Tag Archives: Copenhagen

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?

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Here are some good ideas for bicycle locks.

Copenhageners fear other cyclists and complain city is ‘not doing enough’ for bikes

Here’s an article from the Danish media I thought others might enjoy. I did a quick google translate of the original Danish so it’s a bit choppy. Sorry I don’t have the time to do a better translation myself.

It just shows how incredibly far advanced the Danes in cycling but also how you have to keep pressing for change even as some of the most incredible changes are already happening here. But it’s a bit of a silly article because the municipality knows this issue (the research is just confirming a known issue) and they are actually doing a lot from what I can see, certainly compared to most cities. Advocating better conditions for cyclists in Copenhagen seems a bit excessive to me. Ah Denmark, you don’t know how good you’ve got it!

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Cyclists fear cyclists
20th June 2011
They fear neither right turn accidents, doors opening or cars crossing the bike path. What the cyclists in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg fear most is other cyclists.
It shows the preliminary results of a survey in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg, says senior scientist at the University of Copenhagen, Hans Skov-Petersen:
- One would immediately think it was right-turning trucks or cars that run across the bicycle path that was the problem, but it turns out that most cyclists are worried about is other cyclists.
Mix concrete
When the cyclists fear cyclists, partly due to lack of space on the bike path, says Hans Skov-Petersen, and therefore local authorities look at the concrete that is reserved for cyclists:
- The problem is that there is not enough room for the many different riders. There must be room for both those who want to ride fast, those who want to ride gently with their children, and those who will ride with cargo bikes. There must be room for everyone and it could well indicate that the cycle path network is not adapted, there are many different riders simultaneously, says Hans Skov-Petersen.
Fine words are not enough
The Cyclists’ Union would also like to have municipalities mix concrete.
The league is pleased of Copenhagen’s high ambitions to become the world’s best, but it is no longer enough with fine words and lofty ambitions.
- We demand more action behind the words, because if they just need to reach near their ambitions, there must be something NOW in relation to multiple and broad cyclists, says head of media Cyclists Federation Fritz Bredal.
Bike lanes are on the way
The municipality of Copenhagen there is action behind the words. Better and wider bike lanes are already under way, assures program manager for Copenhagen bike area, Andreas Røhl.
- There is something concrete and we also have a strategy where this is clearly a focus area. The goal is to create a framework where it is possible for parents and children and colleagues to hold a conversation while they are busy, can get past, says Andreas Røhl. Copenhagen is just now starting to extend cycle paths on Nørrebrogade and build a bicycle bridge over the harbor.
Bikeability.dk
Approximately 4,500 of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg citizens have participated in the survey, which is part of the research Bikeability.
Behind Bikeability Among other things Aalborg University, Southern University and University of Copenhagen. The project aims to identify what motivates riders and ultimately create better conditions in the city for cyclists.

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.

Captive Users? In Copenhagen?

Is one of the key reasons so many people ride bikes so much in Copenhagen due to the fact that the bus service here is so bad?

When you ask people a simple question, “why do you bike?” often times the first response you get is “because it’s easy!” If you ask the Copenhagen municipality, they will say that they regularly conduct a telephone survey of why people bike and get basically the same answer. If you read much of the current bicycling literature or follow the current bicycle planning and activism discourse, you get roughly the same kind of argument: create provisions for bicycling (lanes, traffic lights, parking, etc.) and it will simply be ‘irresistable‘ to cycle. So there you go, right?

But people don’t make their transportation decisions in a vacuum. We need to also consider what the alternatives to biking would be. They don’t just bike because biking is made irresistable, they also bike because the alternatives are perceived to be unthinkable or, at the very least, worse.

If you probe people a bit more deeply than you can in a survey questionnaire, you will quickly realize that the flip side to “it’s so easy to bike” is “it’s not so easy to do anything else”. This is not necessarily a good thing to celebrate.

The first thing people I have spoken with mention as a competitor to the bicycle is actually not the car. It’s the bus. And the first thing they mention is the cost of the bus. With rising fuel prices in recent years, the price of bus fare in Copenhagen has gone through the roof, as in many cities.

In 1979, the cost of a bus ticket was 3 danish kroner, or just a little over 50 US cents. A bus fare today is 24 kroner, about $4.65. That’s an increase of eight times the price. If you smooth those data to compare 1979 valuation of the kroner to today’s kroner, a 3 DKK fare should be 9 DKK  today. That is to say, prices have nearly tripled by a true valuation of the price. In the graph below, you can see the price increases both terms of the cost at the time and compared to the kroner in 2010.

