What can London learn from Copenhagen's record on reducing danger for cyclists?

Niels Tørsløv, Copenhagen's head of road safety and traffic management, talks about cycling provision with London Cycling Campaign's Mike Cavenett

MC: What can the rest of the world learn from Copenhagen, particularly around designing good cycling provision and safe junctions?

NT: There are no simple answers because we use tailor-made solutions each time. When we have an intersection that’s causing too many accidents, our traffic engineers look at the patterns and police reports to see how to remove conflicts. Then we redesign the intersection: tuning traffic lights; drawing an advanced stop line, so the bicycles get in front of the cars; using separate turning green lights.

Usually it’s the large junctions that are the more difficult ones, but using our methods we’ve managed, without taking out capacity, to reduce the number of accidents by up to 70%, so it’s really a very effective way of working.

MC: Copenhagen used to have problems with cyclist-lorry collisions. How did you change things?

NT: The worst year in Copenhagen we had 16 fatal lorry collisions involving right-turning lorries (what in the UK would be left-turning) in front of cyclists.

This created a very heated discussion at a political level, and the front page of one of our national newspapers even talked about “the killer drivers”. It was very confrontational, but there were some of us who were sad because we wanted to work with the drivers’ associations and lorry owners to solve the problem.

Our road directorate performed an in-depth analysis of accidents with rightturning lorries, coming up with a report based on 23 situations, which were looked from every angle — taking detailed information from everyone involved in each collision to try to gain real insight.

We found that because of the drivers seat position, they weren’t able to see what was happening to the side of the truck.

There were changes to the way mirrors on the side of trucks were situated, and we introduced places in streets where drivers could turn in to spend a few minutes adjusting their mirrors so they’re really safe for the bicycles.

There were also a lot of articles about this issue among the drivers themselves, in the drivers association’s magazine… so all the attention on this issue led to changes
at the intersections.

Another trick was the introduction of advanced stop lines, to get bicycles in front of the windscreen of the truck before the light goes green. We did this with stop lines, or with a green light. All these things together: the awareness, the knowledge of the drivers’ awareness, the mirrors on the trucks meant that within a few years the number of accidents dropped dramatically. There was one in 2011 and none in 2012.

MC: A recent report by UK health experts emphasised the importance of walking and cycling for public health. Is this a view strongly held in Denmark?

NT: Yes, absolutely. Using the same techniques we calculate that the health effects from exercise that you get from cycling are very big, and that it’s actually like smoking or non-smoking.

It’s huge numbers, also in terms of money. The same reason that if you make the calculation on helmets: if you wear helmets you probably have less injuries, according to the statistics, but you also lose cyclists.

And the amount of money lost to society from this loss of cyclists is higher than the benefit from the reduced number of injuries so it’s best business to not have mandatory helmet laws.

MC: How important is strong data on cyclist collisions and bicycle usage for good policy-making?

NT: It’s crucial: you need to know what’s happening out there; to count the numbers of bicycles, the kilometres travelled by bicycle, and the number of accidents.

And you must also count the small accidents, the ones the police never see, because there are 5-10 times as many under-reported accidents as there are reported ones. If you don’t get the data right, then you’ll never be able to produce a decent policy.

We have negotiated with hospital emergency wards to give information about how many times they have people for injuries caused by cycling.

Self-reporting systems are important too: where there’s a system on the municipality website that says if you’ve had an accident then tell us where and what happened and what time of day, was it rainy or whatever.

So we get those kinds of information from the people that were hurt, even if it’s just a scratch or falling over.

We need it because we have a challenge when we have such low figures on severe bicycle accidents as we have right now, where it’s very difficult to see patterns, to see where we should invest money to prevent accidents because they’re so scattered. We need the next layer of information.

MC: What are the major causes of cyclist crashes in Denmark?

NT: In Copenhagen, the most common cause of accidents is the open car door, with other major causes being turning cars: rightturning and left-turning fairly equally.

There’s a clear majority caused by drivers, but it’s more important to discuss and solve the problems rather than accuse drivers or cyclists.

Part of the reason we have been so successful in Copenhagen is we always manage to find this delicate balance between serving the bikes as well as possible but without abandoning the cars.

MC: You’re a strong advocate of lower speed limits for safety and reducing congestion. Why is this?

NT: I’m a cyclist but also a car driver. I have a beautiful French car so I can easily imagine that a low speed limit can sometimes be frustrating. People ask: ‘Do I really need to go that slowly?’

In Copenhagen, however, we have this advantage that most car drivers are also cyclists so it’s easier for us to understand what’s happening.

There’s no doubt on the issue about the eff ects: if you lower the speed limit by 10km per hour, you will get a reduction of 30-40% in the number of accidents. There’s no discussion there.

I’m also responsible for traffic management in Copenhagen and our traffic engineers invest a lot into improving car traffic flow in our city, changing traffic lights, using IT systems, and so on.

There’s an interesting fact, which is that if you lower the speed limit when you’re near the rush-hour peaks of capacity, you shorten the rush hour.

If we lower the speed limit, we can get a better flow of motor vehicles and actually reduce congestion.

This article first appeared in the Feb-Mar 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.