As far as cycling cities go, Copenhagen’s hard to beat. The 40 percent of residents who commute by bike have access to a citywide network of protected bike lanes and sleek infrastructure built just for them.

But the Danish capital isn’t settling. It hopes to be carbon neutral by 2025, a goal that requires getting even more people out of their cars and onto bikes or into public transit. And to achieve those goals, the city’s latest Intelligent Transport Systems Action Plan calls for making riding a bike or taking the bus more appealing.

And when it comes to transportation, the best way to make something appealing is to make it fast. By the end of this year, Copenhagen wants to cut bus travel times by 5 to 20 percent, and cycling travel times by 10 percent. It wants to reduce the number of times cyclists have to stop by 10 percent. (Copenhagen hasn’t forgotten about cars. The city hopes to keep travel times from increasing citywide, and to reduce them by 5 percent on some larger roads.)

To do that, the city is spending $8.9 million installing 380 “intelligent traffic signals” that will spot, and prioritize, buses and bikes.

“These systems will ensure traffic that flows better so that as many people as possible can save time in the greenest possible way,” Morten Kabell, the city’s technical and environmental mayor, told Copenhagenize. “It means that Copenhageners won’t waste time on their way to and from work and that is good business. Copenhagen will be a laboratory where we develop new solutions.”

The idea of traffic signals that can be changed on the fly to improve the flow of traffic is an old one, but it’s typically applied to move as many cars as possible from A to B, ASAP. For Copenhagen’s purposes, though, the lights are programmed to keep bikes and buses moving.

The buses will communicate their position, number of passengers, and any delays to the traffic signals, the city says. Green lights could be extended by eight to 30 seconds to keep buses moving, and those that are overcrowded or running late would get priority. Copenhagen installed 10 smart signals in its Valby district as a pilot project, and found that buses saved up to two minutes during rush hour—not bad in an area that covers less than four square miles. The traffic signals also will help clear congested areas after events like soccer matches and concerts.

To help cyclists along, Copenhagen has already created a handful of “green waves”—stretches of road where lights are timed so cyclists (and anyone else traveling around 12 mph) never hits a red light. The city will program the new signals to create three or four more similar corridors, with the added ability to detect cyclist speed (using traffic cameras) and adapt accordingly. So say there’s a strong headwind and everyone’s biking at 8 mph instead of 12, they still get the green light.

Copenhagen hasn’t said when it will start installing the new signals, or how long it will take to convert all the old ones to the new clever models. But once they’re in, it’ll be one more lesson cities around the world can take from the Danes when it comes to making bosses out of buses and bikes.


Copenhagen’s New Traffic Lights Recognize and Favor Cyclists