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Copenhagen: Bike heaven

October 14th, 2009 · 23 Comments

When my Globe and Mail colleague Gary Mason headed off to Copenhagen two weeks ago to cover the announcement of the 2016 Olympics, I blathered on to him before he left about how the city had done an amazing job of getting people out of cars and onto bikes. More than a third of people ride bikes regularly now in this Danish city and, unlike Amsterdam, it didn’t have a strong biking culture when it started on its campaign to promote cycling.

Gary took a look at their new cycling culture while he was there and here’s his story.

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  • Chris

    Copenhagen is amazing. If it wasn’t for the language, I’d move their in a heartbeat.

  • Darcy McGee

    One of the most interesting aspects of the Danish cycling phenomenon is that it was “planned.”

    People tend to look at the numbers of cyclists there today as if it was always so. Drivers use it as a negative in a way. “Sure that works in Denmarks…lots of people cycle. It wouldn’t work here!”

    It was not always so. The Danes took initiatives to make it so.

    An interesting article last week in one of my google alerts that said if you want to measure the success of mainstream cycling you needn’t do more than count the number of female cyclists. Basically the assertion is that dudes are more willing to cycling than dames, and when cycling has become “normal” transportation dames start to cycle in much higher numbers.

    In Demark there are plenty of beautiful, blonde, babes on bikes. It’s nice.

  • coldwater

    It is also very flat in Denmark…

  • Byron

    “it’s also very flat in Denmark”…..
    Who cares?
    Ever heard of changing gears?

    That hardly seems like a legitimate excuse anymore. Get those legs churning coldwater. It’s not that difficult. You need to attack the hill. That is all.

    Ride on, and peace out.

  • Darcy McGee

    The flat thing is a red herring.

    I’m not saying it’s not an issue. It certainly changes the nature of the machines they ride, but time and time again safety is cited as the reason people don’t ride: not geography, and not weather.

    John Pucher’s research is generally regarded as the gold standard here:
    http://policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/pucher/

    It /should/ be noted that it’s my belief that a good CYCLING strategy needs to go hand in hand with a good PUBLIC TRANSIT strategy if the goal is to reduce congestion. There are times when even those of us who cycle daily may not feel like riding. For those times I’d like transit to be the best option rather than driving.

  • Darcy McGee

    Sorry…this should be say “…the PRIMARY reason people don’t ride”

    As I said, geography and weather are factors, but they’re not the number one factor.

  • Frothingham

    Love it! Cycling is a Meme that even ficked-up vancouver drivers are going to have to face.

    Dames and Cycling:
    http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/

    and funding cycling:
    http://bit.ly/4aDH

  • Bill Lee

    Shall we talk about the two bounds of Danish car registration tax, 105 and 180 percents that certainly discourages the purchase of cars. And then one adds a fuel consumption efficiency tax, and then there is the general tax on petrol for driving.
    As in Vancouver, one drives very little distances to the suburbs.

    When I first got to Kovenhavn in the early 70s the train station grounds were black with Raleigh-like Duitsfahradder. Bikes were common, and one of the historic photos is of the King riding his bike on the streets with a Star of David on the arm of his coat.
    Moaners drove Russian Lada’s and other cheap cars and had two jobs to support it.

    Taxes: see the Danish government Skatteministeriet page http://www.skm.dk/foreign/english/taxindenmark2008/6649/

    Kobenhavn civic development studies abound and with the Foxlingo attachment you can translate them into your languages.

    The infamous Copenhaganize blog by a former Canadian now resident there has tons of pictures and propaganda for the use of bicycles in urban settings. http://www.copenhagenize.com and his copenhagengirlsonbikes blog of fashion trends and impractical shoes.
    Still no hospital numbers from Danish emergency though, nor many pictures of slogging in the rain and snow and the dark.

  • Rick

    Ah Francis, he didn’t reference, cite or even mention his conversation with you in passing–gee…is that how it works in journalism, you give somebody an idea and they don’t say thanks?

  • Frances Bula

    It’s not as dire as that. We were talking about all kinds of things randomly and I mentioned it. But, being someone with eyes, Gary would have noticed the bike thing instantly when he got there, plus I bet many other people talked to him about it as he did some other stories about environmental initiatives.

