All of the previous posts on bicycle culture bring me back to where I began. Why do Danes bike? Why is the bicycle culture so pervasive here? And why don’t more cities adopted a similar system?
As is always the case, there is no one answer. Yes, Copenhagen (and Denmark in general) is relatively flat and compact. Yes, cars are taxed at an exorbitant level and public transportation can be expensive, making cycling the cheapest option. However, the weather is mediocre at best, especially during the cold, dark winters.
I believe the primary reason people cycle is convenience, quality of life and political will. Copenhagen learned early on what other cities are only now starting to grasp. People WANT to live an active lifestyle in cities free of suffocating traffic. But they are unwilling to do so unless there is the infrastructure in place to allow them to do so with a sense of security. Copenhagen embraced the old adage “build it and they will come” and it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people that began to cycle, the more the infrastructure expanded; the more the infrastructure expanded, the more people began to cycle…a classic “positive feedback loop”. But the initial commitment was not easy and took tremendous political will and courage.
Which brings me to the final question. Why don’t more North American cities develop such a comprehensive system? The most common excuse is that such a bicycle network couldn’t be implemented in North America. It would cost too much, there are too many hills, it is too cold in the winter, the city is too sprawling, etc. There may be an element of truth to each of these arguments. And I agree that it may not be realistic to implement such a system in every town or city. But in an era of rising fuel prices, obesity and expanding health care costs, the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives.
The end of the second paragraph provides a clue to the real reason. Such a system will only be developed when politicians have the political fortitude and courage to do so. The cities of Montreal, Toronto and New York provide a telling case study in support of this argument. Both Montreal and New York have begun to place significant emphasis on improving their bicycle infrastructure and have made long-term commitments to continue expanding it. True, they have a long way to go to rival Copenhagen but as the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Both cities have a vibrant, lived-in feel to them aided by the emerging bicycle culture.
Unfortunately, Toronto’s leadership is not as visionary and has begun to remove bicycle lanes in an attempt to relieve traffic congestion. Sadly, this is a short-sighted approach to a long-term problem. Not surprisingly, Toronto suffers from some of the worst traffic in North America and the city has a sterile, unlived feel to it. Recent political decisions suggest that this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The following is an inspiring interview with the primary mastermind behind Copenhagen’s urban planning and bicycle infrastructure. Not surprisingly, his firm is sought by cities around the world (including New York) to help them adapt to the realities of the 21st century and build more livable cities.