Europe by Bike

What can three European cities learn from each other about the role and place for cyclists in urban space?

On the 28th of February Pakhuis de Zwijger organized a programme about the role and place of cyclists in European Urban Space. Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London are cycling cities, however, all three in a different fashion. The cities have their own way of using public space, in which cyclists hold a different role and place. What can these cities learn from each other? We are setting on a tour through these three different cities and perspectives to find out. 


London is not even close to Amsterdam and Copenhagen to run for the cycling capital of the world; there are still a lot of places where it is not safe or friendly to ride your bike. However, this cycling city is definitely improving.

The biking progress is not easily explained by one element, it is a combination of different changing factors. The introduction of a fee for driving your car in the city center, a terrorist attack at a central located metrostation and a slowly improving cycling infrastructure all led to a biking increase in London. Another major influence is the political climate after the election of ‘pro-cyclist’ mayors Boris Johnson and later Sadiq Khan.

Nevertheless, the ‘typical London cyclist’ remains largely white young males aged between 20 and 35 years with a higher economic status.

“For a long time it was only the young, the brave and the fit.” – Mark Ames (ibikelondon blog)

© Ibikelondon

So it not just about infrastructure, you also have to manage the cyclists. Londoners have to be convinced cycling is not only a recreational activity but can serve as a daily mode of transport.


Last year Copenhagen was elected as the most cycle-friendly city of the year. For a large part, this could be explained by its large investments in cycling infrastructure, especially in bridges. The cycling bridges are a symbol of the improving position of cyclists; they provide shortcuts for bicycles and pedestrian, but not for cars. In Copenhagen they also focus on small details based on cyclists behaviour, such as foot railing where cyclists can rest while waiting for the traffic light without needing to get off their bikes.

© Ole Malling/ Copenhagenize Design Company

In 2016, for the first time, there were more cyclists than cars counted entering the city. Consequently, the biggest challenge of Copenhagen is that there are too many cyclists in rush hours. Is Copenhagen becoming the victim of its own success? Through urban planning design, Copenhagenize Design Company is trying to solve this problem. One of their solutions is the introduction of broader cycle tracks that are divided into two lanes: the ‘conversation lane’, where cyclists can go on their own speed and talk with each other, and the ‘fast lane’, where cyclist can overtake the others.

If they are so many cyclists in Copenhagen, and numbers are increasing, does this mean that the ‘typical Copenhagen cyclist’ could be any citizen of Copenhagen? Not necessary. Just as in London, the city is facing the issue that cyclists are primarily people without an immigrant background.


As a cycling city Amsterdam is showing leadership by hosting Hackathons and introducing the first Bicycle Mayor of the world. Still, in the last few years Amsterdam has received critique for not innovating enough. The city is, however, trying to change that by carrying out experiments with public space. The concept of ‘Flexible roads’ is an ongoing experiment. These roads are planned for pedestrians, cyclists and cars, but during the day you will be able to adjust the road to the main user of that moment.

© Flickr

“The ‘typical Amsterdam cyclist’ is the person who is actually not aware he can ride a bicycle and is riding it every day. But when the bicycle get stolen he feels lost in the city, because it’s his way to get around.” – Anna Luten (Amsterdam Bicycle Mayor)

Cycling is so normal in Amsterdam that people are not aware of the great cycling infrastructure. Still, following the examples of London and Copenhagen, in Amsterdam good cycling infrastructure is not everything. There are still neighbourhoods in the city that are falling behind in cyclist numbers, although the amenities are there. In these places it is important to improve the cycling mentality. This is can done by improving the cycling experience, initiate projects that encourage children in a playful way or invest in bicycle parking spots for companies to make cycling a daily mode of transport. 

Good cycling infrastructure is not enough

So what can these three cities learn from each other? Obviously, each city has its own characteristics. As such, it is neither possible nor should you want to replicate a city’s cycling story. However, Amsterdam and Copenhagen form a learning ground for other city leaders. These mature cycling cities can share their knowledge, their history, their stories, which can help other leaders embrace the longterm transition from a car-centric city to a human-centric city.

Still, there is one challenge all three cities are facing: how to encourage people to cycle more? It is a cycling myth that people will come when you have a good cycling infrastructure. Cities need to experiment with alternative ways of unfolding a cyclist mentality. Good cycling infrastructure is not enough.

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