In the automobile boom of the 1960s, people abandoned their bicycles and began to drive. This miracle form of transport, so quick and easy, dry in all weathers, was a status symbol; to have one was to be rich. But then came the problems: congestion, ill health, laziness. The cycling fight-back was slow, stealthy and incremental – a protest against the dominance of the motor car, a gradual transformation of the streets that put bicycle culture back at the forefront of city planning. Fierce resistance was encountered, but over a period of 40 years, Copenhagen became a cycling Utopia: a city admired by others around the world and a place where 45 per cent of commuters travel by bicycle. To ‘Copenhagenize’ is a recognised verb amongst cycle campaigners.
This is an extract from my new book, Pedal Power, from the profile on Jan Gehl, one of the main architects in building Copenhagen into a cycling city. The book is a series of character pieces on the people who have made cycling what it is today, inspiring and innovating throughout the ages. Gehl was heavily on my mind on a recent visit to the Danish capital.
Because people ride bikes in Copenhagen. The city is a bicycle fanatic’s dream. Everyone rides: tourist and resident, young and old, businessman and student, dad on the school run and granny out for groceries. Outside the school gates sits a queue of cargo bikes after offspring have been delivered to class. Side streets are crammed with bicycles, propped up haphazardly on their stands wherever space can be found. There is no Strava culture here, no Lycra louts. The bicycles are sedate and elegant, as is the style of riding: folk ride sturdy, robust three-speeders, with step-through frames and large, upright handlebars, often adorned with racks, baskets and perhaps a passenger. It’s about facilitating movement, not racing into the office. Bicycles are everywhere. For once, what I do feels normal.
A large part of this is down to infrastructure. The roads are designed around easing the passage of bicycles and, surprisingly, bicycles outnumber cars. There is a wide, often segregated, clearly-signed cycle way along each road. Every set of traffic lights has a separate light for cyclists. At each junction there is a clearly-marked method of turning without having to negotiate lanes of motor traffic. ‘Build it and they will come’ – and they have, in their thousands. High quality infrastructure that works is key to enabling cycling.
But it is not the only thing. Attitude and culture are less tangible but equally important. The system of priority here favours the cyclist: any motor vehicle wishing to turn into a side road must first wait until all cyclists using the inside lane have passed. There is safety in numbers – being a frequent encounter, cyclists are seen as normal rather than a nuisance. Most motorists are also cyclists which helps. The overall effect is a much kinder, less frantic road experience. Drivers wait. No one seems to be in a rush. There is no running the lights. Car horns are rarely sounded.
So entrenched is the cycling culture in Copenhagen that it’s easy to imagine it was always like this. But Copenhagen had its car culture too. It was a steady, sustained effort of investment and political will that slowly changed things until Copenhagen became the world-leading cycling city that we see today. It’s a positive reminder that things can change. There might be hope for London yet.