Then there are the bikes…
The biggest problem in addressing the topic of Bicycle Culture in Copenhagen is knowing where to begin. It’s the cheapest, fastest, most efficient form of transportation in the city, supported by the most advanced bicycle infrastructure in the world. It’s a model that is decades ahead of anyone else and one that is studied by urban planners around the world as they strive to develop tomorrow’s global cities while combating congestion and environmental pollution today. Because the topic is so immense, I have decided to break it down into several categories, beginning with Bicycle Use.
For the first time visitor to Copenhagen, the first thing you notice are the bicycles. They are everywhere. At the train station, outside the supermarket, in the parks; the city moves by bicycle. Indeed, unsuspecting tourists are more likely to get run over by a bicycle than by a car. After having programmed yourself to avoid vehicles of the four wheel type all your life, it’s a big shift to have to reprogram yourself to avoid the silent, two wheeled variety.
Twenty percent of all trips made in Copenhagen are by bicycle. This number increases to 35 percent during rush hour and the city has a well-publicized goal of increasing this to fifty percent by 2015. With an urban population of 1.2 million, that’s 600,000 cyclists per day. Furthermore, ninety percent of residents report using their bicycle at least once per week. I don’t know what is more impressive; that ninety percent of people bicycle once per week or that bicycle ownership is OVER ninety percent!
The best place to get a feel for the volume of traffic is Nørrebrogade. This thoroughfare is the city’s busiest bicycle artery, averaging 38,000 cyclists per day. For non-mathematicians, that is one cyclist every 2.3 seconds, although this figure is much higher during rush hour. The number of cyclists on this and other major thoroughfares is often tracked by counters and the figure is a matter of some pride to the Danes.
While visitors may be surprised at the pervasiveness of the bicycle culture, bicycling to a Dane is almost as innate as learning to walk. Kids are given their first bicycles soon after they have begun to walk and you frequently see little tykes on their first bikes, paddling along like drunken sailors (the bikes do not have pedals).
Parents invariably transport their children to school or daycare by bicycle. Toddlers are frequently installed in seats situated in front of the parent while larger children are situated in seats at the rear. It’s not uncommon to see kids nonchalantly playing video games as parents transport them around the city. Unfortunately, I never seem to have a camera with me when I see them.
For families with more than one child, a cargo bike is de rigueur (more on these to come) and it is common to see several children packed into the cargo hold of the bike. From the look of things, they appear to be having a blast. Indeed, when Danes with cars were asked why they still frequently transport their children by bicycle, one of the primary reasons given is because kids simply enjoy bicycling more.
Once the kids gain in age and stature, they are expected to work for their own transportation. It is not uncommon to see parents cycling beside their 5 year olds, assisting them up an incline with one hand on their back. By age seven or eight, they are often free to go out on their own. Bicycle skills are even taught in the schools, demonstrating the importance of bicycles to the culture. The following is a superb video which sums up North America’s impression of Copenhagen’s bicycle culture.
Lest you think bicycling is strictly for the working class, think again. Even politicians (including cabinet ministers) are known to bike to work. In fact, there is more space devoted to bicycle racks outside of Christianborg Palace (Danish Parliament) then there are parking spaces. Although I don’t expect the US President or the Canadian Prime Minister to begin biking to work anytime soon, it is a great motivation to see elected representatives leading by example.
Nor is the cycling in Copenhagen just a fair-weather venture. Danes bike in all four seasons, including in the dead of winter. I was amazed to see people bicycling when the weather was a bone-chilling -15C. Brrrr!!! The following is a great video on winter cycling in Copenhagen. It’s fitting that the song is “You’re the Storm” by “The Cardigans”, a well-known Swedish pop group.
Lest you think bicycling is a spandex and Gore-Tex affair, think again. Bicycling is as much about style as it is about getting to your destination (although Gore-Tex is not such a bad idea in dreary weather). The following is an internationally renowned website with the aptly named title Cycle Chic. The author is a well-known bicycle advocate and is often interviewed by international journalists when they do pieces on Copenhagen’s bicycle culture (interviewed in the first video and the creator of the second). There are thousands of pictures of fashionable Danes going about the city on their bicycles.