Creating Cycling Cultures

by Sanjena Sathian:

It is snowing mercilessly in Copenhagen. The skies have opened over Amsterdam and endless rain falls on the city. But despite the weather, the streets of both cities are inevitably filled with bicyclists, suit-clad or sporting jeans, toting children or even Christmas trees. These are the ultimate havens of cycling in Europe and the world.

Across the Atlantic in New York City, it is Halloween night, and masses of bicycle-crazed people are packed together in the middle of the street. It is the night of Critical Mass, when bicyclists around the world gather on the last Friday of each month to band together and ride through the streets, edging out cars and any other vehicles. They move in unison and without forethought of the path they’ll follow. They ride so that for one night of the month, the bicycles will overthrow the sedans and the minivans and the sports cars. They ride with no clear leader, letting their wheels carry them through the night, rebelling for the utopia they dream of.

But the masses in Copenhagen and Amsterdam are not the same as those across the pond. In some European cities, the bike-crowded streets are the norm. In most cities around the world, it is still a revolution waiting to happen.


Cycling fever has hit cities from Seonyudo, South Korea to Portland, Oregon over the past two decades, but the craze has gained the most traction in European cities, where cyclists’ transportation needs can be integrated into compact cities and strong public transportation networks. As Asia struggles to keep bike culture alive in the face of encroaching car-mania, and America fights a battle against seemingly indefatigable autophilia, bicycles are finding welcoming streets in Europe. But whether other cities around the globe can follow remains to be seen.

Hordes of bikes are parked along the streets of Copenhagen every day, outside train stations and offices alike. (Courtesy Sarah Armitage)

“It is absolutely necessary that [the world] shift from car centric cities,” said Bernard Ensink, the secretary general of the European Cycling federation. “Transport is more than 80 percent relying and depending on oil. Even if you would change all the cars into electric cars, you need the power to put in the cars, and you need the space to run them.”

But creating a bike friendly world is easier said than done. Though the future of sustainable cities may depend on incorporating bikes into transportation structures, actually building bicycling into the frameworks of cities is a challenge. Sprawling American cities, so dependent on highways for transportation and often lacking trains or subway systems, have been built to accommodate suburban drivers making their requisite ten mile commute to work. Asian cities, once bastions of cyclists, are getting richer, and today the streets of Beijing are more crowded with cars than bikes.

“There is a big threat in Asia because if they all decide to live the way European people live we will have difficulty feeding them all and finding oil and natural resources for them,” said Chloé Mispelon of the European Cycling federation. “We can see the drawbacks of such developments.” Part of an answer to a petrochemical-dependent economy may lie in bicycles, but only if cities can make way for them.


Both Amsterdam and Copenhagen faced the threats of impending car culture in the 1960s and 1970s, but these cities found ways to maneuver bikes back onto their streets. In Amsterdam, as the city threatened to sprawl into suburbs, city planners emphasized the importance of maintaining the historic city center and built bike paths into the tight old city streets and onto the canals. By the 1980s, this network of bike routes stretched to outer residential neighborhoods as well, and the combination of practicality, financial sense, and personal fitness dictated that biking was the way to go.

Like the Dutch, the Danish have long been known for traditions of bicycling, but it took top-down policy changes to keep cars from taking over Copenhagen. “Carfree Sundays” were instituted all over Denmark in the 1970s to deal with the oil crisis, effectively banning the use of cars on Sundays and reducing oil consumption. Bicycling grew in popularity, until ultimately the citizens of denmark—not government officials trying to stave off the petroleum crisis—began to take ownership of cycling.

“The big illustrations were tens of thousands of people demonstrating, wanting to get more bike lanes through the city, building bike lanes and [bike] parking facilities, especially around train stations,” remembered Frits Bredal of the Danish Cycling Embassy.

Today, it is this very infrastructure that makes bicycling so prominent a feature in the everyday transportation of Danes. In Denmark, it is not uncommon to spot a massive bike rack supporting 50 or more bikes in a train station, and Bredal noted that many Danes use a combination of bicycles and public transportation.


Now cities without a history of cycling are beginning to play catchup.

Florinda Boschetti is in the business of bringing the wisdom of cycling to the previously uninformed. She is the director of the PRESTo project, a European pro-cycling group. The initiative is one of many short-term plans to bring what Amsterdam and Copenhagen built decades earlier to cities like Bremen, Grenoble, Tczew, Venice and Zagreb. But these new countries face an urgency that the Dutch and Danes never dealt with. These five cities represent different levels of commitment to cycling culture, and Boschetti will work with each one to institute concrete policy changes: building infrastructure for bicycling, promoting cycling behaviors at the individual level, and pushing for Pedelecs, electronic bicycles, so cyclists can make longer bike trips. “Political will is important,” she said. “Cycling is a political issue and this is the main problem because other cities and countries don’t have the same 40 years [as the Danes].”

Boschetti, like Bredal, emphasized the importance of integrating cycling into existing transportation structures. Cities looking to become champions of cycling will need seamless transitions from train to bike or bike to sidewalk in order to stretch the distance that an average cyclist can reach and to prove to skeptics that cycling commuters don’t have to sweat and slog through 10 or 15 kilometer treks to work. Infrastructure ranging from bike lanes to racks must come first. Even after this first step, the mere existence of an integrated transportation structure would prove to city dwellers that cyclists are safe and welcome on roads. The philosophy is simple: If you build it, they will bike.

But four decades after the Danes and Dutch made bikes a standard sight on their streets, building bike lanes and racks alone may not be enough. Boschetti agreed, emphasizing that PRESTO’s push for Pedelecs help contextualize the bicycle revolution to a modern age. Pedelecs allow elderly cyclists and long-distance commuters, previously untargeted demographics, to make bicycling their main mode of transportation. The combination of potentially easier ways to travel and better infrastructure will, Boschetti hopes, bring previously low-level cycling cities to the “champion” status that Amsterdam and Copenhagen have achieved.


The term “Copenhagenize” has caught on within bicycling circles as being synonymous with revolution, and that is what it will take to sculpt bicycling paradises out of cities around the world. European cities have found a model that works in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and for planners like Boschetti, who can work with compact city centers and already strong public transportation systems, a future full of cities around Europe with a thriving culture of commuting cyclists—even of tourists on bikes—seems within reach.

In cities where drivers have grown up also bicycling, a mutual understanding about the importance of bicycle infrastructure has helped shape not only a city, but also a surrounding culture of cycling. And yet there is something distinct about the culture of cycling in Europe from that of American and Asian pro-bike groups: Most cyclists in Europe simply do not see any novelty in how they choose to get from one place to another. Mispelon reminisced that at an international bike conference in Copenhagen last summer, as representatives from other countries sighed over the number of “cyclists” they saw on the streets, local Copenhagenites dismissed their wonderment, saying that they were not “cyclists,” but simply average people trying to get places quickly and easily.

Cyclists do not have to be activists. But unless cities around the world make bicycling painless, bikers will continue to have to fight for their rights. For now, in the sprawling streets of New York City and Los Angeles and in booming Beijing and Bombay, the yellow taxis and Ambassador cars will keep on muscling cyclists off the streets.

Sanjena Sathian ’13 is an English major in Morse College. Contact her at or on Google+.