This month, Denver’s City Council made a daring statement: 2014 would be “The Year of the Bicycle” in Denver. When asked what this will look like, Council President Mary Beth Susman points to Copenhagen.
The Danish capital is a good parallel for the Mile High City. Both the Denver and Copenhagen metro areas have a population of around two million with about 600,000 people living within the city limits. The Viking winters can be chillier than ours, but that hasn’t stood in the way of Viking cyclists: 70 percent of regular bike commuters stick it out through the winter.
For maybe the first time, there is the will to make Denver the best city for biking in America (we were named third best last week). Copenhagen proves a method, but unlike B-Cycle or the Mayor’s Head Up safety campaign, this one asks Denver drivers to give up a bit more.
Want to create space for cyclists? Get rid of parking spaces.
For over 40 years, Copenhagen’s city planners have taken two to three percent of parking spaces of the grid to expand bike lanes and public sidewalks, leaving only 7,000 parking spaces downtown. For a comparison, Denver has about 40,000 spaces in the central city.
Most pass this off as Europe being Europe: denser, slower, and less car-oriented than any American city. But Helle Shoholt of the Gehl Institute, a architecture firm that uses Copenhagen has its living test bed, says that Copenhagen’s success is the result of slow, data-driven shifts against car culture.
“It is a misconception that European cities have always been pedestrianized,” she said last March in a presentation to the Denver City Council. “Look at images of Copenhagen in the 1960s. A lot of the squares were used as parking lots, so we have been through a 40 year transition where we have put in pedestrian space, put in bicycle infastructure, and put in a subway.”
Preening parking spaces from the inner city for cycling lanes and public squares has proven a huge success for Copenhagen. 55% of people living in the inner city use bicycles for everyday errands and commuting.
Businesses like that pedestrians and cyclists can meander from store to store without dodging cars and navigating crosswalks. People say they feel safer with more eyes and ears on the street.
A reduction in greenhouses gases isn’t bad either.
Even with those benefits, could Denverites ever be convinced to give up parking spaces for bicycles?
“Copenhagen never had a master plan that said we’d end up with only 7,000 parking spaces in the inner city,” contended Shoholt. “If we did, I don’t think it ever would have been voted for it.” Slow progress, with plenty of pauses to present data to the public, wrested downtown Copenhagen from automobiles.
The council is hoping the same strategy will work for Denver. “Not many Denverites are ready to give up parking spaces,” said Susman. “But we don’t need drastic changes. We need careful planning so that we don’t continue to overbuild for cars.”
Take the statement another way: Denver wants to open new spaces for bikes and pedestrians.
Parking places, beware. Denver likes Denmark.