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Passionate experience junkie. Lover of the arts and architecture. Want to see and share the world, one village at a time.

Bicycling Scandinavia: Helsinki, Stockholm, and Copenhagen

Comparing Three Cities and Their Biking Culture

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The cyclists of Copenhagen cycle 1,240,000 km every day

While Walking Denmark in 2010, I witnessed more bicyclists than I had ever seen on the network of ample, hedge-rowed manicured paths. The Scandinavian bicycling philosophy became clear to me. It’s serious business.

More accurately, bicycling is an entire way of life in Denmark.

Tour de Denmark zoomed by right in front of the house where we house sat in 2010

Tour de Denmark zoomed by right in front of the house where we house sat in 2010

 

At the top of the heap are the long-distance racers. The Tour de Denmark passed by our home where we were house sitting outside Copenhagen, and took 2+ hours for all the participants and chase cars to go by.

Heavily-laden chase cars for the Tour de Denmark

Heavily-laden chase cars for the Tour de Denmark

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there’s everyone else: school children in packs, moms with the kids “in a box,” (cargo-fitted bike in which little children sit in a box in front of the bike’s handle bars, complete with a cover for rainy days), high-heeled ladies and suited men commuting, workers carrying everything from ladders or building supplies on heavy-duty cargo bikes, grannies running errands, or dressed-up lovers on a date. The everyday bikes are solid, heavy things with three gears, baskets, a key-operated locking system, and mandatory lights for night rides. The rider sits up straight on a nicely-cushioned seat.

Taxiing the kids, Danish-style.

Taxiing the kids, Danish-style.

The rules of cycling are paramount in Denmark, as with everything. It’s an extremely precise society. Following the biking rules is simply understood by all, even the smallest children, and the whole of Denmark falls into line. Conrad says, “Denmark is math. Spain is music.” Indeed, every aspect of Danish life is math.

The first time Conrad and I rode bikes in Denmark in 2010, I made the grave mistake of riding on the pedestrian sidewalk. The glares I received still make me feel guilty! Now six years later, house sitting here again, I neglected to make a correct hand signal at a roundabout, causing a driver to honk, and upon getting my attention, angrily demonstrating the right signal with his own arm. They really, really like their rules in Denmark.

The infrastructure has been meticulously set up to accommodate bicycles. For example, there are intersections in Copenhagen where the pavement arrows and TRAFFIC LIGHTS are all for bikes. Yes, there are bone fide traffic lights dedicated to bicycles! It’s an intricate system for navigating around cars and pedestrians, and the Danes do it better than anyone. Rush hour is a frenetic but lovely dance, choreographed by innovative civil engineers, and the results are mind-boggling. People walking, biking, and driving, all with their own rules and beautifully laid-out paths and signals. It works perfectly.

The homeowner where we are house sitting says the bike paths are plowed all winter. The roads, not so much! Nine out of ten Danes own a bicycle. Only four out of ten Danes own a car, according to cycling-embassy.dk.

So in the spirit of comparison, seeing as Conrad and I just did a Scandinavian roundup over the past month –  starting in Helsinki, then Stockholm, and now Copenhagen – I present to you a pictorial essay on the biking environment in those three cities, where, in my humble opinion, Copenhagen takes the prize.

(As an aside: I read the book, “In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist,” in which an American expat tells, in exhaustive detail, everything you ever wanted to know on the subject. Biking is highly important there, too, but I get the distinct impression that the level of organization in Amsterdam can’t hold a candle to Denmark. The author, Pete Jordan, tells of the crazy helter skelter of bikes, going every which way on all streets. No rules, just mayhem. I’ve not been to Amsterdam, so tell me about your experience.)

Update: Read Rachel Heller’s comment below. She lives in the Netherlands.

 

Helsinki

Population 629,512

Bikes are seen parked in spots. Here we were welcoming the Finnish sunset with a beer.

Bikes are seen parked in spots. Here we were welcoming the Finnish sunset with a beer.

Walking and biking paths are marked -- but not everywhere

Walking and biking paths are marked — but not everywhere

I found one large bicycle parking lot in our wanderings. This one is in a corporate area.

I found one large bicycle parking lot in our wanderings. This one is in a corporate area.

 

Stockholm

Population 925,934

Bikes parked here and there

Bikes parked here and there

Fourteen islands make up the city, so biking around may mean taking a ferry

Fourteen islands make up the city, so biking around may mean taking a ferry. Cool thing — Ferries large and small pull front-in to a dock and lower the gangplank. No tying off; the pilot revs the engine just enough to keep snug to the dock. In and out quickly.

In the 1990s, Sweden adopted a plan to reduce traffic fatalities. Officials decreased speed limits in urban areas, added bike lanes that had physical barriers between bike and car traffic and created larger zones for pedestrians to use and cross the streets. If current trends continue, Sweden will exceed its goal and decrease traffic fatalities in the country by 65 percent by 2020.

In the 1990s, Sweden adopted a plan to reduce traffic fatalities. Officials decreased speed limits in urban areas, added bike lanes that had physical barriers between bike and car traffic and created larger zones for pedestrians to use and cross the streets.
If current trends continue, Sweden will exceed its goal and decrease traffic fatalities in the country by 65 percent by 2020. (NYT 2015)

Pedestrians and bikers are separate

Pedestrians and bikers are separate

 

Copenhagen

Population 591,481

Pavement arrows and traffic lights dedicated to bicycles. (Disregard the barriers. A marathon had just finished up) The bike icon at the top of a signal denotes its purpose.

