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Copenhagen Uses Tech To Tackle Two-Wheel Traffic Jams

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Copenhagen has set an ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. To reach that target, city planners have been trying to increase the number of bicycle commuters. They've been so successful, they've caused traffic jams in the bike lanes says. Sidsel Overgaard went to check it out.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: It's 7:30 in the morning just outside of Copenhagen proper, and already the bike traffic is getting thick, or at least thick enough to make a novice nervous. I'm literally getting passed by every single person - people with children in the back, old Men, everybody. Thankfully, the other cyclists seem willing to put up with my wobbles probably because only socks and sandals would scream tourist louder than the chunky pay-by-the-hour bike I'm riding. While waiting at an intersection, commuter Amanda stops to offer some reassurance.

AMANDA HALD: Even though I have biked a lot and in cities as well, that I - when I moved to Copenhagen, it was really like you should know the rules in another way that you have been used to. In the beginning, you think it's really scary. scary.

OVERGAARD: After making it half a mile or so and only getting beeped at once I'm picking up speed. Twenty thousand people by this route on any given morning. And I've heard horror stories about cyclists getting stuck at intersections through two and three light changes. But suddenly, I realize I've been biking for 4 minutes and haven't hit a single red light. And that's partly thanks to this guy.

STEFFEN RASMUSSEN: We have introduced green waves for bicyclists.

OVERGAARD: Green waves, that is traffic lights timed for the benefit of bikes. Steffen Rasmussen, who's head of traffic and urban life in Copenhagen, says that is just one of the tech solutions the city has introduced to keep cyclists moving. There's also a route-planning app that can prioritize speed, ease or scenery. And the newest is a series of digital traffic information signs. We're standing under one when it flashes on at about a quarter to 9.

RASMUSSEN: The sign just changed now. And you can see that the sign is showing that we have congestion ahead, so we are advising the cyclists to choose another route to come quicker and more direct to their goal.

OVERGAARD: Rasmussen says infrastructure improvements like wider bike lanes are also a must when it comes to encouraging biking, but tech solutions have one big advantage.

RASMUSSEN: There's no doubt that these types of solutions, they are much cheaper than changing the physical environment.

OVERGAARD: In one way, Copenhagen is fortunate to have its critical mass of cyclists, as more bikes tend to make for more careful drivers, but critical mass can also lead to herd mentality. When the smart sign doesn't have congestion to report, it reads simply take care of each other. A necessary reminder, says longtime commuter Diana Telling.

DIANA TELLING: People don't watch out for other people. People - they're in their own world. And you just look there.

OVERGAARD: She points to a group of about 20 cyclists stopped at a light, almost half have white cords dangling from their ears.

TELLING: They have head - earphones, all of them. They don't hear.

OVERGAARD: Telling also worries about how few cyclists wear helmets. And yet, she is adamant about ending on a positive note.

TELLING: I must say, every day, almost every day, I enjoy living in a country where we can bike to our workplaces or studies at the university or whatever. I really enjoy it.

OVERGAARD: Keeping that feeling alive will be critical as Copenhagen strives to increase the number of people commuting by bike from the current 40 percent to 50 percent by 2025. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Copenhagen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLEBIRD'S "ESCAPE FROM REALITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.