Rush hour in Copenhagen has to be seen to be believed. When I pull to a halt at the end of the road that my hotel sits on, it takes a good twenty or so seconds to find a suitable gap in the almost constant stream of cyclists pedalling down the cycle path towards the city centre.
The reason for this is that people cycle here like large portions of the public drive cars or catch public transport in other cities.
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“Getting on a bike is very much a means of transport,” says Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize consultancy. “It doesn’t make you a cyclist. It’s not even really a political statement which it can be in the UK. It’s just what you do to get around.”
Over the past five years, Colville-Andersen has built a business and a couple of successful blogs out of the acclaim Copenhagen gets for it cycle friendliness.
With its huge network of segregated cycle lanes, separate cyclist traffic lights, sympathetic drivers and understanding civil engineers, the city is now held aloft as a shining example of how other cities could better accommodate cyclists and become better cities for it.
Cycle parking: One car less; many bike more
Frequently ranked amongst the world’s most liveable cities, Copenhagen’s cycling credentials have even recently attracted the attention of motoring nut Jeremy Clarkson. He claimed he’d move there in a heartbeat. “There are no bloody cars cluttering the place up,” he noted. “Almost everyone goes almost everywhere on a bicycle.”
While I’m pretty sure Clarkson hasn’t actually moved to Copenhagen in a heartbeat, Jim Slade is a British man who has. Having previously run music and arts projects in London, he and his Danish wife upped sticks a year ago because of the way the city accommodates cyclists.
“I loved riding in London but I just couldn’t see it being sustainable with a family,” he tells me over a cup of tea in the Baisikeli cycle café and bicycle recycling project where he works.
“Once I have children I want to be able to take them to school in a cargo bike. I don’t think you can really do that in London. Here it’s normal.”
Slade: realised Danish dream
According to official statistics, 36% of journeys made in Copenhagen are done so by bike and, such is their omnipresence, motorists are literally looking out for cyclists at every turn.
By comparison, in London that figure stands at just 2% and, as Clarkson put it, the city is “hosting an undeclared war” between motorists and cyclists.
By and large flat and with enough space to allow the construction of cycle friendly infrastructure, Copenhagen’s geography does lend itself very well to accommodating a cycling culture.
However, like everywhere else in the world, it does also need political will. “On the political scene here, whether right wing or left wing, you have to have a cycling policy,” Niels Tørsløv, director of the City’s transport department tells me.
But while many assume that’s because a cycling culture is ingrained in the public psyche, it hasn’t always been like that. Sitting in his flat-cum-office in the Frederiksberg district of the city, Colville-Andersen briefly explains the back story to Copenhagen’s love affair with getting around by bike and relates it to how other cities could hope to make a similar transformation.
“You had the first cycle path in London in nineteen thirty something and then they sprung up all over the UK” he says. “Then it all got ripped up in the 50s and 60s. But you know what, the same thing happened here. “Then in the 70s we had the energy crisis and there were 20,000 people on the City Hall Square saying we want to ride our bikes again because we can’t afford petrol. So they started re-implementing the physically separated tracks in the 80s. “What you see today, is the result of the last 30 years or so.”
Word on the street…Copenhagen
We ask cyclists Copenhagen what’s the best thing about cycling in the city
Oliva Frankel, Student
“Because it’s free and easy. Almost all my journeys are by bike. Let’s say 90%. I go by bike to work, university, the shops, visiting my mum, whatever. When it’s cold and snowing I don’t use it but there hasn’t been any this winter and I’ve biked nearly all the time.
“You have more advantages as a cyclist. You get from point a to point b a lot easier and faster than anything else: by car, by train, by tube. There are lot of traffic lights here where you’ll get stopped a lot in the car but on the bike you can take short cuts. What’s more: the city council are becoming even more considerate to cyclists. It’s just getting better and better.
“First of all you have the necessary space so you feel safe. It’s very fast. I have a car but sometimes I don’t touch it for a couple of weeks and have forgotten where I’ve parked it! I always know where I have my bike. All my activity is done by bike. Everything. Everyday.”
“When you compare it to other countries, it is just so much better. It’s so easy to get around and you can park your bike almost anywhere. Sometime I leave it in one place and walk a bit for a change. But I think cycling in Copenhagen is perfect.”
This article was first published in the June 7 issue of Cycling Weekly.