Today was an eventful day. I traveled from the centrally located city of Odense to the more populous and bustling capital city of Copenhagen. It’s evident as soon as you leave the train station that people in Copenhagen use bikes. They use lots of bikes. Cycle Tracks are built along all major roads and are sometimes up to 14 feet wide, in each direction, to provide for the huge volumes of persons using bicycles. I stood in front of an automated counter on one of the busiest streets in the city for cycling and literally watched about 1,000 bicycles pass through in about 30 minutes. Simply incredible.
One of my favorite parts thus far has been observing the endless brands and models of cargo bikes being used to haul everything from children to groceries. In every way, bicycling in Denmark represents more than a way to stay healthy or physically fit. Instead, they demonstrate what a rational culture seeking efficient, safe, and pleasant transportation options can become. To ride a bicycle here isn’t a measure of status, it is just a way to get from one place to another. What makes it so common is the great infrastructure that is intuitive and balanced in its approach to facilitating multiple modes, but also the normalcy that is generated by the persons riding bikes without pretense and is a lesson that I think we can all practice and import back to the US: Slow Down, Enjoy The Ride.
Despite riding a dozen miles today by bike and literally seeing thousands of persons on bikes, I very consciously only counted three, that’s right – 3, people wearing spandex or lycra kits. Everyone else was simple wearing normal clothes that one would normally wear to dinner, to work, on a date, to the park, or to run errands. This image reflects the normalcy of bicycling here in Denmark and is accomplished by a few factors that could be incorporated better in the US:
1. Slow travel speeds – Often times we talk about the safety impacts of traffic calming measures designed to keep automobiles moving slow, but today the only time I felt concerned while riding my bike in Copenhagen, was in the presence of other bicyclists moving extremely fast. This got me thinking about the average travel speeds of cycling groups in Memphis and how intimidating they might be, especially to new bike riders. You know what I noticed was the best part of keeping our ride around 10mph today? – No sweat. Sure, the incredible fall day here helped, but I was wearing a jacket, jeans, a button-up, and undershirt and wasn’t drenched in sweat at the end. the slow speeds not only kept me safe and secure, but also allowed me to really enjoy my day without worrying about complications from having to change and/or shower.
2. Workhorse bikes – The bikes here are utilitarian. They are built to move people around a city and without much fuss. Almost entirely, each bike has fenders, a coaster brake (in addition to a front hand brake), rear racks (and sometimes front baskets), and a chain guard. Why? To keep dirt, oil, and grease off your clothes and to help riders carry their stuff. Even those guys wearing spandex had each of these items on their bikes. If you walk into a bike shop, each of those items comes standard on each bike. In the US, those items are usually extra add-on items and require patrons to pay extra to include them in their purchase. What is US bike shops began to normalize standard features like these to help encourage more daily trips by bicycle?
3. Short distance trips – One of the key factors of each successful bike trip here in Copenhagen is the relatively short distance each person must ride to reach their destination. Most places are within 3-5 miles of each person and bicycling is easily the fastest way to get there. Imagine that you took the entire population of the City of Memphis and then imagine they all moved into a geography the size of Midtown. That would be Copenhagen – the same population as Memphis but with one-eighth of the geography. Honestly, importing this to the US is tricky – we’ve spent more than 50 years developing our city very spread out with only marginal amounts of population density. We won’t be able to solve this problem in the next five years, but we can begin to help residents, new and old, make better informed decisions about where they choose to live and consider the potential for bicycle when making those choices.