Gas prices, by comparison, during the same time period went from 3 kroner per liter to around 10 kroner per liter- an increase of only three times the price, which is roughly in line with inflation rates. As mentioned before, 3 kroner in 1979 would be worth 9 kroner today, so gas prices (despite much fluctuation up and down during that period) have hardly changed in real prices.

Most of these price increases have been recent. From 1979 to 1990, the price went from 3 kroner to 8 kroner. From 1990 to 2000, they went from 8 to 12 kroner. But from 2000 to 2011, the price has soared to 24 kroner.

Yesterday I spoke with an immigrant named Saadi who moved to Copenhagen from Tunisia in 1987. He said if you are two people it would be actually cheaper to use a taxi for about 40 kroner to get from the station we were standing at (Nørrebro) to the closest main train station (Nørreport), a distance of 3 kilometers. If two people took the bus it would cost 48 kroner and probably take about twice as long. A bike, on the other hand, would be as fast as the taxi and virtually free.

Saadi  remembered distinctly when he got off the bus and started biking- it was when bus fares hit 18 kroner about 5 years ago. Bike advocates and the data might celebrate this fact. One more person on a bike, and an immigrant no less! Fantastic! But we might suspect that this man might prefer an affordable transit pass.

But it’s not just immigrants. In speaking with a handful of others on the street, including working class Danes and students, I heard the same thing: sure, I ride because it’s the fastest and easiest way. But that’s also because you’d have to be crazy to ride the bus.

However, it’s not only the transit cost. Riding the bus also often takes 2-3 times longer. The busses – like anywhere- are often perceived as unreliable. Plus, people often complain, they feel packed in like sardines in a can.  Copenhagen has also recently started clamping down with stasi-like heavy spot fines of $112 if you don’t have a valid ticket.

No one I spoke with makes a comparison with a car, probably because that is even more trouble: it’s hard and expensive to find parking, gas is costly, traffic is a hassle, and distances are short. Why bother? Some of the folks I spoke with can’t afford a car and those that have one don’t hardly use it except to get out of the city for weekend and holiday trips.

So, if you aren’t so well off and you are choosing between one of the best bicycle networks in the world which is fast, cheap, and generally a pretty good experience and an expensive, packed, and slow bus ride- which would you choose?

If this is the choice people are facing, should we be celebrating that bicycling rates have gone up in the economic recession? Is this an improvement, or is this just a symptom of people pinching pennies during a downturn and a lousy transit system? Maybe what people actually want is a better transit system, not a bike.

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Author’s note: I have started conducting several pilot interviews, close to 10 at this point. These interviews have almost entirely been conducted in the Nørrebro neighborhood, which is largely a working class, student and immigrant area. Most of the people were chosen randomly from people on the street around afternoon rush hour time, so this is still pretty early data.

My method has been primarily to approach people who are near their bicycle, explain my project to them briefly and then start by asking them one simple question “why do you bike?”. I then let the conversation flow from there, probing for things like how often they ride, how far, what other modes of transport they use and why, etc. Nonetheless,  there are a few key themes that seem to recur. I will be posting some of these stories on this blog in coming weeks so stay tuned.

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.

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.

Albertslund: a town with a completely segregated bike network

Recently, I went for a trip out to the Copenhagen suburb of Albertslund. This town has a history of progressive city planning, particularly in bicycle infrastructure. In the 1960s, they developed a completely segregated network of bicycle trails throughout the whole town, with the idea that kids would safely and easily be able to get to school without having to have conflicts with car traffic. Now they are planning to be the first municipality connected to inner Copenhagen via a 15 km segregated bicycle superhighway or what they are calling in Danish a “super bicycle path” (cykel superstier). I went to investigate both the old bike infrastructure in Albertslund and to pilot the new “highway”. I’ve put the section on the highway ride into a separate post since it was too long otherwise.

When we got off the train in town, we immediately spoke with a middle aged Danish woman and told her we had come out to visit their bike infrastructure. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised (apparently, we were not the first) and gave us a little trip plan. She seemed perfectly delighted and proud of the bike network.

The first path we came to was nice enough and followed along a little canal that ran through the center of town. I’m not sure why the path was made of bricks rather than pavement but nonetheless, it was nice not to have to hassle with any cars.

In particular, it was very nice that they had signage everywhere telling you where different things were in town. Sometimes there was even a map. All of these places were accessible by a completely segregated network of biking and walking trails.

On the other hand, no intersections with cars also meant lots of tunnels, which might not be so nice late at night.

