For Copenhagen, being the second most bike-friendly city in the world just doesn't seem to be good enough. Denmark's capital is now considering its most ambitious cycling project yet: a cycle highway linking it with nearby Malmö, Sweden's third-largest city.
As a quick glance at the map makes plain, the two cities are separated by water— lots of it. The countries are divided by the 8-mile wide Øresund Straits, a seaway that has been crossable since 2000 thanks to the Øresund Bridge, Europe's longest to carry both cars and rail and second-longest bridge overall. Now the bridge could be threaded with two new elevated cycle ways, if a just-proposed project put together by Swedish firms Skanska and Sweco is taken up. This new international cycle highway is just one strand in an ongoing physical and social engineering project that might be the boldest Europe has yet seen. Since the bridge opened, Sweden and Denmark have been working together to create a new international metro area combining Copenhagen and Malmö, with almost 4 million inhabitants and two governments, currencies and official (if mutually intelligible) languages.
Even taken against that backdrop, the cycle way plan is no mean feat. The pathways would need to be suspended over the bridge's motor traffic on elevated platforms, covered to provide protection from weather. The bridge doesn't even stretch all the way across the sound, but hits land on the Danish side at the artificial island of Peberholm. The road then continues to Copenhagen via tunnel, constructed so as to maintain a bridge-free stretch of the sound for shipping. For this final leg, the cycleway would need to run through a different tube specially built for the purpose. Such a plan would be costly, though a substantial chunk of funding could come out of the profits of the bridge's tolls.
The whole project may sound like a pipedream, a drawing board folly that will never escape from its PDF release. Grand feats like this are nonetheless turning into something of a regional specialty. The project is part of an equally ambitious general blueprint for the region, called Øresund 2070, that envisages new integrated light rail systems and train lines, a new tunnel designed to get freight off the road and onto trains, 300 kilometers of new bike paths, as well as homes for up to 1 million more people. This level of ambition isn't necessarily unrealistic. A little further south, the Danes are currently building the world’s longest combined road and rail tunnel, an 18 kilometer-long tube under the Fehrmarn Belt seaway separating Denmark from Germany that will cut Hamburg to Copenhagen journey times by 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Øresund Bridge itself is already radically re-shaping the region. Thanks to the bridge, crossings between Copenhagen and Malmö have increased tenfold since it opened in 2000. Now one of Northern Europe's most economically powerful urban constellations, the Copenhagen/Malmö metro area sees 30,000 workers commute across national borders daily. Both cities' large harbors have joined into a single authority, while regional universities (among Scandinavia's oldest and best) are currently planning to create a single consortium from which students can pick courses across the entire region. To push this process yet further, the region is now discussing how to make cross-sound traffic even more fluid. Along with more tunnel projects, the most exciting proposal is the creation of the world's first international metro system, not spanning the bridge but running a separate route altogether through tunnels linking Copenhagen's and Malmö's respective downtowns.
On a side note, the Bridge has also gained some cultural celebrity in Europe, not for any real life event but as the setting for the very popular Swedo-Danish detective series, fittingly called The Bridge. Feeding its Swedish and Danish cop heroes a series of sensational crimes that all happen mid-bridge, the show has so identified the Øresund in the public mind with dismembered bodies, wandering plague ships and bomb-laden psychopaths that it's a wonder anyone still crosses at all. In its own quiet way, the TV show has nonetheless pushed the idea of the Øresund as a new European frontier, a place where international alliances are forged and the old map gets torn up.
The integration process this reflects may have been striking, but it has by no means been easy or even. Traffic across the bridge actually went down last year, smoothing out after an initial rush, and for now, most outbound commuter traffic is toward Denmark rather than Sweden. This is largely because the Danish crown is stronger than the Swedish crown, meaning people can get more for their money working in one country and living in the other. Danes also move across the water to profit from generous social benefits and lower property prices on the Swedish side, though Malmö's occasional description as "a suburb of Copenhagen" likely does not go down too well with the Swedes.
But if the bridge has given Danes more chances to cash in than Swedes, it's the Swedes who tend to be keener on starting more major infrastructure projects. Denmark's major parties have just sidelined plans for another new tunnel at the Straits' narrowest point, connecting Swedish Helsingborg and Danish Elsinore. Their lesser enthusiasm is understandable. While for Swedes, the link opens up a faster route from Stockholm and Central Sweden to all the European mainland, for Danes it would offer a faster way to the rest of Scandinavia alone, not such a vital change. But if both countries have slightly different priorities, there's no doubt that both Copenhagen and Malmö are slowly bonding together into a single molecule. In 50 years time, it's likely the cities will be international twins, united by an integrated economy and education system and a seamless transit network. Oh, and some pretty incredible bike paths, too.