    But even if I was his one and only source — it does sort of work like that in journalism. Where would I get all my brilliant ideas, except for all the people out there who phone, email, blogpost, etc., and tell me what’s going on. Otherwise, I’d be writing about my kitchen floor.

  • E-bikes are an excellent solution to the challenge of hilly terrain and a great way to buy local as there’s some Canadian mfrs to choose from.

  • Darcy McGee

    > I’d be writing about my kitchen floor.

    If you were still with the Vancouver Sun, that would qualify as a front page article.

    It would probably be below the fold though. Unless your kitchen floor got shot in a drive-by shooting.

  • Darcy McGee

    I’m not sure if Bill’s comments about Danish car taxes are meant to be part of a pro- or anti- Denmark argument.

    Increasing the cost of operating a motorized vehicle is a perfect rational way of encouraging other forms of transportation. Cars consume vast resources, and have long been subsidized by the citizenry at large…even those who don’t own or use cars with any frequency.

    Bicycles need infrastructure as well, and I’m not advocating that infrastructure should be 100% pay per use, but cars don’t even come CLOSE to paying their way and the infrastructure needs are proportionately significantly higher than what’s needed for bicycles.

    I’ve seriously considered canceling my CAA membership simply on the basis that they are an automotive advocacy group: they actually lobby in FAVOUR of motorists, and that’s a huge conflict for me. On the other hand my very rarely driven car is more than a decade old, and I’m comforted by the support.

  • Frothingham

    @bill lee. You argue for cars and seem to indicate that cycling is not going to happen due to what?// Rain? Hills? Accidents & hospital visits? As for taxes… as far as automobiles are concerned they are an easy target and therefore they will be visited upon time many times in many forms.

    Now I am addicted to my car as much as the next person. But when it becomes too painful to my pocket-book, I will be riding my bike a lot more than the weekends as I do now.

    Of this you can be sure: there will be a lot less car use in the city in 1o years from now. And a lot more of smaller fuel efficient vehicles.

  • Rob Grant

    I was in Copenhagen three weeks ago, and was impressed by how pro-active planners are there about cycling. Contrast that with this “world class green city”, where cycling issues in the downtown core are not even on the radar screen at city hall. The Downtown Transportation Plan of 2001/02, which brought us an improved biking infrastructure with some designated lanes between parked cars and traffic, while certainly an improvement, does not go close to what is needed to attract the large segment of the population especially women, who would consider cycling as transportatiion choice. It appears our planners and cycling advocates at city hall are quite content with this as the two most recent planning initiatives for downtown in the past few years- the Granville Street Redesign and the Downtown Hub Study make virtually no mention of cycling. The cycle lanes on the Burrard Bridge are also an improvement, but I have not heard of any initiatives to create good connections particularly at the north end of the bridge into downtown. Anybody who has cycled south along Burrard from downtown to the bridge between two buses or a bus and aggressive rush hour traffic on the so-called cycle lane understands that this setup will only appeal to a limited number of people.

  • Rick

    Frances:
    Well if you want to do a snarky piece about VANOC you should check out the traffic jam by their office most days ’round quiting time…green games? Hardly…they put their office in a transit dead zone and everyone seems to drive to hq….plus the enormous vehicle pool doesn’t exactly say David Suzuki….

  • Not Running for Mayor

    If there h.o. was accessible by transit, it would also be accessible by non-car owning protesters. Just saying.

  • Darcy McGee

    > they put their office in a transit dead zone
    > and everyone seems to drive to hq

    VANOC operates a shuttle from the two nearest skytrain stations to get to the head office.

    Of course the shuttle is only accessible to VANOC employees.

    Of course the rest of us are expected to use public transit during the event, while VANOC operates their own private services.

  • The weather may not be as strong a factor AS safety, but I think that in Vancouver weather is a significant factor IN safety. I know that I am more nervous (and more cautious, which is a good thing, I suppose) riding in traffic in wet winter weather because of reduced visibility, longer stopping times, etc.

