Postcard from Cycling Mecca ( or, not yet another blog on Copenhagen!)

The first part of our journey and to a place many in the cycling world believe is the very incarnation of all of our aspirations. It may be a bit more crude to say that landing here is like arriving on the set of Planet of the Apes - where everything appears inverted: Cycles rule and cars and trucks yield - even bus drivers wave you through should your Sydney-borne reflexes kick-in.

And yes, my wife and I rode for three days in and around Copenhagen without helmets (though I wore a hat to shield my remarkably efficient sun collector). But it wasn't that the lack of helmets that set us free it was that we felt so at ease in an environment where 35% of the population cycle to work and fewer than that even own a car. Why would you? The city is compact and there is a separated cycleway (one double width on each side of most roads). Yes, ti is flat but also windy and was unseasonably cool. And not a permission button, stop here box or coil to be found!

Bicycle racks are somewhat rare as nearly everywhere is a bike stop and they line the streets. A notable exception are the main rail stops where racks are double decker and stretch 50-100 meters in multiple rows in more than one direction.

Cyclists are mostly very gracious and when you get accustomed to those that appear older (and more stylishly dressed) than you passing you on a regular basis. You just learn to go at the speed that is comfortable not one that marks you a deserving athlete. It's a lot less pressurized and macho. In fact, I'm pretty certain women outnumber blokes on bikes here though I thought it reasonable not to begin that survey or make that point out loud. Hook turns are the norm as one goes from one bike lane to a crossing one. Everyone just casually flicks a hand in the air with a bent elbow and creates ques in front of the other waiting cyclists. Cycleway right turn lanes are marked and strictly adhered to. No cramming to the front for a sprint at the turning of the signal. No noticeable antagonism with pedestrians either.

Speaking of helmets for the last time, my wife and I did random counts this morning all through the city and concluded 20-30% of riders still do wear helmets. Annecdotally we believe this drops off for the non-commuters during mid-day but goes up significantly for those on longer distance fast riders out of town that we encountered on the extensive paths by the sea.

So what concerns them here? You'd think nothing but that is not the case. First, the local cycling organization informed us that they are pushing for (even) wider bike lanes and that cyclist be allowed to make right hand turns (our left) on red signals. Mind you, there is no delay today for cyclists, they are well looked after with signals that provide flow with traffic and some special arrows too. Turning motorists are held up and allowed extra signal time on the back end of a sequence change. How lovely!

Bicycle theft of anything beyond the ubiquitous upright models is apparently a growing problem. Perhaps that's why you see fewer sleek fixie's than in the major cities in Australia? Cargo bikes of all shapes are around. Surprisningly few trailers. Lots of cycle taxies - nothing fancy and just as likely to be pushing around blokes on a pub crawl... Very few carbon road bikes ply these roads - some still cobblestoned.

But Copenhagen according to a series of "The Good City" posters just in front of our hotel (what a coincidence!) proclaimed that they are worried in Copenhagen that everyday ridership has stabilized at 35% for some years. They believe the city is ready for a complete re-think that is based on a roadway that is invented specifically for cyclists not a patched-up motorist roadway. The posters all in a row had ideas from the leading firms on how they would each propose to do this. Some fascinating and out of the ordinary sort of thinking.

Depending on your perspective, this is a place that either time forgot or has leaped ahead to the last chapter of the book on liveable cities and transport solutions. One has to remember that both nations grew up nearly identically with cycling usage before the paths diverged.

I leave inspired and as I scan the SC pages (from my wi-fi enabled train carriage going 160 kmh) I am left knowing that we have a lot of work to do but also that we have a lot of energy In the cycling community that oddly - but predictably - seems to be more galvanized than here where "now what?" is more perplexing - and indeed - somewhat less motivating.

If it's of any interst, I'll try to write more as we visit regional Norway, Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris...

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DK has nothing on NL!

I felt great in AMS but, like Omar experienced in DK, it was like landing on another planet. However time didn't 'forget' these places, Omar. In the 1970s these cities resembled all the other cities in Europe and the UK - car infested, hostile to pedestrians & cyclists. The cycle paradise is purely the result of pro-cycling (no, not 'pro' cycling) policies, barrier removal and infrastructure where important. Thank goodness they go onto this before they had the daft idea that 'safety equipment' was the most important thing you can do to make cyclists safer.

