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THE RETURN OF the bicycle to the modern urban transport paradigm continues unabated. All over the world, citizens are rediscovering the benefits of cycling.
Cities are responding by building the infrastructure to serve and keep them safe. This rush to increase cycling levels and improve the quality of city life is the greatest movement in global urbanism. Of course, not all cities are equal. Some charge ahead, while others lag.
With the Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index 2017, we at the Copenhagenize Design Co. have ranked 136 global cities and identified the top 20 using 14 parameters. (You can read about our methodology here.) The common denominators between these cities are clear: the realization of the potential of cycling as transport, investment in infrastructure, and a desire to make cities better.
For almost a century, urban planners have only asked one question about transport: “How can we send more cars down this street?" In today’s age of booming urbanization, modern cities have changed that tired question to, “How can we send more people down this street?” The answer includes robust public transit and walking infrastructure—and, of course, a heavy dose of bicycle.
The bike in the city, regardless of topography or climate, is good business. In Copenhagen, the cycling population contributes $261 million a year in public health savings—enough to pay off the cost of protected bicycle infrastructure in under five years.
This is the fourth bi-annual Bicycle Friendly Cities Index and 2017 offers up as many surprises as the others. Copenhagen holds onto first place due to massive investment in cycling as transport. Utrecht dazzles with investment and innovation, nudging Amsterdam down into third.
Nine cities from the 2015 top 20 have moved up. Munich, Helsinki, and Tokyo are back after an absence. Every version of the Index produces a bicycle urbanism darling, and this year Oslo shines brightest. Despite the hills and the long winter, the Norwegian capital is focused on tackling traffic congestion and improving public health with bicycle infrastructure and facilities. Montreal clings onto 20th spot as the only North American city, but we are convinced that others will be appearing in the Index in the near future.
These are the cities to watch: Not just the benchmark cities at the top, but also the cities that started from scratch under a decade ago. Saddle up.
1. Copenhagen, Denmark
2015 Ranking: 1
The Lowdown: While the competition between Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Utrecht at the top of the Index remains fierce, it is clear the Danish capital continues to further develop itself as a bicycle-friendly city. It has invested $150 million in cycling infrastructure and facilities over the past decade. It has 16 new bridges for bicycles and pedestrians built or under construction, eight of which have opened since the 2015 Index.
Since 2015 alone, the City has completed the Havneringen / Harbour Ring bicycle route allowing citizens to cycle along the whole inner harbor, piloted a new traffic light system that detects and prioritizes cyclists, launched digital traffic congestion signs to improve flow through the city, and opened new bicycle superhighway routes. Now, 62 percent of residents ride a bike daily to work or education in the city—just nine percent drive. In short, few places in the world prioritize innovation as much as Copenhagen does, with the city council support to back it up.
Getting Better: Copenhagen may be a highly-designed and complex bicycle city, but it has work to do. Congestion on the cycle tracks—even the widest ones—will become a problem unless the city reallocates more road space for the dominant transport form in the city. And it needs to stem the tide of motorists that invade the city from the suburbs each day. Meanwhile, the November municipal election is shaping up to be Bikes vs Cars, with the right-wing parties gearing up for a return to the car-centric 1950s. Oslo, Helsinki, and Paris are pioneering a return to quality city life with plans to reduce car traffic. Copenhagen needs to maintain the momentum and cement its leadership.
2. Utrecht, Netherlands
2015 Ranking: 3
The Lowdown: One of the smaller cities on this list, Utrecht continues to impress, sliding past Amsterdam into second place. While Dutch cities have a tendency to maintain their levels of cycling rather than working to improve, Utrecht is intent on bucking that trend.
The uniquely designed Dafne Schippersbrug bridge is a fine example. The city’s ongoing plans to build 33,000 bike parking spots at the Central Station by 2020 is another. The current 12,000 spots wasn’t enough, apparently.
“Bicycle streets” are standard in many Dutch cities, but Utrecht boasts the longest in the country—3.7 miles—with plans for more. It have created a pop-up parking concept for bikes and they installed the “Flo,” a speed detection system coupled with digital kiosks that read each cyclist’s speed and help them speed up or slow down in order to catch the next light. Regarding urbanism in general, the city continues to reject last century planning by digging up the Stadsbuitengracht and returning the ancient waterway to its rightful place by 2019.
