Thursday, September 22, 2011

Copenhagen: City of Cyclists

City of Cyclists

“Rush hour” in Copenhagen proves that bicycles are the salvation of cities. Overall, American “mode share”, or the percentage of trips made by bike, is 1 percent. We get excited by certain cities – Portland or Boulder – where the mode share reaches between 5 and 8 percent. Witnessing that, average Americans would describe those towns as having “everybody” on bicycles. On my daily commute, I proudly can note that on the Beacon/Hampshire Street corridor in Somerville and Cambridge that the mode share in September will reach upwards of 10 percent in the world’s largest college town.

Copenhagen mode share overall is 40 percent! And there are corridors where the mode share, by my estimate, is 70 percent and the remaining mode share is 20 percent pedestrian. The remaining 10 percent is split between buses and cars.

The impact on an American visitor – even a cycling evangelist such as me – is staggering. As I walked from the hotel to the race venue at 8:30 am I encountered the morning traffic jam. The first thing an American notices is the lack of noise. Watching Copenhagen “rush” is akin to watching a skating rink. Everybody is gliding about quietly on bikes.


American’s used to such ridiculous vocabulary as “work out” and “exercise” and “play date” would likely assume this picture to be painted with athletic types intently pedaling about with helmets and Lycra. Throw that out.

Everybody is on heavy-duty bikes with chain guards, fenders and upright bars. They are dressed for work: men in full suits; women in heels and dresses. Nobody is sweating or breathing hard. They all whisk about without helmets or concerns. And they do all the stupid things on bikes Americans do while driving to work: texting, smoking, eating, and talking on phones. The only difference is they have a sustained heart rate of 120 bpm and we’re stuck in traffic.

Old folks press by on pedals, children spin along, parents move toddlers in basket bikes, handsome executives with chiseled looks, and statuesque women in heels. Everybody is on bikes.

And they are running not in pods of five or ten….They are riding in rivers of cyclists that defy counting. Not the thousands, not the tens of thousands, but the hundreds of thousands. Daytime, night time, rain, sun, snow…..They ride.

They ride at night. They ride in rain. They ride side-by-side. They ride hand-in-hand. They put their children on bikes. They put their children on boxes attached to bikes. They ride.

When the Arabs held us hostage in the early 1970s, America responded to its addiction to oil by putting its foreign policy on a military footing. But the Danes gave the Arabs the ultimate FU: they stopped driving. This addict simply got clean.

And today mayors from around the world – including Tom Menino of Boston and Michael Bloomberg of New York secretly steal away to look at Copenhagen for answers.

It works.

There is no expressway, parkway or highway in the center of Copenhagen. These planners looked around the world and realized that widening highways to alleviate car congestion is akin to punching more holes in your belt to alleviate obesity.

Most major corridors have three users: the cars get the center; there is a bike lane separated by a curb; then, separated by another curb, there is a walkway. This is not one or two streets but every street.

There is a train system, bus system and as importantly a bike system. Bike are parked everywhere. The race center is City Hall and by way of taking an alternative exit I found myself in the basement where employees get indoor bike parking. In my Boston office building with more than 1,000 workers I am one of perhaps six cyclists and we are left to fend for ourselves. In Copenhagen this City Hall has perhaps 300 workers and I counted more than 200 bikes in this parking rack.

So to my American friends reading this and smirking about this utopian rant, I offer a few curious beneficial byproducts to this system:

1) TRAFFIC: If you read letters to the editor about American cycling initiatives or listen to the anecdotes of Americans, you’ll hear about the frustration and anger caused by cyclists. But the core of this emotion is the frustration endured when a cyclists – paying little in the way of fees, insurance, taxes, fuel, etc. – gets to the front of the line. But American motorists need to realize that more cyclists mean less traffic and more parking spaces for them. Downtown Copenhagen has no traffic jam for motorists. Granted the fees and fuel to own and operate a car in Denmark are equally prohibitive. But when motorists do need to travel in Copenhagen it is done so without delay. I pity any American in an ambulance during rush hour.
2) BEAUTY: The weight loss industry in America is $60 billion a year while our bike business is just $6 billion. A 60-year-old Danish woman – wearing no make up while pedaling every day – is far lovelier, sexier, and more fashionable than the average 20-year-old American female trying to mask obesity with tattoos and piercings. If the Danes did away with smoking they would live and love to be 150. In America, meanwhile, we need only visit a Walmart on Saturday night to play “bingo”. Simply shout bingo when you see an American with either an air hose or a Rascal scooter. You’ll be stunned by the time you leave.
3) SAFETY: Many of my friends reading this will be incredulous about this report. Most will question the safety of urban cycling. But they cannot comprehend a life with so few cars. The indoctrination of Americans with cars starts with cartoons. Fred Flintstone got to work in the past via car; George Jetson gets to work in the future via car. Right? But if the mode share shifts slightly, great things happen. Every study ever conducted concludes that as cycling mode share increases people are safer: the motorists slow down; the pedestrians gain confidence; cyclists gain proficiency. Increasing cycling is the only thing shown to actually improve safety for all users.

So into Copenhagen lands the UCI road world championships.

Being here I took out a hotel bike twice so far. Once at 3 a.m. to alleviate jet lag. An absolute magical hour I’ll never forget.

But today, the rest day for us, I ventured out again in mid-day bike traffic. I rolled about with ease and without a helmet. There were so few cars out that I never had an agro moment.

This cycling mad country, by virtue of pedaling everywhere at 15 kph, has enormous respect for cyclists who can pedal faster than 50 kph.

Of note is that Tom Lund is the president of the Danish Cycling Federation which oversees racing and also the head of the Cycle City, which has been at the vanguard of making Copenhagen the world’s greatest cycling city. American bike advocates, fueled by the recent exploits of Tim Johnson, have learned to embrace racing to advance their cause. The racers, however, have much to learn.

Today I had a day off so I took a hotel bike and just started riding. The separated bike lanes are incredible. The entire culture is so attuned to cycling that it feels safe. Take away the cars and the rage and it feels safe…In 1996 when Copenhagen really got active about becoming the world’s greatest bike city, there were 252 serious accidents for cyclists. That number has dropped to 92 last year and 78 percent of those involved a car, meaning they were not bike accidents but car accidents.

This sounds awful to some but when you see the sheer number of cyclists, rivers of cyclists, who do so safely. Copenhagen cyclists pedal 3.2 million kilometers between every one of those accidents. A cyclist in Copenhagen is far safer than a motorist in America.

Denmark can lead by example.

This investment has paid off. American visitors I meet in the lobby are stunned by the bikes and the same quiet rush hour.

This city is the world’s best bike city by Discovery, a top five tourist spot in the world by The New York Times, and the second safest city in the world by Trip Atlas. But it is also considered the world’s best business city by Forbes Magazine. Just ask the American executives in the lobby of my hotel….Guys from Nebraska and Missouri and Kansas just stand in awe of this place.

OK, I’ll write about road racing tomorrow.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Richard, this is great! I hope you don't mind me sharing and giving credit to you. I agree with all your above statements. I have of course read a lot about how amazing Copenhagen is for cycling and how they are leading the way. I hope to visit there someday soon and that America will be able to follow their lead! Change is happening!