Note: Ryan Miller is a Seattle University student majoring in Political Science. He is currently studying abroad in Copenhagen and will be writing blog posts for Great City about his experiences and impressions of the Danish Capitol (and possibly other locations around Europe).

Danes and the Dutch – So near, yet…..

I was privileged enough during my travels to visit Amsterdam – the “other” cycling capital of Europe. I was only there for a day, but my time there was enough to let me compare Copenhagen’s and Amsterdam’s policies in an attempt to see which city does a better job accommodating cyclists.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Amsterdam was the sheer number of bicycles parked in the city. It was simply mind boggling. Although the number of people actually riding bikes seemed no different than Copenhagen, parked bicycles simply dominated the landscape in a way Copenhagen cannot match. In fact, the need for adequate parking in the city is so bad that I managed to find this 3-story bicycle parking garage filled to capacity within a few minutes exploring*.

*In the interests of full disclosure, this oft-photographed facility is immediately outside the main train station in Amsterdam, but even so the sheer number of bikes there was remarkable.

I was also struck (almost literally) by the way the Dutch ride. Unlike the Danes, with their immense respect for conformity and order (as documented earlier) which spills over into their cycling, the Dutch are a tad more, let’s say, “individualistic” in how they ride.

Basically, the Dutch ride bikes the way Romans drive Fiats….

As such, the kind of strict traffic rules the Danes have embraced are seemingly non-existent with the Dutch. For cyclists in Amsterdam, stoplights and pedestrians appear to be no more than mere suggestions to possibly slow down (maybe, if it is convenient). It is a remarkable, if not slightly terrifying, difference in cycling culture.

Perhaps as a result of this Dutch cycling culture, Amsterdam has a radically different infrastructure for their cyclists. As opposed to Copenhagen, which consists almost exclusively of paired, one-way cycle tracks, Amsterdam is filled to the gills with completely separated (2-way) bicycle pathways. I am not entirely certain of the rationale for these facilities other than to scare motorists and pedestrians into getting as far away as possible from bicycles, although the way the city is designed does leave the occasional clue.

Copenhagen, which despite being an old city still has rather wide streets, the vast majority of Amsterdam’s “streets” are no wider than the average sidewalk in Downtown Seattle. This narrowness undoubtedly contributes to making Amsterdam a cycling capital, because the streets themselves keep cars out, leaving residents little choice but to walk or ride bikes. Having no cars on these streets additionally makes it politically much easier to convert them to bicycle-only pathways.

Amsterdam, perhaps more so than Copenhagen, became a cycling city out of necessity. As such, I have an even harder time thinking that we can directly “export” their cycling policy to the United States any more than we can Copenhagen’s. Our cities are just too different. Even if American vehicles were to disappear (not likely), there is so much real estate left over that the Amsterdam approach doesn’t seem applicable. While there are many elements of both Dutch and Danish bicycle design practice worth looking at in the U.S., I feel it has to reflect both our physical setting and how Americans want to ride their bikes.

Still, the Dutch (unlike the Danes) don’t take all day to make a left turn – there’s something to be said about that.

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Note: Ryan Miller is a Seattle University student majoring in Political Science. He is currently studying abroad in Copenhagen and will be writing blog posts for Great City about his experiences and impressions of the Danish Capitol (and possibly other locations around Europe).

Left Behind at Lefts

Perhaps this is just me being picky, but I save a special brand of disdain for taking left hand turns (by bike) in Copenhagen. Unlike in the United States, where making a left hand turn merely involves signaling and turning, the Danes have adopted an entirely different system. In Denmark, one must cross the street as if you were going to proceed normally, signal, stop, manually back your bike out of the cycle-track, wait for the next light to change, and then finally continue normally (See illustration below.)

The Copenhagen Two-Step
Sketch credit to Between Yellow and Blue –

There are good reasons Copenhagen has adopted these measures, most notably that cycle-tracks and Danish traffic law do not allow cyclists to move over to the left turn lanes that cars use. As such, if they attempted the kind of left hand turn you are accustomed to in the States you would be darting across not only traffic moving in the opposite direction, but also any traffic moving in the same direction as you while you are in an intersection, which would be understandably unsafe and chaotic. However, this “two-stage” or “jug handle” turn does have its downsides.

First, you are waiting two cycles of a light to make a traffic maneuver that cars can accomplish in one cycle. It hardly seems like you are accommodating cyclists by forcing them to wait twice as long as cars to do a relatively simple maneuver.

Additionally, guess what the law in Copenhagen requires cyclists to do in intersections that have no cycle-tracks? The exact same thing. This bewilders me to no end. I can understand the practical problems cycle tracks create in regards to left hand turns which necessitate the two-stage turn, but when there is no cycle-track, why are cyclists still required to make this style of turn?

This style of turn is not even remotely useful for situations when a cyclist needs to make a left hand turn outside of a controlled intersection, especially when on a street with cycle tracks (for example, turning left onto a side street, notably one at a T intersection). The Copenhagen traffic code offers two possible remedies to the solution. One can either go to the next controlled intersection and make two separate two stage turns (although I have seen the maneuver made using only one by not crossing the street the first time) to make a U-turn or you can stop on the side of the cycle track and “wait until it is safe to proceed” then cross the street. Mind you, this second option is not feasible on larger, multi-lane streets, as there will rarely be a time when the lanes in both directions are clear.

The stopped bicyclist heading toward you in this photo must make a left turn by backing into the blue pocket on the left and waiting one aditional signal phase before proceeding. (Photo – Phil Miller)

Having waited for the second signal phase, these bicyclists continue on with the aid of an advanced signal. An American making this turn in the usual fashion would be a half mile away by now… (Photo – Phil Miller)

As a slight aside, when I was looking for a good illustration of what a “two stage” left looks like, I found this video from describing how cyclists should adopt a Copenhagen style left hand turn in favor of the city’s plan to have riders do the EXACT SAME THING without crossing the street (Mind you, in the video, the creators claim the city’s plan requires riders to dismount their bicycles, later in the accompanying article it is clarified by Tri Met that they do not have to, contrary to what the video proclaims).

I find it interesting how the Oregonian paints the “wait” for the signal with the Tri Met (Portland) plan to be entirely unreasonable, yet the same waiting period with the “Copenhagen left” is strangely seen as just fine.

But I digress.

Surely I shall see the light soon. Maybe in about two signal cycles…

AIA Seattle’s Forum magazine is seeking illustrated ideas that repurpose or rethink underused or vacant spaces of all kinds for its upcoming issue, “Coming Out of the Curve.” They have issued a challenge to designers and artists to think boldly about innovative approaches to underutilized land, buildings or infrastructure. More info below:

Ideas to Repurpose Vacant Urban Spaces

We are living a new economic paradigm, with profound impacts on our built environment. To what creative uses can we put vacant or underutilized buildings? Can partially constructed projects contribute to, rather than diminish, our neighborhoods? Are there more constructive uses for vacant lots than just another parking lot? How might we rethink outmoded infrastructure? How does the new economy create opportunities for lean, fresh solutions to our urban problems?

Submittal instructions

Send a 72dpi jpeg with a 100 word synopsis to Isla McKetta at by the deadline below. Jpegs should be at least 8.5″x9″. We cannot accept previously published images. If your idea is selected, a 300 dpi version will be requested. Selected ideas will be published in the August/September issue of Forum magazine.


Coming Out of the Curve

Ideas due May 14, 2010

Publication date August / September 2010

Mission and Audience

Forum is a platform for critical dialogue about architecture in Washington and the Pacific Northwest. It reaches over 4000 architects and related professionals in the state of Washington.

To learn more visit