Getting Better: If you live in the city, you figure out how to get around pretty quick. The infrastructure isn’t, however, intuitive for visitors—a sign it could be a lot better. Improving the uniformity would be a massive upgrade for the city.
3. Amsterdam, Netherlands
2015 Ranking: 2
The Lowdown: Watching Utrecht squeeze into second place shows Amsterdam needs to dust off its game face. Its status quo is amazing, but the city has failed to make any serious progress in the past few years. One concern is the rapid rise of the scooter: 8,000 in 2007, 35,000 as of last year.
Amsterdam has plans for impressive development and bicycle urbanism projects, but they are still in the pipeline. Improved infrastructure behind Central Station is welcome, as are connections like the one under Rijks Museum from a few years ago. But there is still room for improvement given the swarms of competing transport species in this densely populated city.
There is only one Amsterdam and there will never be another. The typology of the city is unique, which might explain why they struggle to implement ideas from other places. On the other hand, lack of political will might indicate that they aren’t even looking.
Getting Better: Like Copenhagen, Amsterdam has an inherent responsibility to assume and maintain a leadership position. For the benefit of its own citizens, of course, but for cities everywhere. Placing bicycles on the municipal, political agenda much more than now is going to be necessary if Amsterdam is to hammer out a vision of where to go from here.
4. Strasbourg, France
2015 Ranking: 4
The Lowdown: For decades, Strasbourg has been France’s premier cycling city, with little competition. Things have changed, with Paris, Bordeaux, and Nantes making rapid progress, but Strasbourg has responded. It was the first French city to reach 16 percent modal share for bicycle commuting. The Velhop system has taken bike sharing to the next level, and we’ve never seen a city with so many public bikes on the street. It even subsidizes cargo bikes for citizens with stuff to haul.
Like many cities, Strasbourg is planning a coherent network of “bicycle superhighways” with three ring routes and several radial routes to suburbs and neighboring towns. They have also commissioned a modern visual identity and wayfinding for the VeloStras network to firmly establish the bicycle as a transport form that is equal to public transport.
Getting Better: Like Utrecht and Amsterdam, Strasbourg’s primary challenge is settling on uniform infrastructure designs across the city. The city has been ahead of the curve for decades, but has evolved in bits and pieces, using a variety of solutions. Upgrading its infrastructure to be intuitive and uniform will be the perfect complement to its otherwise visionary bicycle urbanism plans.
5. Malmö, Sweden
2015 Ranking: 6
The Lowdown: Since 2015, Malmö has continued their focus on cementing the bicycle as transport in the city. We were thrilled to see the opening of Cykelhuset, or Bicycle House: Housing that accommodates bicycles throughout the entire building encourages car-free living and signals developers are finally catching up with the times. Next door, the Bicycle Hotel provides modern travellers with similar accommodation in a bicycle-friendly city.
Malmö is looking to upgrade its bike sharing and infrastructure, distributes cargo bikes from its central train station, and is piloting garbage collection on two wheels. The new bicycle ferry between Malmö and Copenhagen will strengthen bicycle tourism in the region. Malmö may be the little sibling to the other cities around it, but it seems to shrug and get on with it.
Getting Better: Malmö has a strong focus—although we would like to see more political will—and this should translate into hard infrastructure now. Soft initiatives are welcome, but the city should exploit the momentum and start upgrading its infrastructure.
6. Bordeaux, France
2015 Ranking: 8
The Lowdown: Bordeaux appears to have rounded a corner and is looking at bicycle urbanism more seriously than ever before. In 2016, the city approved a “Plan Vélo Métropolitain,” designed to push cycling’s modal share to 15 percent by 2020. It is sending delegations to Copenhagen to study best practices and is organizing training on infrastructure design for city employees.
There is serious talk of booting cars from one of the main bridges over the Garonne River and dedicate it to bikes, pedestrians and buses. The city’s bike share system continues to plant the bicycle firmly back on the asphalt as transport. And, Bordeaux is the only city in France that sees more women cycling than men. Mayor Alain Juppé has often spoken fondly about cycling for transport, and now serious work is beginning: $84 million dedicated to cycling is certainly a good start.
