City of Cyclists

by Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN — As part of our Yale-organized housing in Copenhagen, each of the eleven Yale students here received a free public transportation pass — valid for whatever trips we might take on the bus, the metro, the S train, even the water taxi. Three weeks into the summer, however, we have all gone to great lengths to acquire bicycles. In short, we have discovered first-hand that there is no truer way to see the city than by bike, no more authentic way to move from one point in the city to another. Copenhagen is a city of cyclists, and we have determined that we would not become Copenhageners until we joined their ranks.

This past weekend, I finally took my first step toward bicycle ownership. Having heard that the cheapest sale was the bimonthly police auction of unclaimed bikes, several of the Yale students forced ourselves out of our apartment by 8 AM on Saturday morning in order to arrive at the pre-auction preview by 8:30. We set off for the police auction believing that we were privy to some little-known secret about biking in Copenhagen. Imagine our surprise when we could barely squeeze through the door to the one-room auction house/ police station. At precisely 9 AM, the live auction started. I was thrilled. My first live auction!  Buying a bike in Copenhagen!  What could be more exhilarating? And then we realized that the auction would be conducted exclusively in Danish, that our hastily scribbled notes from the pre-auction preview were worthless, that we could not understand the verbal description of each bike’s malfunctioning parts, and that we needed to learn how to count from zero to one thousand immediately.

I came home with a bike — a beautiful city bike with big handlebars and a gracefully curved shaft and a bell. As I wheeled my new treasure out of the police station, however, I began to notice the rusty chain and the broken brake and the seat that was too high for me to mount, let alone ride. And so realizing that my plan to ride my bike home needed to be aborted, I found myself grateful for the city’s well-developed bicycling infrastructure. In Copenhagen, you are allowed to bring your bike on the metro. In fact, as I rode home that Saturday morning, there were three others in my metro car holding onto their bikes as the train sped through the city.

Commuters' bikes parked outside of the main metro station in the city. (Armitage/TYG)

Biking culture in Copenhagen has benefited from a positive feedback loop that has escaped most US cities: here everyone bikes because everyone bikes. The thousands of cyclists on Copenhagen’s streets create a city where it is safe to bike, create a political environment where the needs of cyclists are taken seriously, and create a culture where an American college student (read: me) feels that she needs to bike around the city in order to feel like a local. Cycling in Copenhagen is the definition of a critical mass, a real-life version of the age-old proverb that there exists safety in numbers. There are separate bike lanes on all major roads, separate traffic lights for bikes, and bike racks at every corner. In the winter, the bike lanes are cleared of snow before the car lanes are. Forty percent of all work commutes are made on bicycles, as are thousands of additional trips around the city in all weathers and all seasons.

Biking here is not only convenient but desirable. Most Copenhageners have told me that they prefer biking to driving, a statement that would be unfathomable in a city like Beijing where biking is viewed as a lower class, less desirable form of transportation. In fact, biking in Copenhagen is an equalizing force in the city, forcing politicians riding to Parliament and parents bringing their children to school to share the city streets as an open public space. Cycling in Copenhagen is a case in point that it is far easier to revel in life’s essentials when you have already experienced its luxuries. Rather than being a novelty item, cars have been available to the Danes for a while—and were tried en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. Bikes are a lifestyle of choice, not of necessity.

For this reason, I really do wonder how replicable is Copenhagen’s biking infrastructure in cities around the world, at least at any point in the foreseeable future. American cities might indeed be able to create more cyclist-friendly urban areas with some expert planning. But as the urban development crowd often laments, cities in nations with emerging economies seem unlikely to make the voluntary sacrifices — namely, a first taste of car culture — needed to create a Copenhagen-style transportation system. This dilemma has long raised fundamental questions about the role of public participation in city planning. Must a city of cyclists arise organically, as happened in Copenhagen? Or can a city planning board somehow impose this system on the citizenry through incentives, regulations, and other measures? Living in Copenhagen has erased all of my doubts about biking as a serious alternative for mass transportation. I have seen the end goal. Now, with my rusty bike in tow, I have joined the chorus of people asking how we will get there.

Sarah Armitage ’12 is a History major in Pierson College.  This summer she is writing about urbanism from Copenhagen, Denmark.