The Pitfalls of Copenhagenize's New Bicycle-Friendly Ranking

When I visited Sascha, my friend and the blog’s co-author, in Stockholm last month, I took a nap in his living room. I suddenly woke up to shouts: “Copenhagen is the world’s most cycling-friendly city”. I know Sascha, he’s a proud Amsterdamer, and would never say something like this. According to Copenhagenize”, he added. In the ranking, Amsterdam is second, and Utrecht is third. Groningen, arguably the city with the highest share of cyclists in the world, is not even there.

I didn’t care much about the ranking. We laughed a bit about the fact that a company called Copenhagenize is ranking Copenhagen as the world’s most cycling-friendly city, and forgot about the issue. But in the following weeks people kept referring to the ranking. It got quite a lot of attention since its publication, including from the World Economic Forum’s twitter account. There were also a lot of criticism to the ranking, as expected of the wild internet.  This publicity, both positive and negative, made me give some thought to the ranking, which I’d like to share.

Is a consultancy objective enough to rank cities’ cycling friendliness?

First things first: I’ve been following and enjoying the interesting Copenhagenize blog for years. The company’s CEO and main contributor to the blog, Mikael Colville-Andersen, is a charismatic speaker, and an interesting writer. He’s never afraid to criticize, sarcastically and wittily, people that hold anti-cycling-friendly opinions, like the auto industry and helmet promoters. As a fellow blogger – if I may - I urge everyone to follow Copenhagenize’s blog and hope that its contributors are open to some criticism

I don’t know much about Copenhagenize Design Company’s operations, deals, and partnerships. What I know is that they offer consultation services (also) to municipalities. Copenhagen is an innovative city when it comes to promoting (and marketing) cycling, and I’m sure that the consultancy has a lot to contribute from their experience in other cities. However, the moment they publish a ranking which receives so much attention, they become not only the advisor, but also the judge. Is the conflict of interest avoidable when a judge can be hired by those who rank low?

It reminds me of Richard Florida’s Creative Class rankings. Not only Florida’s tables hit periodically the news, making cities to compete against each other on who’s more ‘creative’, but also Florida is offering cities to purchase from his consultancy a more detailed report about their cities (at least according to Jamie Peck in 2005). Isn’t it a genius marketing strategy? Create a compelling ranking, gain international attention, and wait for cities to approach you, or even hire you, to improve their ranking.

While I don’t care that consultancies earn money for their honest work (I won’t cut off the branch I’m sitting on), it is important that decision makers will remember that rankings are just rankings, and that trying to climb them is not a guarantee for real improvements in their cities. Especially when we, the taxpayers, pay for it all. It’s important to note that Copenhagenize claims on their website that the ranking is “a non-profit affair”.

Is “Copenhagenize” Objective?

One of the comments to the ranking was the following:

Copenhagenize is indeed based in Copenhagen, and part of their attractiveness, I guess, comes from the fact that Copenhagen is among the best cycling cities in the world. However, it is important to mention that Copenhagenize also has offices in other cities: Brussels, Zurich and Amsterdam, and that in their first two rankings, in 2011 and 2013, they actually positioned Copenhagen at the second place.

All in all, I don’t have enough information about the selection process to know whether the ranking is unobjective. They might be really convinced that Copenhagen is the most cycling-friendly city in the world. However, I’d suggest them to read their own answer to people saying “WTF! I live in XXXX city and there's no way it's bike-friendly!”:

“Okay. Thanks for sharing. Applying a sober ranking system eliminates the personal perception that is often fueled by emotions that run high. If we did a ranking based on the perceptions of individuals, it wouldn't be very credible. Also, nobody says you have to agree with us.” (The ranking’s FAQ)

Can you rank friendliness?

As explained in the FAQ, Copenhagenize is ranking cities’ friendliness according to 13 parameters: advocacy, bicycle culture, bicycle facilities, bicycle infrastructure, bike share programme, gender split, modal share for bicycles, modal share increase since 2006, perception of safety, politics, social acceptance, urban planning and traffic calming. All these parameters are good indicators to the extent in which a city is ‘friendly’ to cycling, but putting a simple number on such a vague idea as bike-friendliness  might lead to results that do not truthfully represent the the reality.

How can Copenhagenize measure the perception of safety or traffic calming measures in the different cities? They don’t disclose the way they decide what ranking they give to cities for each parameter. In general, the company tries to present the ranking as objective, but as long as they do not publish the way they measure fuzzy parameters like “Social Acceptance”, I wouldn’t call it a system that eliminates personal perceptions. It seems more like a fancy way to express personal preference.

Ranking only “Big Cities”

I live in Groningen, and it’s not a secret that I love it and its cycling culture. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m also working with the municipality on a small planning project, which has little to do with cycling. I also try to spread the word about Groningen’s cycling culture on Twitter, and for instance tweeted a few weeks ago about Groningen being the Dutch ‘Cycling Capital’, especially when comes to cycling modal-share:

I have a problem when people, especially from Amsterdam and Copenhagen, tell me that Groningen is not big enough to be called a cycling capital. My answer is that the Dutch and Danish capitals are also pretty miniature in global terms. Amsterdam area is 219 km2 and has some 825,000 inhabitants, while Copenhagen size is around 88 km2 with less than 600,000 residents. When it comes to cycling, having a small city can help you when you want to promote cycling. In Copenhagen, Amsterdam and yes, also in tiny Groningen, you can cycle from one side to another within less than an hour. In New York, London or Moscow, you can’t (all of these cities are bigger than 1000 km²). In this sense, Copenhagen and Amsterdam cannot be compared to world’s capitals. They are tiny, in the same league of Milwaukee, Portland, Tel Aviv and Stuttgart. How can you even compare modal share for bicycles between Copenhagen and Paris (number 17 in the ranking)?

But what about Copenhagen after all?

Since I’ve already established that ranking cycling-friendliness is random and vague, I can only say that Copenhagen is a great cycling city. I’ve visited the city plenty of times, and cycled around quite a lot. It’s a convenient city to cycle in, and it seems that they put a lot of effort in  promoting cycling, and that many locals use the bike as their main form of transportation. And of course, they also have much room for improvements. For example, I saw many cyclists in Copenhagen wearing a helmet, which could be a sign of them feeling unsafe in traffic.

The ranking is an example of the pride pride of many locals, that are sure they live in the cycling heaven. Maybe it’s because they lived to see and appreciate the improvements in the city. But still, saying something many times doesn’t make it real. Any ranking system of bicycle-friendly cities, as objectively as you can apply it to cities, is at the end designed around someone's conception of what constitutes a 'good cycling city'. These rankings are, therefore, a normative and thus biased exercise. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that Copenhagen was not elected as the world's most bicycle-friendly city, but the world's most bicycle-friendly city according to the standards of several cycling enthusiasts in Copenhagen.

(Thumbnail image by: Georgie Pauwels, licensed under Creative Commons)

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter and .