Getting Better: In order to achieve that 15 goal, Bordeaux must improve the cohesiveness of its infrastructure and completing the network. Traffic calming and re-allocating space from cars to bikes is paramount.
7. Antwerp, Belgium
2015 Ranking: 9
The Lowdown: Antwerp remains the best large city in Belgium for cycling, and while progress has been a bit slow, we sense some serious momentum. The city plans to extend its bike share system to reach beyond the city center, into residential neighbourhoods. It is implementing modern design bike racks and temporary bike parking facilities for large events. The bike parking at the Central Station continues to impress, and other stations are getting improved parking facilities as well.
New infrastructure in the form of wide, protected cycle tracks along the harbour, three bicycle/pedestrian bridges, and a massive plan to put the ring motorway underground are all signs that Antwerp is trying to accelerate its modernization.
Getting Better: Antwerp has the potential to reach a modal share of 25 percent or more—and even to reach the levels of cycling in the top three cities on this Index. Uniform infrastructure and a drastic reduction of car traffic is the way forward. Political will in the city swings back and forth like a pendulum. A clear vision is required.
8. Ljubljana, Slovenia
2015 Ranking: 13
The Lowdown: Ljubljana has created its own momentum over the years, and being the Green Capital of Europe 2016 has provided an extra boost. As its modal share of cycling has risen, it plans to continue expanding its solid, relatively cohesive network. Growing cycling levels will be easier than in many other cities.
Advocacy and politics work well together here, and the city’s cycling officer is more highly regarded than in many cities in the region. Positive promotion of cycling is a key element on Ljubljana’s journey to becoming more bicycle-friendly.
Getting Better: Ljubljana is poised for dramatic change. All the elements are in place. There is no reason why the city cannot crack a 20 or even 30 percent modal share for bicycles in just a few years. Much of its infrastructure follows best practice guidelines, which makes it easier to build further. But cars still occupy a lot of space in the city’s transport policy. The balance needs to tip more in favor of public transport and bicycles. The high car ownership rate in the country must be reduced.
9. Tokyo, Japan
2015 Ranking: Below Top 20
The Lowdown: After falling outside the top 20 in 2015, Tokyo is back, armed with impressive statistics. One fifth of the metropolitan area’s 20 million rail commuters cycle to the station. The tourist areas are full of bikes, but it’s in the neighborhoods where the vast majority of locals live that you really understand why Japan is the world’s third great cycling nation, and Tokyo its crown jewel. The modal share can easily hit 30 percent in many neighbourhoods. Parking facilities for bikes are everywhere and impressive parking cellars with all the trimmings are located near train stations.
The 2020 Olympics will be a prime opportunity for Tokyo to finally recognize cycling as transport. Where London and Rio failed to use cycling as a way of moving a lot of people around during their games, Japan has the opportunity to do so—and to cement cycling for transport for future generations. And when the world’s largest metropolitan area can figure it out, there are few excuses for others.
Getting better: Proposed, draconian rules for cycling must be halted, and cycling must be taken seriously as transport on all political levels. Tokyo needs to stop looking to America for road planning inspiration and instead look to Europe. Separated cycle tracks on busy streets would transform the city for the better.
10. Berlin, Germany
2015 Ranking: 12
The Lowdown: Berlin is up two spots in 2017, thanks largely to activists who promoted a cycling referendum, putting bikes on the city’s agenda with a bang. With a new coalition in power and focused on sustainable transport, Berlin’s political and community engagement climate is in a perfect sweet spot. What happens is still to be seen.
The capital’s modal share is a respectable 13 percent, but some neighborhoods see numbers are as high as 20 percent. A new bike share system is slated for this year. Berlin is experimenting with traffic-free streets and testing “green waves” for cyclists.
Getting Better: Implement the plans outlined by the Cycling Referendum. The bizarre mix of bike infrastructure designs resulting from years of planners trying to squeeze bikes into a car centric paradigm need to be made uniform. With the rise of the cargo bike, the City needs to plan accordingly for them from the beginning.
