To better understand what the fight over bike lanes in the District is about, it apparently helps to visit Copenhagen. The capital of Denmark, population 800,000, has the kind of bicycle “highway” system that some city leaders are hoping to construct in our nation’s capital.

“Have you been to Copenhagen?” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh
(D-Ward 3) asked at a recent community meeting on whether to create more bike lanes in her ward.

Her description made the city sound inviting.

“They have sidewalks for pedestrians, cycle tracks for bicycles and roads for cars, all separated,” Cheh said. “They have superimposed that system on an old city. If you were to go there I think you’d see it is the only way to ensure safety.”

But some at the meeting were not buying it.

Paul Dougherty, a resident of the Spring Valley neighborhood, called Copenhagen “a bicyclist utopia” that was unrealistic for the District. Dougherty is leading a group of residents opposed to converting two lanes of the Dalecarlia Parkway into bike lanes.

People at the meeting were saying to Cheh, a bicycle enthusiast who chairs the transportation committee, “ ‘We’ve been to Copenhagen, and D.C. is nothing like Copenhagen,’ ” Dougherty recalled.

He has a point. And you don’t have to go there to see it.

Bike culture in Denmark is more than a century old. The city of Copenhagen built its first cycle track in the early 1900s, according to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark. “During the 1920s and 1930s, the bicycle became a widespread symbol of equality and freedom,” the group said.

Residents of Copenhagen could draw on that legacy when creating their modern cycle culture. That was not the case in the District or the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. By then, mass-production techniques had been introduced in the car industry.

Rising gas prices led civil servants in Denmark to push for more bikes and bike lanes. Higher gas prices led Americans to move out of SUVs to midsized vehicles — temporarily.

While more D.C. residents are moving away from cars toward public transportation, scooters and, yes, bikes, the truth is that we are still far from having an infrastructure to support all those things on the roads and pedestrians.

A hallmark of Copenhagen’s bicycle friendliness is a network of connecting bike lanes and trails. D.C. officials say that bike lanes on the Dalecarlia Parkway would provide a critical link to the Capital Crescent Trail and make it easier for cyclists to reach downtown.

“I have been to Copenhagen, and one of the things you see is that everybody has a safe place to use the street,” Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association told me. “People drive, take public transit and bike because the city has invested in the infrastructure. In our area, the number one reason people say they don’t bike is that they don’t feel safe riding in the streets.”

By extending the network of bike lanes and trails, Billing said, “you get more people biking instead of driving.”

The problem is, the Dalecarlia Parkway serves as a commuter gateway in and out of Maryland and Virginia, with links to Chain Bridge Road and the Clara Barton Parkway.

“Dalecarlia was designed to keep traffic from our neighborhood streets,” said Alma Gates, a longtime resident of the District’s Palisades neighborhood. “When you shut down two lanes of the parkway, traffic is going to start coming through the neighborhoods and that will pose a huge safety concern for us.”

Residents complain that the city was taking action without their knowledge or rushing to implement policies before citizens could organize in opposition.

Copenhagen city leaders also have problems with maintaining and growing a cycling network. But again, they go about the work differently.

For instance, Copenhagen is working in cooperation with 17 other municipalities in the capital region of Denmark to build a network of “cycle superhighways.” The plan is to make fast and comfortable routes from the suburbs to the city center. Cooperation for a project like that does not exist in the Washington region.

In 2012, Jens Loft Rasmussen, then director of the Danish Cyclists’ Federation, explained in an interview with the Grid Chicago Blog how the cycling network evolved:

“During the past 40 years we have moved step-by-step back to the bicycle culture we had before we got the car-oriented policies,” he said.

Forty years. Patient, deliberative, one step at a time.

“The problem in D.C. is that we aren’t seeing the big picture,” said Thomas Smith, a resident of the Spring Valley neighborhood. “Decisions are being made one street at a time without regard for how it’s going to affect the next street. Nobody is looking at the whole city.”

By 2025, Copenhagen expects to have 75 percent of the trips in the city made by foot, bicycle or public transit. In the District, the goal is to have 10 more miles of bike lanes by 2024. But the plan is behind schedule and opposition to more lanes continues to mount.

“Copenhagen is a thousand-year-old flat peninsula with lots of roads everywhere,” Dougherty said. “In D.C., everything is up. There is no comparison.”

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