The Null Device

What the world can learn from Copenhagen

The Independent has an article about what Copenhagen can teach the world about sustainable urban planning, in particular the promotion of cycling:
Forty years ago, London and Copenhagen had similar ratios of car to bicycle use, and both faced an exodus of workers moving out of the centre and into the suburbs. But after ' the energy crises of the 1970s, the two cities diverged. Danes were restricted in how much they could use their cars and commuters began to campaign for a better infrastructure for cyclists. Today, there are almost 200 miles of bicycle lanes in the city, and 40 per cent of its 5.5 million inhabitants cycle to work. The city has evolved cyclist-friendly policies, such as the Green Wave – a sequence of favourable traffic signals for cyclists at rush hour.
Melbourne is one of Gehl's most significant successes. From 1994 to 2004, he studied the city and, working with Professor Rob Adams at the city government, introduced major changes to the city's public spaces. Gehl recommended promoting the city's café culture, improving the waterfront area, opening up the historic laneways to pedestrians and adding more urban plazas. After a decade of work, there were 275 per cent more cafés and 71 per cent more people-oriented spaces. Wider, lighter walkways, lined with 3,000 more trees, enticed 39 per cent more daytime pedestrian traffic and 98 per cent more at night. Of course, the city expanded during this time, but more people also returned to live in the inner city (to almost 10 times more apartments). Once a classic doughnut-shaped modern city, in which the centre empties at night as workers return to the suburbs, Melbourne is now regularly rated one of the most liveable cities in the world.
One point that comes up is that, while in the Anglosphere, cycling is a purer-than-thou subculture with its own uniforms and ideological machismo, in Denmark, it is completely mainstream and without pretention:
In Britain we have been conditioned to believe that cycling is something that can be done only in special places while wearing specialist safety equipment and clothing. Yet here were men, women and children cycling to work or school, looking stylish and feeling safe. It was cycling as transport, not sport.
He's no fan of the culture of hardcore cyclists that has evolved in the UK. "Once you get past the cycle subculture and make it mainstream, when you have grandmothers picking up their grandchildren from school on bikes, the aggressive riders become less noticeable. You still get people running red lights here but you just don't notice them." And he believes Critical Mass-style activism is counter-productive: "Is this selling cycling to drivers? No."
Getting around Copenhagen has been simplified over the past 30 years, from insurance (stolen bikes are registered by the police and cheques are sent out within a week) to gear. "There are a lot of companies selling 'cycling clothes' in the UK. Is it overcomplicating it, as the sports industry has for 40 years? I think it might be. Open your closet, it's full of cycling clothes. Anything you can walk in, you can cycle in. Let's move on."
Of course, the "your closet is full of cycling clothes" line only works when you have Copenhagen-style cycle paths separated from motor traffic. In Britain, where cyclists have to contend with cars, especially in the winter when it gets dark early, high-visibility clothing is a must.

There are 4 comments on "What the world can learn from Copenhagen":

Posted by: datakid Tue Oct 20 01:57:51 2009

My experience in Asia is that bicycle riding is similarly pedestrian, although can come with a different type of cultural baggage, depending on country. In Japan and China it's commonplace and normalised, as in Copenhagen. In Indonesia, the govt provides extremely cheap loans for people wanting to buy mopeds. So while bicycle riding is normalised in the "not hoity-toight" sense, it's generally considered to be a form of transport left to the very poor. And the cheap tourists :)

Posted by: TLV Tue Oct 20 12:44:46 2009

You don't need any high-visibility clothing, only a high-visibility red blinkenlight at the back of the bike. Here in Tel Aviv cyclists wear normal clothes (no helmets even) while driving on the road, amid cars, motorbikes and Vespas.

Posted by: Greg Tue Oct 20 22:33:34 2009

It's a great article. On the differences between Euro and Anglo cycling, as you and TFA point out it's the 'normalcy' of bike transportation that strikes one upon visiting Denmark. In Australia, cycling is associated with all sorts of anxieties, to which many respond by performing weird rituals (such as lycra clothing - and it's not all in bright colours), which detract from cycling's simplicity and efficiency. The underlying problem (and it's due to a century of marketing by the car industry) is that means-of-transportation has become tied to social status. Specifically, the size of one's, er, status, is defined by the size and power of one's car, and how aggressively one drives it. Big cars abuse little cars, and they all take it out on non-drivers, who by definition must be at the bottom of the heap. Anglo cyclists respond by forming their own pecking orders, so that what should be a better way of getting around, becomes a sad macho battle of lycra, speed and 'get out of my way'. Bad culture - needs to go.

Posted by: acb Thu Oct 22 02:11:12 2009

That's a very New Waver view.

I wonder how much of Denmark's hospitality to cyclists comes from Danish society's lack of hierarchy, and the Jante Law's prohibition against elevating oneself against others. Then again, Germany's not a Jante culture, and Berlin seems to be great for cycling.

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