Pavement arrows and traffic lights dedicated to bicycles. (Disregard the barriers. A marathon had just finished up)
The bike icon at the top of a signal denotes its purpose. So on this one, two are for bikes — a left turn and a going-straight — plus an auto traffic light.

Bikes are everywhere

Bikes are everywhere

EVERYWHERE!

EVERYWHERE!

And all kinds

And all kinds

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Need to take your bike on the commuter train? The metal track helps you roll on stairs

Need to take your bike on the commuter train? The metal track helps you roll on stairs

Riding from one town to another? Bike paths -- which are wider than walking paths -- have their own underpasses.

Riding from one town to another? Bike paths — which are wider than walking paths — have their own underpasses.

Or overpasses. What you're seeing here are three paths. I'm standing on the walking path in the middle. The bike path on the left goes un and over the road below. The path to the right is the exit so you can access the road if needed.

Or overpasses. What you’re seeing here are three paths. I’m standing on the walking path in the middle. The bike path on the left goes up and over the road. The path to the right is the exit so you can access the road if needed.

 

I love the biking culture. It’s logical, keeps people active, and saves the planet. What’s your take? And do you agree that Copenhagen gets the win, in terms of biking culture and infrastructure?

 

 

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13 Responses to “Bicycling Scandinavia: Helsinki, Stockholm, and Copenhagen”

  1. I live in the Netherlands, and there are just as many rules here. The difference is that many bicyclists don’t follow them. Since a crash between a car and a bike is automatically assumed to be the car driver’s fault, drivers do their damnedest to avoid collisions with bikes. Bicyclists, knowing that, do whatever they please! It works fine in most places, but in Amsterdam you add thousands of tourists into the mix. The pedestrian tourists don’t look before stepping onto a bike path (my pet peeve), and bicycling tourists wobble around, not knowing their way or the generally accepted traffic patterns. That’s why Amsterdam seems so chaotic.
    Rachel Heller recently posted..Modernism in Alcoi, SpainMy Profile

    September 26, 2016 at 2:08 am Reply
    • Hi Rachel,
      First off, thanks so much for adding the Amsterdam factor!
      You explained perfectly why the bike scene there is so frenetic. And I feel bad at being that unknowing tourist who steps both steps into the bike path, or while riding, wobbles around!
      I believe the difference in Denmark is that the engineers have created such a darn good organizational system, that even the most distracted tourists can fall into lock-step pretty easily — and do.
      ~Josie

      September 28, 2016 at 4:26 am Reply
  2. Thanks for the heads up and the pictures about the serious business of bicycling in Scandinavia. It’s wonderful that they have so much infrastructure supporting the biking culture; I wish we had more of that here in the US.

    September 26, 2016 at 12:52 pm Reply
    • So right, Julie, wish we had the infrastructure in the US, too. To me it’s a matter of priorities — you know, money vs., well, everything else. Money vs. the good of the people. Money vs. beauty. Money vs. logic. This is one of the biggest lessons being a traveler has taught me: The US is the absolute king of money. It’s motivation is the engine of all movement. Everywhere else in the world, their country-specific priorities are different, and you see it in everything they do. I certainly haven’t traveled enough to give any kind of run-down, but in Europe, for example, the desire for “the community” is evident in the lay-out of villages and cities — with gathering places and easily accessible shopping for pedestrians — and in the care given to keep public things pretty.
      Thanks for stopping by.
      ~Josie

      September 28, 2016 at 4:39 am Reply
  3. They most certainly do love their bikes in Scandinavia, but we had always heard that Amsterdam had the most bikes per capita in the world. Don’t know for sure, but it seems right after spending some time there. Copenhagen seemed a close second.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted..Gallivanting Across Generations in Galveston, TexasMy Profile

    September 26, 2016 at 2:24 pm Reply
    • Hi Veronica and David,
      A quick google search revealed that Netherlands does indeed have the most bikes per capita, at 99%. Denmark second with 80%. Down the list were the other Scandinavian countries, then Belgium and Germany, with China taking the tenth spot. My home country of the US holds a low spot at 30-something percent.
      ~Josie

      September 28, 2016 at 4:48 am Reply
  4. It is crazy, but after a terrible cycling experience in Vietnam, I am now too scared to ride a bike. I don’t think anything would change in these cycle crazy Scandinavian countries.
    Paula McInerney recently posted..Why you should get lost when you travelMy Profile

    September 26, 2016 at 6:24 pm Reply
    • Oh Paula, I hate to hear about a terrible biking experience, (or any terrible experience, for that matter). But I understand Vietnam is an insane place for traffic of all kinds — or being a pedestrian trying the cross that storm of stuff. Perhaps a leisurely solo ride on a lazy country road — no cars in sight — in Spain or France? Stop at a winery along the way and have a picnic with baguette, cheese and grapes?
      ~Josie

      September 28, 2016 at 4:53 am Reply
  5. That picture of the bicyclists in Copenhagen is especially amazing!

    September 29, 2016 at 8:09 pm Reply
  6. The three cities are all wonderful, no need to compare.
    Robert Lopez recently posted..Premier Hockey TrainingMy Profile

    October 5, 2016 at 9:59 am Reply
    • Good point, Robert! I agree.

      October 5, 2016 at 1:00 pm Reply
  7. Very interesting story and a great idea to compare these three cities. Copenhagen is globally recognized as the leader in this field, but other European cities are catching up…

    February 9, 2017 at 6:04 pm Reply
    • Thanks Karolina and Boro,
      I totally agree that Copenhagen is the leader. Thanks for weighing in!
      Josie

      February 9, 2017 at 6:20 pm Reply

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