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Nearly 70% of Copenhagen’s workforce commutes via bicycle, including government workers and elected officials. This is the weekday scene in front of Christiansborg Palace, Denmark’s equivalent of the White House, the U.S. Capitol building and the Supreme Court rolled into one. It’s is the only building in the world that houses all three branches of a country’s government. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Copenhagen racing into future on two wheels

Stepping off a Copenhagen curb is reminiscent of crossing the street in Britain — you have to think twice before you do it.

In Britain, it’s because cars drive on the opposite side of the road; in Copenhagen, it’s because bike lanes are as busy as car lanes, people on two wheels have the right of way and they go fast.

Walk around this island city and you’ll see bunches of bikes parked everywhere — sometimes thousands — especially near subway entrances. Even at Christiansborg Palace, Denmark’s equivalent of the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court all in one, bikes are prevalent.

“Many people in government ride their bikes to work,” says our guide, Una Stewart, an ex-pat from Seattle who fell in love with Denmark while traveling the world several decades ago.

She was so enamored that she claimed it as her new home, learned the language and became a walking encyclopedia on Danish history.

“There goes a day care,” Stewart says, pointing to a “cargo bike” with a large wooden box where a front basket would normally be. Just above the top of the box we can see four little heads, perfectly still, watching the world pedal by. When these preschoolers turn 11, they’ll take a test to allow them to ride their bikes to school unaccompanied.

Known locally as Nyhavn (New Harbor), this famous Copenhagen neighborhood is a social center for locals and tourists alike. The canal was dug from 1670 to 1675 under the reign of King Christian V and dug by Swedish prisoners of war. It was a working port for more than three centuries and home of fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875). This is where he penned “The Princess and the Pea,” among other stories. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Stewart is our guide during our nearly four days in Denmark, part of a 15-day tour with Odysseys Unlimited, a small-group tour company based in Newton, Massachusetts.

As Stewart leads us on a walkabout through Copenhagen, there are constant reminders to avoid the possible pedestrian-bicycle collisions. According to 2019 city statistics, 62% of this capital city’s 805,000-plus residents commute to work and school via bicycle. Stewart says that number today is 68%. This translates to five bicycles for every car.

This is all the result of Copenhagen’s 14-year-plan to “improve the quality, safety and comfort of cycling” and to fulfill the city’s pledge of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025. The city didn’t just set a goal; it gave residents a way to attain it.

Commuting via bicycle is possible because of the incredible network of bike lanes throughout the city — more than 250 miles — sometimes designated just by painted lines, but often cyclists have their own parallel roadways.

They also have their own bridges.

The city built 17 bicycle-only bridges in the last few years to traverse the canals and harbors, and the suburbs haven’t been forgotten.

Cycle superhighways known as “supercykelsti” have been constructed to allow suburbanites to ride on high-speed paths that are free of traffic lights.

At least one person asks the obvious.

“What about when it rains and snows?” 

“Rain gear and warm clothes,” Stewart says matter-of-factly.

So, yes, the Danish ride in all kinds of weather — and in all kinds of clothes.

While most riders don various types of sportswear (local store windows display almost nothing but sportswear, gear and puffy jackets), it’s not unusual to see men in suits and women in dresses.

Overall though, daily couture is pretty casual and functional.

Many who don’t ride bikes, like Stewart, a suburbanite, commute on the trains.

Bicycles are a popular way to get around in Copenhagen, but there are many pedestrian-friendly plazas, especially in the high-end commercial areas that have focused on saving old and architecturally interesting buildings. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Working toward their goal of being green means Danes have found ways to combine form, function and fun. For instance, standing across the water from the iconic sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid is the Amager Bakke waste incinerator.

As one of the largest waste-to-energy plants in northern Europe, it processes 400,000 tons of waste annually, enough to heat and provide electricity for 150,000 of the area’s homes.

But wait … there’s more.

The sloping roof doubles as a 450-yard-long, downhill ski run, the only “peak” in a country where the average elevation is barely above sea level.

For more photos and discussion, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash or on Instagram at elouiseondash.

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