Comparing Three Cities and Their Biking Culture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?