  • Bill Lee

    @frothingham. I am not arguing for cars. I am pointing out that there is a different Danish culture and that penalties for car ownership in the form of duties and registration fees were common in Denmark.
    No one ever talks about the “accidents” (crashes), broken bones and even death from bicycle falls. I know from personal experience so that I always wear helmet and gloves and have a ‘road-rash’ kit in my saddlebag.
    These falls, crashes, are never calculatedor noted and while the f=mv energy of smackups is less than with a car, it is still not minor. Road rash infections are not pleasant, and doctors hate having to pick out the infecting gravel, debrade the skin and otherwise try to save the palm of the hand and the fingers that were extended out to the road to save the rider in the fall.
    Vancouver was not always oriented toward the car, though the streets’ width were set up for wagons, streetcars, unlike old Europe or Asia.
    See Patricia Roy (1980) or Bruce Macdonald (1992) for instances. It is a comparatively recent phenomena, post-war, this everyone-has-a-car idea that spawned the near exurbs and suburbs.
    I do 16 km on my bike a day on my regular asymmetric route, and when I do drive I am well aware of the $1.00 per 10 minutes of driving in this city that I am spending on gas.
    It is too late to retrofit the city with more shopping districts close to homes. Thankfully we only have one (and a half) shopping centres in the City, but zoning also makes us live rather far from work, and sometimes some distance from shopping and grocers to haul the family load.
    The city is still run for the benefit of the Municipality of Point Grey where bicycles are for kids.

  • “No one ever talks about the “accidents” (crashes), broken bones and even death from bicycle falls.”

    I would suggest that the reason they are not discussed is because the tiny fraction of bike injuries resulting from cycling that require medical attention (not counting those involving negligence, cars, racing or off-road riding) isn’t worth mentioning. Cycling is inherently as safe or safer than any other form of locomotion. Once moving, the bike wants to stay upright. Most of the time you’re travelling at 20-30 kph or thereabouts. For comparison, Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold medal run was 43.9 kph.

  • Darcy McGee

    > Thankfully we only have one (and a half) shopping centres in the City, but
    > zoning also makes us live rather far from work,

    There’s more than that, though you may dispute their usefulness. If you consider a shopping centre an indoor area there’s Pacific Centre, Oakridge, Champlain Centre (is that what it’s called??? Kerr & 49th-ish). At least two of those are fully developed. Metrotown being easily accessed by transit from Vancouver it’s a bit false to leave it out if “indoor” is your definition. (Who knew my personal hell would be indoors?)

    Take away the indoor restriction and certainly Commercial Drive, Main Street, South Granville, Kerrisdale, Dunbar, Robson Street, 4th Ave. Granville Island and Broadway/McDonald count as shopping centres. In each of these areas you can find all the necessities of life within walking distance of each other: perhaps not the specifics of what you’re looking for, but all the necessities of life nonetheless (food, clothing etc.) You might prefer Banana Republic to Moule, and Red Cat Records on Main St. doesn’t stock the Kenny G. album you’re looking for but that’s not the point…it can be done.

    I do some of my grocery shopping at a Choices which is far closer to my home by foot than any alternative. Expensive? Not as bad as Whole Foods! It also means I don’t start my car. I’m not sure the gas savings cancel out the extra expense perfect, but they do help.

    As an aside (but an important one semantically,) zoning doesn’t “make” you live anywhere. We all make choices based on a number of factors one of which is the direct cost of housing (which is affected by a large number of factors one of which is scarcity created by zoning.)

  • F-M. Mellbin

    @ Bill Lee: Just some clarification on the risks of cycling and why people in Denmark bike. First of all, having more people cycle improves traffic safety for everyone . So fewer, less serious accidents. Thus, the number of traffic accidents in Copenhagen has been steadily falling and is now at a record low, with City Hall traffic people claiming that this is first and foremost due to the increase in cycling. Its true that car taxes are very high in Denmark, however, Danes still have as many car as other people in Western Europe. And they tend to drive them as much as everyone else. Holland does not have any notable car tax and still as many people cycling as in Denmark. Studies show that car and gas prices are largely irrelevant; safety, distance and time are the deciding factors. As for being flat or not flat. its also irrelevant. People forget that before mass car ownership (before WW2) everyone everywhere biked. Thus San Francisco used to have lots of bicycles in the streets as did hilly Tokyo in the millions. Today lots of flat cities enjoy very few or even no cyclists. Weather here in Denmark is horrid and non-bike friendly most of the year. Having biked in Tokyo several years I’ll take sunshine and warm weather with hills for Copenhagens icy cold and rainy flatlands any day. Happy Cycling! F-M. Mellbin, blogger @ Copenhagencyclechic