I was in Copenhagen last week, for a meeting of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Ezra, who works on the project, kindly sorted a bike for me to ride around Copenhagen the next day, so I could get a cyclist’s view of the city.
And what a beautiful day I had! Cold, sure – very cold (especially my feet, despite packing my best cold weather socks – woolie boolies), but blue sky and sunshine bathing the Danish capital in glorious light. I don’t usually ride this style of ‘sensible’ bike, but straightaway I liked how suited it felt to the ‘difficult’ conditions. It felt solid and chunky moving over the ice, and the step-through frame gave me confidence that, should I slip, I’d be able quickly to dismount.
A big difference between the UK and Copenhagen is the treatment of cycling infrastructure. In the UK, cycle routes are very rarely cleared of snow and ice. This means that, in conditions such as those we’ve been having recently, people who ordinarily cycle either stop cycling and find some other way of making their journeys, or they are pushed into using the main roads. It’s a different story in Copenhagen. Some of the back streets weren’t clear, but all of the main arterial cycle routes I rode were.
Apparently there were far fewer people cycling than would usually be the case, even in early December. But again, from an English perspective, huge numbers of people were riding bikes. I stopped often, to watch them flowing through junctions; a beautiful sight, graceful in its silence and wintery light.
People cycling in Copenhagen rarely use their bells! I’d be fascinated to know how this particular mass cycling (non-)behaviour has come about. Mixed with the cold and the drab colours (all the leaves are now gone), the silence gave the cycling procession a funereal quality, which I rather liked (though it also produced a melancholy which made me want to find a warm and cosy cafe and sip hot coffee whilst reading Kierkegaard, whereas my mission was to stay out in the cold and see as much of the city by bike as possible …)
But yes, the numbers of people cycling … very many. I knew it already, but participating in it is another thing – Copenhagen has developed a ‘mass cycling culture’. Cycling is ‘mainstream’ here. I’ve no doubt that the kinds of people you see cycling will vary according to the part of the city and the time of day and week. Where and when I was riding I seemed mainly to be surrounded by younger people, more women than men; many students, I assumed. I stayed behind and followed some, not as a stalker but as a sociologist! Others I overtook, many more overtook me.
It was partly because I was new in the city and unclear on where I was going, and it was partly due to riding an unfamiliar bike, but along the main arterial routes into and out of the central city I felt very much as though I was pedalling a treadmill (yes, I know that’s mixing a metaphor!). Once I was on one of these cycle lanes which aim flat and straight, it felt hard to get off again. The snow had narrowed them, and people overtake, coming past really quite close, which increased my sense of being ‘hemmed in’.
There are important and intersecting tensions here, between ‘freedom’ and ‘confinement’, and between ‘the mass’ and ‘the elite’. It is crucially important how we negotiate these tensions across the world, as we move towards producing cycling as a very major means of urban mobility.
Speaking personally, I don’t like feeling part of a mass, feeling so regulated and restricted in my cycling movements. I don’t like feeling that I’m ‘merely’ playing my part in the rhythmic, quotidian reproduction of urban space in the name of the continuation of a neo-liberal capitalist economy. Rather, I like to explore and to conquer the city through cycling, to be an urban rebel. (Sure, most people might think me a jerk, but when I’m drinking freedom on my bike I really don’t care …)
But my elitist orientation to cycling in the city is antagonistic to (my ambitions for) cycling as a humdrum, mundane, ordinary practice – one which we need huge numbers of people to embrace in order to move towards a planet on which human habitation is viable over the long-term.
So I am in conflict both with my self and with Copenhagen. Which, luckily for me, is an OK place to be. Though of course, I am slightly worried that through my academic work I am arguing for the kinds of place (cities with high modal shares for cycling, such as Copenhagen) in which I personally wouldn’t want routinely to cycle. (Down with Kierkegaard, up with Nietzsche?)
I have two highlights from my day spent pedalling around Copenhagen. The first is that I spent a day pedalling around Copenhagen (which maybe makes it a longlight ..). The second is getting to visit Christiania, a place to which I’ve long wanted to go.
Christiania is of course the home of Christiania bikes. I love cycling and I love all those who work in creative ways towards alternative, progressive, socially and ecologically liberated futures. So this is my kind of place!
I’m also a sociologist, and although I recognise that I’m not always – or even often! – very good at it, I do like to think critically. I am very fond of Denmark and the Netherlands, I love cycling in both countries, and I love how useful and stimulating they are to thinking about cycling and cycling futures. Heaven help us if we didn’t have their shining examples.
But I’m sometimes puzzled how the Dutch and the Danish seem resistant to opening up their cycling practices to critical scrutiny. Amongst many of the Dutch and the Danes whom I’ve had the great privilege of meeting, cycling is somehow something which people simply and unproblematically just do.
The purpose of sociology is to crack open and scrutinize such taken-for-granted, common-sensical perspectives, not to reveal them as false but in order to understand better the complex processes through which they are constructed, maintained and, yes, routinised.
So what I most love about Christiania and its bikes is how as a concrete place it provides evidence, both ‘actually’ (materially, in the form of a factory) and symbolically (culturally, in the form of the production and reproduction of particular ethics, aesthetics, sensibilities) of how a cycling culture gets built.