Category Archives: USA

Levi’s jeans made for bicycling

I went to the store to buy some pants today (yes, I know, black Friday and all but I really needed some pants). I was surprised to see that Levi’s is now selling bicycle “commuter” jeans that are water resistant, have extra sewing on the inseam for ruggedization, stretch fabric, a “utility” waistbelt to carry a U-lock, antimicrobial protection against odors, and when you turn up the cuff, they have a reflector sewn in. Kudos, Levi’s! Unfortunately, I didn’t like them as much as the pair I ended up buying but I’m glad they are available. Clearly designed with the Mission/Williamsburg hipster crowd in mind.

Why is locking a bike harder than locking my car?

In Copenhagen, parking my bike is fantastic- at least from the cyclists’ perspective. No one locks their bike ‘to’ anything. They just roll up to their destination and flip the integrated lock on the back wheel. This can be a hassle for pedestrians, handicap, elderly and shop owners if it blocks the sidewalk, shop windows etc. so that is still an issue. But people pretty much just want to park as close as possible to their destination, preferably about less than 50meters/yards. If there are racks and they aren’t full in Copenhagen, people will usually use them. But if they are farther away or full then people generally won’t use them.

In the US, bikes are typically more expensive (more commonly designed for recreational use, though this is changing) and theft is higher. People want to lock their bikes to something. But there is often nothing to park to. So people park to meters or have to get more inventive.

Even if there is something to park to, you often end up scraping the paint off the bike, fighting with mis-sized pole/lock combos, pushing around other bikes attached to the same post, getting grease on your pants and hassling for a long time with your cable. And then what do you do with the helmet? Take it with you or lock it with your bike?

Let us imagine a comparable situation in a car. A person rolls into a parking space, only it’s not a ‘space’ it’s just some spot on the sidewalk wide enough for a car and there’s already another car next to it. There isn’t enough room for both really, so they have to get so close that they actually scratch the paint off a  door. The guy squirms out the passenger door and then spends the next minute crawling around on the ground trying to attach his front wheel to a parking meter with a chain so no one steals his tires. He gets dirt and grease and junk all over his professional clothing. It’s a bit farther than he thought though and the cable doesn’t reach so he has to move the car another foot, scratching up his car and the other car more. This whole time, people are watching and getting annoyed. He goes back in the car, takes out ‘the club’ and attaches it to his steering wheel. He then gets out of the car and locks the door. He walks off, exasperated. Pedestrians and grandmothers can’t walk down the sidewalk. The other guy comes back and gets pissed that he’s ‘parked in’ and the door is scratched. Plus the guy accidentally locked his wheel too.

Can someone make a rough approximation of this into a catchy video?


Here are some good ideas for bicycle locks.

A city with real problems worth fighting for

Now compare that last post with a city with real problems like New York City. Here’s a great video by of an intersection in the Big Apple showing very clearly that what cyclists do (or should) fear in NYC is definitely not other cyclists, but everything else on the street.

Why women don’t bike more in the US

The following is a response-gone-wild to my fellow Reed anthro alum and bike critic counterpart Elly Blue in Portland, Oregon. She just wrote a nice piece on gender equity and cycling, arguing that economic inequities between men and women play a large role in why women don’t bike more

Great post, Elly. Thanks for shining some more critical light on this important issue. I’m happy to hear some new thinking beyond the fashion and safety issues. Here are some thoughts I have on the issue of why more women don’t bike in the US.

In the Netherlands, male cycling rates drop around the time people get families but female rates increase. Overall rates are about 45% men and 55% women. Here in Denmark, cycling rates decrease for men and women around child raising time. Rates here are 45% women and 55% men. This leads me to suspect that Denmark actually has better gender parity despite fewer women biking. This is based on a hypothesis that men may do more of the heavy lifting in Denmark when it comes to picking up and dropping off kids than do their Dutch counterparts.

Also, the distance to grocery stores may vary.  In Copenhagen, there are usually about 5-10 grocery stores within easy walking distance of any apartment. The daycare (or bus pick up) is usually within a km or two of home. Plus, we have a wide variety of cargo bicycles for kids and bigger loads. When I lived in Amsterdam it was similar at least on the grocery front. Not sure about daycares and schools.

Another key point that needs to be mentioned in this is that in Copenhagen, the vast majority of cyclists are only traveling 2-5 km (1-3 miles). Commute distances over 5 km are less common here and few make it much over 10 km. You hardly break a sweat in a 10-20 minute bike ride. Plus, few people wear a helmet (compared to the US, not historical rates in Copenhagen), which makes things like Copenhagen Cycle Chic much more plausible.

On the economy point, I suspect it’s not the cost of the bicycle. A used bike in the US is easily 2-3 times cheaper ($1-200) than a lower quality used bike in Denmark ($300+). If pretty much every American can afford a car- even a beater- they can certainly afford a fancy bike and all the expensive (and unnecessary) ‘lifestyle’ goodies that they think they need to ride it.

In most US cities it’s the rich, yuppies living in the urban centers riding bikes. But in most of the world’s developing countries, it’s the rural poor who can’t afford anything else who bike. How can we then say that biking is somehow inherently an affordability issue for the rich or the poor? Local context and culture plays a huge role here.

Economy plays a big role in cycling, but I’m not sure it’s the reason women in particular don’t cycle. If it did, I don’t understand the logic that they can’t afford a $100-1000 bicycle but aren’t too poor to afford the average $8,500/year for a car.