11. Barcelona, Spain
2015 Ranking: 11
The Lowdown: Like Berlin, Barcelona finds itself it in an interesting urbanism age. Mayor Ada Colau, elected around the time of the last Index, made bold promises regarding bicycle urbanism. Since then, the city has expanded the length of its bike infrastructure by 20 percent, with plans to spend $22 million building 40 miles of cycling tracks.
The Superblocks are now up and running as pilot projects, with calmer streets benefitting cyclists. The local bike share system continues to be a success and there are plans for expansion. Now, the time is ripe for Barcelona to move to the next level. Like in Oslo, the current administration might only last for one term so things need to go a bit quicker.
Getting Better: Despite the positive plans coming out of City Hall, Barcelona still hesitates when it comes to restricting car traffic and making serious inroads for cycling as transport. Cyclists still have to take detours to get around the city. It’s time to adopt best practice guidelines and expand the network in order to see an exponential rise in bicycle traffic.
12. Vienna, Austria
2015 Ranking: 16
The Lowdown: After years of cautious baby steps, Vienna is accelerating its efforts and climbing the Index. It’s the first large city to install a cargo bike share system, and has provided subsidies to citizens who wish to purchase one. It boasts 800 miles of cycling infrastructure, although much of that is recreational. The city center feels pleasantly traffic calmed, and some cycle tracks indicate the city is thinking about a cohesive network.
Getting Better: For all the brilliant ideas that are seeing the light of day in Vienna, the city needs to match it with infrastructure. The politicians are keen to talk at all manner of conferences, but the fact remains that the city’s modal share isn’t rising fast.
13. Paris, France
2015 Ranking: 17
The Lowdown: Like in Berlin, Barcelona, and Oslo, there is strong political will in Paris for improving the quality of life for the citizens. It’s hard to see the city meeting its 15 percent modal bike share by 2020 or making good on Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s promise to be the best cycling city on the planet by 2020. But progress continues. City leaders meet regularly with local associations and mobility stakeholders, showing a refreshing desire to be transparent and inclusive. Paris plans to extend its huge Vélib’ bike share system to the greater metropolitan area, and put new bikes on the street next year.
Despite ideas like bicycle infrastructure in the middle of the Champs Elysees that show the City struggles with understanding design, Paris remains a city to watch.
Getting Better: Paris is a perfect candidate for using bikes as a last-mile logistic solution: Using the river and the canals for transporting goods and connecting that with a fleet of cargo bikes would be simple and effective. Oh, and get some bike racks.
14. Seville, Spain
2015 Ranking: 10
The Lowdown: Seville was a global first mover in quickly and efficiently promoting cycling as transport, wowing us with their political vision. It has, however, slipped down the Index for the second consecutive time due to inactivity. But it seems that now, Seville is ready to resume its drive. The new municipal government is bicycle positive and keen to make up for lost time. The plan that launched Seville’s first generation of infrastructure and that took the city to 7 percent modal share from virtually zero is up for renewal.
The baseline for expansion and improvement is solid. The infrastructure may not be intuitive or well-designed, but there is an all-important network and the citizens are willing to ride. With the new bicycle strategy, a lot of fixing is required.
Getting Better: While many cities are eager to expand and increase the length of the bicycle network, Seville should focus on improving the existing network and making it more coherent—then on expansion. Much of the network looks like bicycles were squeezed in here and there. Polish it up, straighten it out, and Seville will easily hit 20 percent modal share.
15. Munich, Germany
2015 Ranking: Below Top 20
The Lowdown: Munich returns to the upper echelon after dropping out in 2015, impressing with its efforts to improve city life using the bicycle.
The city has a higher modal share than both Berlin and Hamburg and Germany’s largest network of 18 mph speed zones. It has built more cycling infrastructure than any city in Germany over the past few years. That includes good signage to help people navigate, and plans for 14 bicycle superhighways to encourage people to cycle to the city from farther out.
Getting Better: Munich should be looking at where it’s headed. So many cities are establishing clear goals and we would like to see Munich’s plan for reaching 30 percent modal share for bikes.
