Firstly, I’m not an expert on urbanism, cycling infrastructure or the history of Northern European cycling. If you want to read an expert opinion I’d try here, here and here. If you are interested in a ‘Mum’s Eye View’ of cycling in the cycle paradise known as Copenhagen read on..
I’ve been to Copenhagen a few times, or rather I’ve seen it from the windows of various relations of my husband. Usually we spend our time in Denmark rushing around with flowers to a selection of elderly relatives and siblings spread across the country (NB: for the record, this is not a complaint, they are all very lovely). But this year I put my foot down and demanded a ‘Day of Cycling’ in Copenhagen.
So, last week I got my Day of Cycling in Copenhagen and this is what I learnt:
Everyone needs to know the rules
I’d had a ‘discussion’ with my husband about Danish cycling etiquette and how this compared to the way I cycle in UK before we left home. He said I cycled like a ‘cycling activist’ and I get the feeling he didn’t mean this as complement. What he meant was that I didn’t cycle in the gutter, I take my space on the road and cycle in proactive way. This, he told me, is not how it’s done in Denmark. I’d need to keep into the kerb, pull over when I wanted to turn into a road and under no circumstances was I to behave like I was part of the motorised traffic.
What my husband failed to convey was that in Copenhagen different forms of transport have their own rules, and their own space in which to abide by them. There is, quite literally, Space for Cycling. Bikes don’t behave like cars in Copenhagen because, for the most part, they are kept separate in their own infrastructure. The cycle lanes don’t just keep the road users apart physically, they provide them with a whole set of road rules.
Obviously this system only works if everyone knows the rules and keeps to them. We saw some infringements but, basically, most of the road users understood how their infrastructure worked for them and used it appropriately. As a cyclist you do ‘pull over’ to cross across the traffic and into a side street, but it works because the infrastructure is guiding you (and the 30 or so cyclists with you that are doing the same thing) and it makes sense.
The roads are busy, it’s not a car-free utopia where everything is human powered, and if you don’t conform to the local conditions you’ll put yourself in danger. The bike lanes inside a row of parked cars require car passengers to be aware of their door opening. Bus stops adjacent to the bike lanes need bus users to be aware of the fairly continuous stream of pedalled traffic. I experienced an issue with unaware Italian tourists who spilled into the bike lane – they screamed, I screamed but we all survived.
It’s not just the bike lanes
What was striking was that everything supports cycling, from the low bus and train steps so you can get into them without straining something, to extensive, covered and secure bike parks. I even saw bins along the bike lanes that were angled so that cyclists could use them on the move. In my husband’s home town, an hour out of Copenhagen, there are on-street bike pumps built into advertising boards and the bus company is trialling bike trailers attached to buses.
As a parent all these interventions are supporting you to cycle with your child. At home in Scotland I can’t get my bike and my child onto the train without help as the step between the platform and the train is too high. I can’t take our bike trailer on the train and on some trains we can’t travel without booking 24 hours in advance. And forget it if more than 3 other cyclists want to travel on the same train as you. No wonder we see more bikes strapped to cars than we see on the road.
Cargo or Christiana bikes are ubiquitous in Denmark and clearly are the replacement for the ‘family car’ for many households. One of my father-in-laws (for I have several..) was astonished to see me taking photos of cargo bikes (he clearly didn’t think that something so mundane warranted such excitement..). The purchasing of child bike seats could keep the Danish economy afloat for some time if required; I saw more baby seats in one day in Copenhagen than I’ve seen in my entire life of cycling in the UK. There is little more lovely to me than the sight of a sober businessman in a suit with an unruly toddler on the back of his bike..
Once I’d got over the complications of cycling on the right (wrong) side of the road, the infrastructure and using a rear mounted child seat (I definitely prefer having my son in front of me; he found cycling in Copenhagen rather less fascinating than I did so spent some time trying to pull the back of my cardigan over his head) I felt amazingly ‘free’. Free of the worry that we’d be mown down by a truck and free to explore a city that feels like it’s designed to be discovered by bike. Being surrounded by cyclists was almost intoxicating; like the thrill of being at Critical Mass but without the stress of irate taxi drivers shouting at you.
Cycling as the norm
My sister-in-law and her husband told me that cycle culture in Copenhagen was increasingly a status symbol, people with the financial means had different bikes to match their outfits.. A non Copenhagen sister-in-law pointed out that there were no self-identified ‘cyclists’ in Denmark as everyone rode a bike. The annual road safety adverts gently remind everyone to watch out for children ‘new to traffic’ – no need for a Nice Way Code.
Cycle culture surrounds you. It’s quite hard to spot cycle shops because there are so many bikes parked up everywhere. Over 3 days I saw every type of person and a bike to match – a heavily pregnant woman as a passenger on ‘flatbed’ cargo bike, men in suits with baby seats, women in elegant dresses (one on a cargo bike with two toddlers – I couldn’t look as good as her even if I’d spent all day being professionally groomed with no toddler present), women in inelegant dresses, women in Islamic dress, men in construction boilersuits, male and female sports cyclists in lycra and helmets, people from different minority ethnic backgrounds, ‘larger’ cyclists, hippies and hipsters..
Finally, pretty much everyone in Copenhagen looks healthy and gorgeous. Maybe they are born like it, but maybe it’s the cycling..