Also, if you happened to accidentally get up on the “wrong” network, it could be challenging to find your way back to the “right” network and you didn’t want to be on the car network since there was no place for bikes or pedestrians. However, as we can see here, people may occasionally need to (or prefer) to be where the cars are and they had to adapt. These conflicts are not planned for and may be more dangerous than a typical intersection as a result.

In the background, there is a girl who was about 10 years old. She couldn’t figure out why I was taking pictures (particularly after I told her I was studying their bicycle infrastructure). She said she didn’t ride a bike but that her friends did. She took a bus to school, even though it was within biking distance. I wasn’t really able to find out why.

It was really nice to have all the paths segregated. You got a very carefree and easy way to experience the town. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a bit detached from the more urban “life” of the town since while you were on the bike paths, you never passed any store fronts which were still oriented toward the car streets. Also, I was concerned that there might be greater conflict and higher rates of accidents in the situations were there did happen to be bikes or pedestrians on the car streets since these interactions were not planned for with any infrastructure and cars might be more surprised than usual to find someone on “their” street. However, I do not know the data to tell if this concern is well founded.

I am very glad that Albertslund was daring enough to try such an interesting and innovative concept and executed it relatively well. However, I left convinced that don’t want towns to be fully segregated. Otherwise, it seems to create an “us and them” situation where shops choose to cater to one or the other. Can’t we instead build cities and streets for all people and all modes that function together? I’m by no means a John Forester “integrationist”, or a hater of segregated paths. Bike lanes are important and have an important place in cities. But going to the other extreme of complete segregation between motorized and non-motorized infrastructure is not the city that I aspire towards either. We need to develop safe and comfortable experiences where all types of road users can contribute to the street life in order to develop more dynamic and enjoyable cities.

What good are “bike superhighways”?

After our tour of Albertslund, we started heading out of town to try out the “new” bike superhighway. It’s not technically built yet, but you can view the route here. As it turned out, the trail didn’t seem to be new at all, but simply bike trail number 58, which already exists. Perhaps they will just add some new signs to spiff it up a bit but it looked pretty much like a rebranding job from what we could tell.

The first part of the path was really segregated- sunk a few meters below grade and rather disconnected from the street. There were bus stops on the road above but only steps to get to them, no parking and no way to put your bike on the bus.

It was nice enough on a sunny afternoon with a fair number of folks running or biking along it, but didn’t seem like it would be so welcoming after dark since no one could see you if you got into any danger. It was nice to not have to make any stops, but after a couple kilometers of non-stop peddling, we started getting a bit sweaty and actually hoped for a stop light to get a little break!

After several kilometers, we got lost and accidentally wound up in the suburban town of Glostrup near the train station. We knew something was amiss because the path follows in parallel to the train tracks, but at a distance of about 2 km the whole way. Rechecking our map, we went back and eventually found the trail again.

This turned out to be a fateful mistake. As soon as we were about as far from a train station as possible, Ayako proceeded to get a flat tire. We then found ourselves about 3 km from the nearest station- and any sort of town center, bike shop or anything else useful- and in no mood to walk back to the station we just passed up.

We had a patch kit but with the weather hovering around freezing and the sun on its way down in the afternoon, we weren’t that interested in stopping to fix it. We stopped to pump up every few hundred meters at first and then, finding the air leaking out too fast, we gave up and walked the last 2 km to the next station. We were a bit grumbly by the time we made it.

Ultimately, I feel that the concept of a segregated superhighway (and perhaps this extreme segregation we found in Albertslund) just doesn’t really add up. This experience of the flat tire really drove home the fears I already had about the system. Why would anyone want to ride 10-15 km (30-45 minutes) into town on a path that is far from any grocery, day care, or bike shop and feels unsafe at night? Perhaps this would be a nice change of pace on a sunny day in August when temperatures can crack a balmy 25C (~75F) if you are lucky. But when it is freezing cold, windy, and rainy- like it is most days in Denmark- I’d be hard pressed to imagine all but the most avid cyclist to be keen on biking that far.

Given that you could take the train (and even park your bike or put your bike on the train) and be in the city in less than 20 minutes, why not focus your resources on getting people from a few kilometers away in to the train station, which also conveniently has access to things like shopping, bike and repair shops, schools, and day care?

Multi-modal integration seems like a much more reasonable approach than assuming people want simply “speed and safety” like car drivers. Bikes aren’t cars. We shouldn’t apply traffic planning that works for cars for bicycling. We will need to have a more comprehensive and systemic experience to offer cyclists if we will capture more than the most extreme recreational riders on such trails.

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.

 

Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.