16. Nantes, France
2015 Ranking: 7
The Lowdown: Nantes came out of nowhere back in the 2013 Index thanks to an impressive political push for making the bicycle a normal transport form once again. In 2015, it held onto a top ten spot. This year, it slips nine spots to 16th place, as the bicycle urbanism storm has calmed to a stiff breeze. Other cities are showing more desire for change and Nantes isn’t keep up.
The French city does have a $56 million investment plan to get the cycling modal share to 12 percent by 2030. Compare that with Bordeaux’s $78 million and a goal of 15 percent by 2020 and you can see why Nantes perhaps needs more investment. (Its modal share is still at 6 percent even after years of municipal focus.)
To Nantes’ credit, its plan is focused on hard infrastructure as opposed to soft actions. The city is seeing an increase in cargo bikes as a logistics solution as well as for use by families. New bike shops and startups working on smart bikes and accessories indicate that the city has created a dynamic that other cities can envy.
Getting Better: Spend the money wisely, Nantes. Think about your network and improve upon it. Use the community of passionate citizens to help grow your bicycle city.
17. Hamburg, Germany
2015 Ranking: 19
The Lowdown: Like nearby Dutch cities, Hamburg is guilty of keeping the status quo instead of working to increase cycling levels. Its position in the Index is due to its existing levels of cycling, built up over the past couple of decades more than any current passion for improving. The city has Germany’s most successful bike share, and many residential neighborhoods give you the impression of being in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
Getting Better: Hamburg must make uniform and upgrade its confusing infrastructure if it wants to improve the cycling levels in the city. Separating the cyclists from motorized traffic is paramount, and bike lanes that take up space on sidewalks are unacceptable.
18. Helsinki, Finland
2015 Ranking: Below Top 20
The Lowdown: Helsinki cracked the Top 20 in 2011, then hovered below the surface until this year. The city has been ahead of the curve for many years, with bike infrastructure in place before many other cities rediscovered it. Helsinki launched its bike share in 2016 and it is already a success, with further improvements and expansion being planned. It wants to reach a modal cycling share of 15 percent by 2020, in line with many European cities. And it works hard to keep its infrastructure clear of snow in the winter.
Getting Better: We have seen bicycle count documents from the 1930s in Helsinki that show upwards of 10,000 cyclists a day on main corridors so there is little stopping the Finnish capital from going back to the future. The cycle path on the former rail line, Baana, has been a positive addition to the city, but now it is time to upgrade the infrastructure on the streets.
19. Oslo, Norway
2015 Ranking: Below Top 20
The Lowdown: Make no mistake, cycling in Oslo is a far cry from being in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or even Seville. But Oslo is the darling of the 2017 Index, a re-emerging bicycle city trying to find a balance between the spandex warriors and the regular citizens who are embracing the bicycle for transport.
The city center will close to private cars by 2019, car parking is being removed in impressive numbers, and new infrastructure is being implemented, including a bicycle street. In a response to the national road directorate’s old fashioned and restrictive infrastructure standards, the city made its own rules—calling them the Oslo Standard—highlight its desire to upgrade and modernize. Subsidies for buying cargo bikes are the cherry on the bicycle cake.
Getting Better: To avoid one hit wonder status, Oslo must keep pushing. Carve the political pressure of the Oslo Standard in stone to keep moving forward with best practice infrastructure. We would like to see more physically separated cycle tracks now that the city is accelerating.
20. Montreal, Canada
2015 Ranking: 20
The Lowdown: The sole North American representative holds its spot in the top 20. It’s no secret Montreal has led the continent for decades, building cycle tracks long before any other city had even thought about it.
The greatest challenges are upgrading the outdated bi-directional system and planning an intelligent network. Politician Marc-André Gadoury is leading the charge with an infrastructure project featuring best practice cycle tracks in the Rosemont neighborhood. Mayor Denis Coderre is beginning to put some action behind his words. The city is improving at gathering data and using it wisely and new infrastructure is being built. The city’s bike share system still plays an integral role.
Getting Better: With such an impressive starting point, it is time for Montreal to prove their worth. Far too many streets in the city are still unsafe, and cyclists are often herded down congested corridors. The introduction of best practice infrastructure is welcome, but it needs to become the standard for bicycle planning from now on.