America: Nation of Forkists

Building on the popularity of last week’s post about my transformation from being a “cyclist” in the US to being a person who happens to ride a bicycle in Copenhagen, I thought I would do a little series unpacking some of the different themes I touched upon. In the coming posts, I will endeavor to do a form of cultural dissection of what it is like to ride a bicycle in Copenhagen and how this differs from riding in the USA. Keep posted for articles on rules and traffic behavior, cargo, bicycles and vehicle design, clothing, helmet usage and more. In this post, I will explore this concept of the “cyclist identity” in Copenhagen, or lack thereof.

“City of Cyclists”? What “cyclists”?

Practically everyone in Copenhagen seems to ride a bicycle. Almost none of them would consider themselves a “cyclist”. In fact, the city of Copenhagen invested a bunch of time and money in a social media platform and brand campaign in which they tried to get people to identify as “cyclists” and build communities around different sub-cultures. This would all focus around a website called ibikecph.dk. The idea was also that people could also share ideas and inspiration that could be useful input for city planners in the municipality to make decisions and design bicycling related projects. You can check out a bit of info about it in English on their site here or try your luck navigating with Google translate.

This was a very interesting project, and one after my own heart as someone who has worked on several similar projects to directly engage a community of users in a community planning process. On Our Own Two Wheels, in a sense, is also a similar experiment. I Bike CPH ran up against many of the typical issues, especially how to motivate people to participate.  But perhaps one of the interesting bits of feedback from the project is that it was just difficult to get people to identify with being a “cyclist”.

One of the aspects of the website enabled people to build groups, with the hope that little communities would form around shared associations. You can see some that people tried to form like “people who ride on Retro Bikes“, “people who feel secure and are sceptical of helmets“. One that was relatively popular was a sub-cultural group about Bike Polo. Most of what was popular was just discussion about whether it would be raining too much to play the following Saturday. Aside from a few marginal fringe groups like the bike polo players, most of these groups never really took off in the way the designers of the site had hoped.

Perhaps the most telling though is the group”Real Danes are Cyclists“. It has no members, no comments or posts aside from the introductory notes by the founding member inciting the potential group to “show the world that we are the best cycling nation”. Apparently, even this was not something people seemed much bothered with.

If you ask Copenhageners on the street why people here ride bikes so much (the subject of my PhD research) you will likely get the following answer “we do?” And if you tell them that the urban planning world is all but obsessed with this fact, they will shrug it off in disbelief with no idea of why it could possibly be at all interesting. And then they will get back on their bike and ride off.

People here hardly think of “cycling” as an activity of any import. It would be like asking people in the US why so many people eat with a fork. And I Bike CPH would be like creating a webplatform and brand campaign called I Bite USA trying to get people to build communities around fork eating, inciting people to create groups of people who use antique forks, silver forks, plastic disposable forks, etc. Imagine someone creating a group called “show the world Americans are a nation of fork users!” I imagine such a group would receive a similar response as the aforementioned one- even in the USA, “Nation of forkists”! I can just see the headlines in XinHua in China now: “93% of all Americans use forks on a daily basis”.

Asking Americans why they eat with forks would likely garner a similar response- “we do?” Imagine telling Americans that there are literally planefulls of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese dietary consultants and nutrition experts trying to shake their nations’ chopstick and hand-eating ways coming to New York to learn how we have trained our children to eat with forks from a young age, how Americans have forks on every table for easy access (and with every meal!), how using a fork is simply an accepted and normal part of everyday life. Tell them there is a website called Americanize.com with daily updates on what it’s like to eat with a fork offering wrap around consulting services (in Chinese). Tell them there is a parallel “New York Fork Chic” featuring people wearing designer clothing and eating with forks (and not getting dirty!). Tell them that there is now a American Fork Eating Embassy to meet all of this demand for expertise. They would think you are completely nuts. And then they would go back to eating their lunch. With a fork.

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6 responses to “America: Nation of Forkists

  1. Thanks for the humorous metaphor. You have nailed it with this one. There are few of us Americans that other people identify as “normal.” The 99 percent of Americans that don’t ride a bicycle think of riders as “fanatic, health nuts, tree huggers, liberals etc. From a marketing standpoint I find it interesting how “bike culture” in the US is the engine of Bicycling Marketing and Sales. As if grand mothers will want to ride a fixie! The holy grail question “why do people ride” has yet to be answered, but you have come close by identifying with “I hardly think about it.” So riding in a sense is just an impulse to move around. Pretty simple stuff that comes from the gut. Good luck on your research.

  2. An interesting take on how ingrained cycling is with the Danes, though, I think the idea that the Danes don’t realize they cycle (a lot) is a bit far-fetched.
    When I met my wife in the States (I’m an American and she is Danish), one of the first things she told me how everyone rides bikes in Copenhagen. She mentioned Christiania Bikes, the excellent bike lanes, and the ease of getting around the city.
    Since then, I have moved to Denmark and, more recently, have started a company importing Danish bikes (and a bit of the cycling culture) to the States.
    When I mention this venture to anyone Danish they say, almost without fail, ‘but they don’t cycle in America like they do in Denmark,’ and then proceed to look at me as if I were some foolhardy American.
    I suppose this is a bit less academic in nature than your findings and I totally agree that the Danes don’t think much of cycling, but when they step back from it for a moment, I think they begin to realize how good they have it.

    • I would say that Copenhageners (more than Danes, per se) do realize that they bike more than other people in other countries but they don’t really see that as anything special. Then again, they also don’t see much of anything about Denmark being special including their reasonably well-oiled social welfare state and generally high standard of living. I think they generally just see other places as being somehow substandard by comparison. In other words, biking isn’t particularly interesting. Everyone can and should do it. And the fact that others in other countries don’t is really just curious and puzzling. But that doesn’t mean that Danes are “special” because they do. However, it does, deep down, give them a sense of superiority.

  3. If bicycling to Danes is kind of swimming to fish, then they are indeed lucky. Although, there is a conscious effort even in Copenhagen to increase the number of people who regularly get around by bicycle. So, they are not all quite fish yet.
    In any event, we are left with the problem in the United States to get many more people out of their cars as the cars are busily helping to destroy the planet and the livability of our towns and cities. And then there is China, which has apparently made a conscious effort to destroy their bike culture with the goal of increasing their GDP and “modernity” at all costs.

    At the end of the day, the Danes are different and we would like to know how we can become fish in water here as well.

    • Danish cycling numbers are dropping and Copenhagen is staying flat over the past 4 years. These patterns are in a state of change and it is anyone’s guess if the next generation will keep it up. Maintaining these systems is a constant struggle- not just a “Danish cultural thing” per se. Cars aren’t busily destroying anything, but the people who use them are. However, they are using them for what they presume to be necessary and just reasons. And many of them are. People will choose what they perceive to be the best option, so we need to make biking the fastest, easiest and safest. Otherwise, only radical marginal types will dare do it.

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