Sunday, March 18, 2012

Copenhagen #8: Extreme traffic

Not everything is perfect in bicycle-land, and there have been a lot of complaints through 2011 and into 2012 about cyclists breaking traffic regulations. The police has had several campaigns in order to catch illegal cycling, and since 2012 the fines are doubled, something the police celebrated with giving out more fines.

I am still trying to learn the distinctions. In Norway a bicyclist either drives as if we're in a car, or on the sidewalk. Both are permitted, and driving on the sidewalk is recommended in heavily trafficked areas. You can imagine how well that works... But this means that I tend to take short-cuts when it gets me our of dangerous situations. There is, for instance, this one sidewalk on the way to work. There's no way I can cross the street right there, and it's perhaps 30 meters to the traffic light, where I can cross safely. So I roll slowly over a small bridge on the sidewalk, or get off the bike and walk if there are people there. In the heavy morning traffic I choose the safest, least trafficked route - which leads me to this little traffic transgression. And while I roll there, riddled by guilt, I see again and again examples of the Danish driver's interpretation of traffic-lights.

Traffic lights are supposedly very clear. It's green for go, yellow for wait, and red for stop. Yellow is for the transition between full speed and stop, for when you can't break without endangering traffic. Right? Yep, that's what I thought.

Now, if you are a bicyclist in Copenhagen, please realise that while you'll be fined by the police if you cross on yellow to red, Copenhagen yellow-light interpretations will kill you. Here's the Copenhagen car-drivers guide to stoplights.

While driving
Green: Go as hard and fast as you can.
Yellow: Keep going.
It's been yellow for a little while: Speed up, you can still make it across on the yellow light.
Red: It's only been red for 2 seconds, so it's still yellow.
Red for more than two seconds: Stop, preferably in the middle of the bike-path or the foot crossing.

While standing still
Red: It will be yellow any second, so I'd better keep prepared.
Red and yellow: Time to inch forwards.
Red and yellow if you are behind another car: Prepare to honk your horn.
Green: If you are behind a car pausing for some reason, honk.
Green: Full speed!

Now, if you combine this with the bicyclists reluctance to stop - if you stop you'll have to push off and get back on the bike, so you don't want that - what you get in Copenhagen are situations that makes me wonder why I haven't seen any serious accidents yet. On this one place on the path to work, the lights are synchronised. This means that if you keep a steady tempo, you'll reach the next light just as it turns green. However, if you're a little quicker than the mainstream biker, you reach the next light as it's still yellow and red! So, we have the Danish car-drivers' reluctance to stop until it's been red for a while, combined with the quickest bikers reluctance to stop or even pause on their way to work, sending cyclists at full speed in front of cars jumping lights.

I tell you,  I get all the adrenaline thrills I need regularly from riding my bike to work. Add the police's habit of driving like they are all in a second-rate cop-movie that relies on the car chases to make money, this city keeps the inhabitants' pulse up.

In defense of Copenhagen drivers: They take the most gentle and considerate right turns of all drivers I have seen. Normally turning  right is the easiest thing to do in right-side traffic. But when there's a lane of bikers just to the right of you, turning right becomes a hazard, and you need to make certain all bikers have passed before turning. I have to give it to the local drivers: They wait patiently. This is totally at odds with the regular stop-light behaviour, but a life-saviour. Of course, Danish television regularly sends a really scary reminder for both bikers and drivers about the danger of turning right without carefully checking the blind zone. I had nightmares about that infomercial the first months I lived here, and have now developed a healthy survivor habit of making certain the cars waiting to turn right see me before I cross.

In general, I have developed a habit of being a lot more alert as a biker than I used to. It's not just the cars, it's the other bikers and making sure I don't pass another biker just as somebody were about to pass me, guessing how the pedestrians will move, and seeing from the ripple of movement through the people waiting at a bus-stop whether the bus is approaching. Bicyclists are supposed to yield for people getting on or getting off the bus, so I need to know if I am about to be overtaken by one. Years ago, a friend compared driving on a six-lane highway with playing a computer game. Now I am playing that game, only it's a lot more complex. I have to understand and deal with so many more factors in traffic, different speeds, different rules for different participants, and the sudden moments when the behaviour changes - it's Extreme Traffic; Copenhagen Rules. The game is on.

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