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Lotte Ruby and Lasse Lindholm

In the 1960s, cars were threatening to displace bicycles in the main Danish cities. But the oil crisis, the environmental movement and a couple of controversial road projects reversed the trend. This is however just part of the story behind why Danes still cycle so much.

Photo: http://denmark.dk

Is it possible to cycle in your city? Is it safe? Is it even attractive? If you can answer yes to all three questions, then the cycling culture in your city has good expectations for growth. But often the answers are in the negative, and then the next question is: how did this come about?

The answer lies in a city's historical development, because surprisingly many of the major cities that today are packed with cars actually have a past as cities of bicycles. A journey back into Denmark's history shows how and why Copenhagen and other Danish cities have managed to maintain a flourishing bicycle culture. The bicycle was invented in the latter half of the 1800s. The first bicycles were quite primitive and somewhat awkward to ride. Nonetheless they soon became the big fashion craze – especially among young men in high society. Bicycles were first used for sport and recreation, but in the late 1800s some more practical types of bicycles gradually came into the market, and the general public, who otherwise had poor access to transport, quickly adopted them.

Freedom for all

With the bicycle, ordinary men and women suddenly gained much more freedom of movement. The bicycle was their ticket out of the inner city's cramped tenement houses and into the clean air of the rapidly growing suburbs. In a Danish context, the bicycle has been inextricably linked with freedom ever since.

Photographs of urban scenes from the 1930s clearly show how Danish cities became cities of bicycles in the first half of the 1900s. People from all social classes cycled on a large scale and several professions also adopted the bicycle – today cycling postmen and home helpers are still a permanent part of street life. The bicycles' first heyday lasted for half a century until around 1960, when the increasing standard of living slowly but surely made car ownership possible for more and more families. That development was welcomed because cars and single-family houses were vigorous symbols that the depression of the 1930s and the darkness of World War 2 had lifted, and that a brighter future lay ahead.

Decades of headwind

But what is a brighter future? The multitude of cars brought not only prosperity but also pollution, congestion and traffic accidents. It can be an eye opener to see photographs from Copenhagen in the 1960s. Many of the areas now treasured by the city's inhabitants and tourists alike are car-free areas, but in the 1960s they were characterised by dense traffic and car parks. Nyhavn, Strøget and Langelinie are just some examples.

Until the 1960s, Copenhagen's history unfolded in parallel with developments in many other western metropolises. But then a number of things happened which made Copenhagen and several other major Danish cities depart from the beaten track.

During the 1960s it became increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to the many traffic accidents and the growing pollution problem. Copenhagen was no longer the city of bicycles that most Danes knew and loved, and it upset a lot of people.

For more than half a century, bicycles had steered their way into the core of Danish self-perception through the visual arts, poetry and music. The cheerful spinning of the wheels and the summery image of a blonde haired girl cycling In the 1930s bicycles took up quite a lot of space on the street scene. 19 through the town – what was the city without this? At the same time the budding environmental movement and the oil crisis greatly helped to shake the dust off cycling culture, which in the 1970s again began to appear in a positive light.

The Danish model

From the 1970s to the 1980s, several conflicts arose between bicycle and car interests in Danish cities. One example was the wave of popular protests which followed in the wake of a proposal from the Copenhagen authorities to establish a motorway across the lakes which separate the inner city of olden times from the more recent suburban districts. There was an enormous outcry because, then as now, the lakes were some of the city's loveliest open spaces.

Gradually it became clear to most people that the solution to the problems had to be city planning that gave space to cars, bicycles, pedestrians and public transport. Out of this realisation grew the Danish model with its extended network of cycle lanes along the roads, which continues to be further developed. In the last 10 years, new challenges have emerged. In Denmark, as in other countries, there is a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. In Copenhagen and several other Danish cities it has led to an intensified effort to maintain and strengthen cycling culture.

The bicycle is an additional choice

Cycling – especially in a wealthy country like Denmark – is for most an active additional choice which can easily change. So the only way forward is to make it safe, easy and attractive to cycle, and that does not happen solely by changing the infrastructure.

In Denmark there is a strong tradition for people from all strata of society to cycle. Most Danes associate the bicycle with positive values such as freedom and health, and in recent years cycling has actually become a symbol of personal energy. The bicycle has become ultramodern again, aided by societal development, successful political initiatives and conscious marketing. The three largest Danish cities – Copenhagen, Århus and Odense – have all carried out large branding campaigns that put cyclists in a positive light on advertising billboards, on the internet and by actively including cyclists in new bicycle projects. The result is an increasing number of cyclists and cleaner, healthier and more lively cities.

Today the vision of a pleasant city is different to that of the 1960s. We all want to make space for progress and development. But progress and development in the modern metropolis depends on whether we manage to make it a place where people want to live.

From A to B

While many guests in the Danish capital seem to think that Copenhageners must be really concerned with the environment since so many use a bike, it’s just not the reason why Copenhageners ride. Many Copenhageners are of course focused on environmental issues but, when asked, only 1 per cent of Copenhageners mention it as the main reason.

Cycling is the preferred means of transport because it’s the quickest and easiest way to get around town. It’s the glue that keeps our lives together – allowing us to connect our everyday tasks in a smooth manner. While this tells us a bit about the Copenhagener mindset it also demonstrates that given the right support, cities around the world can be modelled to be more sustainable.

Creating a city of cyclists

But how do you create a city of cyclists? First of all you need to make cycling competitive and safe, and a great point of departure is having city planners armed with political will who make access for bicycles in public spaces a priority. In Copenhagen there is a coherent network of segregated lanes designated as cycle tracks in all city areas. That means you can ride from one part of the city to another almost without leaving the cycle track, which in most cases also ensures less travel time than going by car or bus.

Surfing green waves and snow

However, you also have more low hanging fruit to pick – in terms of investment. Two good examples from Copenhagen are the green waves for cyclists and the snow removal policy.

Previously the traffic lights in Copenhagen were coordinated for cars. Now they’ve been adjusted to favour cyclists along many main traffic arteries. This means that at a speed of 20 kph, cyclists can surf a wave of green traffic lights through the city without putting a foot down. Efficient for car drivers? No. But definitely an advantage for cycling citizens.

Should it snow in winter, city policy mandates that snow be removed from the cycle tracks before it is cleared from the car lanes – with the exception of car lanes on the four largest roads, which are cleared at the same time as the cycle tracks. This top priority helps explain why 80 per cent of Copenhagen cyclists still choose bikes in January.

Perception is (also) reality

Creating viable infrastructure and policies is important, but these are only some of the elements in developing a more sustainable and living city. As long as the common understanding of mobility is connected to the concept of driving a car, the road towards sustainable urban mobility through cycling will not be an easy one. Hence part of the work is also to change public perception of which kinds of mobility carry the greatest benefits for both citizen and society. Fortunately cycling leaves plenty of facts on the advocate’s side – to be used in campaigns and other communication activities. Performing over the long haul has been the essence in the Danish capital.

Copenhagen – as a city of cyclists – wasn’t designed and constructed overnight. It has been in the making for decades and the consistency in prioritizing cyclists on the street scene goes a long way to explaining why there are more bikes than citizens in Copenhagen today.

Lotte Ruby is from Danish Cyclists Federation, and Lasse Lindholm is from City of Copenhagen.