Riders passing Copenhagen's City Hall during the UCI World Cycling Championships. Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Denmark’s capital may be a cyclists’ paradise, but recent trends show what’s really necessary to sustain a bike boom.

Copenhagen may have a justified reputation as a cyclists’ paradise, but over the past three years, something shocking has happened: The proportion of bike commuters on the city’s roads has been going down. Since 2014, the share of commuter trips made by bike has dropped by 4 percentage points, from 45 percent in 2014 to 41 percent now. The modal share for bikes for all journeys, meanwhile, has stagnated. Currently 24 percent of all trips in the Danish Capital Region take place by bike, a rise of just 0.2 percent since 2012.

Most cities would kill for those statistics, of course, and they come against a longer-term backdrop of significant increases—look back ten years and bike commuting has still grown overall. The city’s rapid bike growth nonetheless seems to have crashed, putting a hitch in Copenhagen’s ambitions for half of all journeys to be carried out by bike by 2025. So what’s stalling in a city that prides itself on bike progress? And why is it commuting that has particularly felt the pinch?

To explain why rates have fallen, it helps to understand why they rose in the first place. The current modal share of Copenhagen's workers getting to and from their office by bike—41 percent—is still much higher than in 2013, when the rate was 36 percent. If the current performance seems to be just so-so, it comes after a period of incredible, enviable growth in cycling across the board. Much of that spike can be attributed to substantial investment in better bike infrastructure. Copenhagen has produced some of the world’s best cycle paths, mustering a degree of funding and care that most cities only manage for cars.

The city has also reshaped many streets to make them more pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly, introducing such innovations as traffic lights that give bikes priority and thus cut journey times. There’s another distinctive reason why the modal share for cars dropped, however; one that helps to explain why progress has stalled. For large parts of the past decade, driving in Copenhagen has been hellish. Hellish enough, at least, to coax some drivers out of their cars and onto bikes or public transit. This squeeze on drivers didn’t happen because the city targeted them—the reasons were somewhat accidental. During a period of intense construction, Copenhagen has been tearing up its streets.

First off, as this piece from Copenhagenize notes, the city has been replacing its district heating pipes, a huge, laborious process designed to make energy use more efficient. They’ve also been doubling the size of the metro, currently a modest two-line system that only went into full operation in 2007. The city plans to launch an orbital line ringing the city center in 2019, with a further link running on a loose north-south axis opening in 2023.

Some would have preferred the swifter access provided by a surface level, segregated street car, but the orbital line will do a lot to streamline public transit from inner neighborhoods due west of the city center. While it’s been under excavation, however, roads have been thinned, and through-routes have faced detours—nothing spectacular, but enough to impel some people to ditch four-wheeled vehicles in favor of two-wheelers.

Now that process is drawing to a close. The district heating installation was largely over by 2014, while the metro construction, still creating bottlenecks at some key intersections, will soon start to disappear from the inner city (most of the stations due to open in 2023 lie further out). As the bottlenecks have eased, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some people, especially commuters, have returned to their cars.

The phenomenon shows how even in a forward-thinking city like Copenhagen, getting people to shift to bikes can pose a challenge. It’s likely, for example, that cycling’s modal share will drop when the new metro lines open, as more people start using the train. This is hardly cause for agonizing. Using the subway may not actively boost your health but it’s a very efficient, environmentally friendly way of moving people around. The city’s recent history of rising bike use followed by a plateau still reveals an important truth. Putting in good bike infrastructure works wonders in encouraging people to cycle. But if you really want to push a major modal shift, you have to make driving harder.

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