I highly recommend cycling further afield in AMS - it's not hard and nearly impossible to get lost. After an hour you'll be in the middle of nowhere with cows and windmills.

Cycling in AMS was great fun. I discovered the best way to handle it was to pretend you were just a fish in a large school. Just go with the flow... and boy does it flow!

I'd recommend the following blogs for useful information (you're probably aware of them already):

If you can, meet up with David (Assen), Mark (Utrecht) or Marc (Amsterdam) to get a local's perspective. I'm sure they'd be happy to talk with you.

Have a great holiday!
Thanks for the tip and will report back!

I have a theory that people eventually do project their perception of safety by the conditions presented to them. Helmets are the barometer not the driver especially among women i believe. In Portland with no MHL, 80% still wear helmets. (I would not - today - cross Sydney without one with or without the law)

Speed limits in Copenhagen are also 40 kmh and traffic at peak feels like Sydney early on a Sunday morning! The paths, the yielding, the signals, the bicycles themselves... They all create the environment that puts cyclists and pedestrians at the top of the priority tree and makes for a more relaxed city to get around.
I don't want to belabour the point (it belongs elsewhere here) but it is an example of risk compensation. What worries me, given their design (and what other injuries one can sustain that are life threatening), is that people think they have gone from being 'unsafe' to 'safe' - this is clearly nonsense. That is why I dislike them being forced on people. It is a State sanctioned false sense of security that people believe isn't false at all.

More cyclists, slower cars, limiting rat-running, priority for cyclists and pedestrians at junctions, and infrastructure on busy/dangerous sections where appropritate, etc. is what works. Any barrier to cycling is bad; any barrier to any cycling.

Well said Paul.

Thanks for the post Omar, a couple of quick questions,

How old were the kids ? - or specifically were they riding by themselves or in tow / or carrier of some description? 

Did you hire the bikes or hire/rent them?

I'm planning a trip to Paris, plus kids (6, 9, 12 y.o.)   and am trying to work in riding landmark to landmark instead of relying completely on their Metro... so I will be keenly following your experiences there too! 


To be honest, this is pretty Copenhagen-specific and we didn't see many very young kids on the cycleways on their own especially at peak times but I think it would be manageable if the kids could stay in lanes and perhaps off- peak. There is no a lot of room for error as everyone expects adherence to basic rules and staying in line.

A cargo bike may be an option for the youngest? Young kids do wear helmets here.

We sourced our bikes at the hotel which appears somewhat common but there are plenty of stores that hire them too. They come with locks.

Will keep your questions in mind on blog from Paris.

Much thanks Omar. 

Yes, I imagine the 6 year old will love being in a cargo bike! ....larger challenge would be the 9 year old, he's probably light enough to be in a cargo bike, but where do I put the croissants then?

Mikael from Copenhagenize (and David Hembrow) has discussed this before. You will see more independent children cycling in cities in NL compared to DK as it is safer. Again, they compensate for this by putting kids in cargo bikes (much more common in DK than NL) and popping helmets on them. It doesn't change whether it is safe or not but people like Mikale are fighting hard to have the streets improved for child cyclists particularly.
Here is more on that subject:

The difference between the two (in how we perceive them) is largely due to the clever marketing by the Danes and little trumpeting by the Dutch. The Dutch just get on with it and wonder what all the fuss is about. Meanwhile we think that it is 'Copenhagen' style infrastructure we should be aiming for. No, that is to aim too low. Even Mikael Colville-Anderson would admit that when comparing the two countries.

If we are going to get ideas from anyone as an authority we should be looking to The Netherlands before Denmark. This is my experience on the ground there too... and you have to get out of the cities, particularly Amsterdam, to see the differences properly.
I sense some simmering rivalry... :)

Looking forward to making the comparisons and catching up with Marc from Amsterdamize as well.

Currently, we are in the Danish countryside (Silkeborg) and about to hop on bikes for a tour around the local lakes. We have already seen some nice wide shared paths through the forests.
There is a bit of rivalry but it is actually friendly. David Hembrow is much more of a straight shooter whereas Mikael's background is media & marketing. He knows how to sell stuff... and it shows ;)

Have a wonderful holiday. It sounds sublime.

Some double-deck bike parking that we saw at a railway station in Copenhagen last year.


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