be placed on the map of cities moving towards a future with the bicycle at the forefront. What the Copenhagenize Index does not account for is cities like Cairo that are fighting for the same goal as European cities, but are going about it differently and moving at a different pace.

Biking-Oriented Infrastructure

Copenhagenize Index

(CC: Leo Ganzales)

Biking-oriented infrastructure, which comes in many shapes and forms, primarily enables cities to integrate bicycles for their environmental, transportational, and practical benefits. The Index evaluated the biking-oriented infrastructure of cities on a spectrum of more car-centric to more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Cities like Barcelona and Paris, which ranked 11 and 13, respectively, on the Copenhagenize Index, have thriving cycling cultures. Barcelona as well as Paris have designated zones on streets for cyclists, and some areas of the cities have restricted access to pedestrians and bikes – as in Centre Pompidou in the fourth arrondissement in Paris.

And while clearly demarcated urban infrastructure is often installed to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, some European cities are stripping away road markers and even removing traffic lights in an attempt to get people to organically regulate traffic. In fact, some urban planners are even calling for the removal of traffic control since it’s seen as being ‘dictatorial.’

For cyclists, this could mean more accidents, since cars are no longer as regulated, potentially putting cyclists’ lives at higher risk. But the experience of Bern and of other cities like Hanoi and New Delhi show that, in some cases, drivers actually slow down in the absence of organized traffic indicators.

Copenhagen, like many other cities, has clearly demarcated traffic indicators. In an interview with progrss, James Thoem, urban planner and partner at Copenhagenize, says that he “always knows where to go on his bike [in Copenhagen.] Bikers know where to go, cars know where to go, and pedestrians, too.” This kind of infrastructure, albeit practical and certainly ideal, is not the only way to carve out space for cyclists on city streets.

In Hanoi and New Delhi, experimental models – or in some cases, age-old traditions of cycling – go to show that the absence of cycling-oriented infrastructure is not an impediment to integrating bicycles on the roads. While straightforward traffic indicators suggest a smoother flow of traffic and increased safety, it does not necessarily mean that cyclists cannot navigate cities without them.

In some cities in the Global South, where traffic indicators rely more on acquired knowledge than universal indicators like traffic lights, different means of traversing traffic have developed. And while safety continues to be a concern for these cyclists, bikes remain an integral aspect of urban transportation in a city, in spite of the dearth of infrastructure to support them.

Urban Policy

Copenhagenize Index

(CC: Richard Masoner)

Since 2010, Mexico City’s cycling culture has been growing, with the 2010 introduction of bike-share system Ecobici playing an important role in jumpstarting the city’s cycling culture. In 2016, the city partnered up with Google to introduce cycling routes on Google Maps. City leadership has also been working hard to encourage people to opt for cycling in an attempt to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. In the meantime, the city’s cyclists have been fighting hard to carve a space for themselves on the capital’s busy streets.

And although ridership in the city’s bike-share system has reached a whopping 52.9 million rides since launching in 2010, Mexico City’s streets haven’t been so kind to cyclists. In some ways, city leadership has used the bike-share scheme to keep count of the number of cyclists in the city. And while that has increased the number of cyclists on the streets, it hasn’t solved issues surrounding cyclist safety.

According to Quartz, the increase in ridership coincides with an increase in the number of roadside accidents involving bikers in Mexico City. Mostly, the hike in bike-related incidents is due to the fact that Mexico City’s streets primarily revolve around cars rather than cyclists or pedestrians. And although city leadership has tried to restrict cars from the streets for one day each week, the city’s streets remain car-centric.

Mexicano cyclists in the capital, however, have continued to make efforts to take back their streets from cars. The lack of infrastructure for cycling – which effectively puts them in harm’s path – has not inhibited the growth of cycling in Mexico City. In fact, for many of these cyclists, riding their bikes in the city is forging space for themselves in the absence of infrastructure to support them.

Cyclists continue to advocate for better consideration of bike-riders in urban planning as bike ridership grows. Despite the fact that Mexico City’s streets are making it difficult to normalize bikes, the cyclists themselves continue to fight to make space for themselves.

The Index And The Future Of Cycling

The criteria used for the Index to gauge the success of making cycling a legitimate mode of transport are not isolated, but, rather, interconnected. In other words, very rarely can these cities consider one criteria without considering another.

For Copenhagen – or any European city – the infrastructure, cycling culture, advocacy, and other Index criteria are calibrated against factors that can be measured in cities like Copenhagen. And while formality and robust city structures enable European cities to integrate bicycles in the way that they do, the informality of cities like Cairo, Mexico City, and Delhi may mandate different ways of popularizing cycling.

The Copenhagenize Index, while an interesting survey of European cities that have successfully integrated bicycles, does not show that cities can function differently. City models that are informal, unorthodox, or simply different may not compare favorably to the European model.

The configuration of cities – in regards to their urban planning, infrastructure, and urban culture – need not be one and the same. In that sense, there is no ‘correct’ mode for cities to secure a future for cycling. Instead, a wide array of configurations allows cities to grow, evolve, and change.