Despite Some Policy Concerns, Copenhagen Still Among Safest Cities in the World

Copenhagen doesn't have a perfect road safety record, but it's still far better compared to most other cities. Photo by Stig Nygaard.

Do pedestrians “feel the squeeze” in Copenhagen because of too many bikers? Are there too many bikers in Copenhagen? These questions form the essence of two recent articles in the global press, the first in The New York Times, and the latter in The Guardian. While the articles uncover some important considerations for Copenhagen’s planners, there is an undertone that bikes create an unsafe environment – a message that other cities in the world should think twice about before shelving their bike master plans.

The articles allude to a picture of unsafe environments for walkers and novice bicyclists because of bikers’ disregard for the law. Some scofflaws do undoubtedly exist, yet the article fails to mention that, over the years, Copenhagen has also pedestrianized streets, taken back waterfronts for pedestrian areas and converted parking lots in the city center to public plazas. Copenhagen today is one of the safest places in the world for a pedestrian to be, and much of that has to do with the minimization of cars and maximization of walking, mass transit, and yes, bicycling.

While bicycle crashes exist and fatalities can result from them, the risk of death is far less than when a car is involved. And while biking may feel intimidating, the Times article even notes that in 2010, the number of seriously injured cyclists dropped to 92, including 3 fatalities, compared with 252 seriously injured only five years earlier. As bicycling has increased in the city, its safety has, as well.

There are legitimate concerns expressed in these articles, however. Planners can improve safety for pedestrians, educate and ticket bikers to improve behavior (and do the same for pedestrians and car drivers), as well as continue making infrastructure that reduces threat of injury. This might mean providing more space for pedestrians by pedestrianizing more streets, creating a more structured program of traffic police on bikes, targeting areas where crashes have happened and finding design solutions that forgive human error or behavior.

Ironically, Copenhagen is probably the most equipped of any city to take on these tasks, so I wouldn’t worry too much about this city becoming the next poster child for bad road safety based on its scurrilous polices to promote biking and reclaim public space from cars. The places that are most in need of improving road safety are places like Atlanta and Orlando in the United States, Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities, or the scores of cities in India where many streets have no dedicated sidewalks.

If only every city had the problems of Copenhagen, we could nearly solve the global road fatality pandemic.

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