I think it’s more likely that what people can’t afford is not the bike, but an apartment in the city center to live within short range cycling distance of all the things they need to accomplish all of these activities. This is particularly true once they have kids and are trying to fulfill the suburban family dream.

Now, fulfilling the strong social narrative of ‘being a good mother’ and whether you can do that on a bike or while living in the city is a different matter worth unpacking. Even here in Copenhagen, many of the people I have interviewed suggest that to be a ‘good parent’ you have to get a car, and you should move to the suburbs. That’s in Copenhagen. Cycle capital of the world and all whatnot.

There are those here too bucking the trend, which is easier to do, but they are still bucking the trend and have to jump through some hoops- most notably the high cost of finding an apartment that is ‘big enough’ for kids. Most of them just hold off for a few years until the kids get older and then have to eventually move out anyway. The cargo bike may just delay the seemingly inevitable.

I suspect there are also a lot more social pressures that poor people in the US face to get a car to demonstrate that they have been “successful” to their peers, whereas the educated elite more likely show off their status by being “smart/eco-friendly/health conscious enough” to choose to ride a bicycle.

Here in Copenhagen, which values modesty and social equity, standing out and thinking you are above others is a no-no. People prefer to be seen as ‘the kind of person who would ride a bicycle’. The kind of person who doesn’t think of themselves as being too big and above everyone else. Driving a hummer or big SUV in Copenhagen would likely raise scorn and eyebrows, which explains why I don’t think I’ve seen either in the past 3 years here. Even the crown prince and prime minister both prefer to be seen on bikes.

I think it’s pretty unlikely we can change American culture to be more modest, pragmatic and equal. But perhaps we can leverage the tropes we have like freedom, independence, and self-reliance to push bicycling further in the US. And in both cases, we will have to figure out how to make affordable, family friendly cities and reframe ‘the good parent’ and the ‘successful adult’ into one who rides a bike.

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 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 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.

Why I’m not a “cyclist” anymore

I ride a bicycle. Practically everyday. I’ve stopped calling myself a “cyclist”.

Something happened when I crossed half the world from the US and started living in Copenhagen. I very quickly realized that something had changed. I still rode my bicycle everywhere, but so did everyone else. Riding a bike wasn’t a radical rebellion. It wasn’t a fist to “the man” or some kind of branded identity I wore proudly like a badge of honor.

I stopped carrying my one-of-a-kind San Francisco Mission-made messenger bag. Why carry things on your back when you have a lovely machine that can take the weight for you? I’m not racing to deliver parcels quickly. I’m just carrying my laptop.

I stopped wearing a bike helmet. No one else was anyway (although helmet use is now on the rise despite traffic safety here being at an all time high).

I gave my celeste colored Bianchi fixie to my ex-girlfriend (who subsequently quite reasonably put gears back on it). I left my bright pink chopper tall boy with some friends in Berkeley (who immediately got fined for riding a dangerous vehicle). I sold my Bridgestone 12-speed road bike on craigslist. No one rides any of those things here in Copenhagen.

I looked around for was the locals were riding and bought an old upright 3-speed Raleigh Club de Luxe. Later, when living briefly in Amsterdam, I bought a Dutch Sparta “women’s” stand-over bicycle complete with attached raincoat yellow messenger bags courtesy of my friends at FietsFabriek.

My bright orange REI jacket I  had bought for “visibility” seemed suddenly radical and out of place amidst a sea of black clothing, which seemed a clear statement of the locals’ desire to blend in and become invisible amidst the crowd.

I slowed down. I stopped caring about how many PSI my tires are. I started following the traffic rules (well, almost all the time). People here say Copenhageners “ride like crazy”. In fact, “other cyclists” are probably the reason for what helmets there are- not other cars. Yet I find them to be perfectly tame, slow and mild-mannered compared with Americans.

Riding a bike became completely banal and everyday. This was not a transition that happened over night and was not without its challenges.

I have long built up an identity around thinking of myself as “different”. Perhaps this was a symptom of my own insecurities constantly surrounded by overachievers. Maybe it was due to being raised by semi-reformed hippies.

I still think I’m a bit “off” and different from the everyday person (whatever that is). But I’ve given up on worrying about my identity in relationship to my particular preferred mode of transportation choice. I even sometimes let myself take a bus or train when the weather is lousy or the distance seems too long- and don’t beat myself up over it too much. Why should I? I’m just a normal person going about my daily routine.

Often when I speak with people who come from a city where they have to fight on a daily basis just to survive on the streets, they develop a strong identity as “cyclists”- as though there were something particular that sets them apart from the rest of humanity because of the way they move through space. When they come to a more bike friendly city like Copenhagen, they don’t know how to respond.

On the one hand, they appreciate how their lives have been made easier and safer by a million tiny thoughtful gestures distributed throughout the urban design and traffic planning of the city. It’s all those things they themselves have been pushing for in their own cities. Yet they also seem to feel like their identity as an individual is somehow threatened. It’s almost like they actually like being ostracized.

These divisions and dichotomies based on how we move aren’t getting us anywhere collectively. We need to better understand and empathize with why the majority (in most other cities than Copenhagen) don’t ride their bicycle and then develop solutions to make them feel safe and comfortable to try it out. When those people ride, we shouldn’t lament that it is no longer “cool” to ride anymore because “everyone is doing it”.

Biking isn’t a fashion statement that’s “in” until the next thing comes along. It’s a fantastic way to get around town. We should delight in our successes in sharing that joy with others. We can’t let our desire to hold onto our individual identity stand in the way of others’ ability to join us.

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.