Bicycle riding, serious business in Copenhagen

“Ring, ring…ring, ring…. RING, RING RING!”

The bicycle bell was struck with increasing urgency. I turned to look at the oncoming rush of bicycles… what the fuck! My legs lept instinctively  back to avoid a near certain deah by bicycle.

It was morning rush hour traffic (I presume) and I forgot about biycles in the capital of biking, with 215 miles (about 346 km of bicycle paths).

Biking on the streets is a strongly promoted concept in the current global climate. It is environmentally clean, efficient and a good way to exercise. In many cities, it is also the faster way to go – you don’t have to wait for the vehicle (unlike public transport), you don’t have to take long detours (unlike road based vehicles) and you don’t struggle as much with finding parking.

For many reasons though biking as a mode of transport has not really caught on in many cities (not yet at least) – weather, distance between locations, road safety, cultural norms, practicalities etc. But one place that it has not just caught on but thrived at is Copenhagen – just look at the number of bicycles parked at one of the 8 bicycle parks outside the main metro station.

Bicycles changed the world when they were first introduced in Europe in the 19th century. It increased the distance and speed at which people could travel and over 1 billion bicycles have been manufactured to date. So common that we have come to treat it as normal.

The efficient bicycle was however not flashy and required labour. Once wheels were invented, the market started to cry out for more speed and even less effort – what if we could automated cycling – that heralded the first automobiles barely a decade later.

Automobiles became goods of mass consumption in between the two world wars. Factories that once produced cars for a luxury clientele (anything that is not mass produced is a luxury item) were converted into munitions and war vehicle factories, their staff numbers and efficiency had increased in companies like Ford, GM and BMW hd to produce war machinery. After the war the people in these jobs reverted to their original expertise, civilian vehicles. As more vehicles rolled off the production line, the price dropped.

As automobiles became more commonplace, bicycles started to go out of style. In fact by the 1960s, they were so tagged with the use in Mao’s China that no one took the concept of bicycles in developed cities that seriously. These bicycles were a sign of backwardness and no one wanted to be identified with a backward city.

Then in the 2000s, things started to change. The push for environmental and health consciousness had begun. Academic papers on the environment, transport, health and city planning collectively inspired policy and cultural changes – it became cool to bike to work. A young fresh-faced British politician called David Cameron won plaudits for biking to work. After a series of damp-rag leaders the British Conservative Party seemed to have been rejuvenated. Other politicians began biking to work too. Big companies made changes to the office ergonomics to enable staff to be able to freshen up after biking to work. A new world seemed to have dawned.

But not in Copenhagen, the city had long ago embraced biking. In place of language to encourage bike riding was debate to improve biking conditions by  constructing more bicycle paths within the city and legislating greater securities for safety. Rush hour traffic referred more to bicycled than it did cars.

That’s because its change happened earlier. The transport of choice for Danes was the bicycle in the 1930s, but like the rest of the world it top was caught up in the automobile boom after the Great Depression and end of the World Wars. Beginning in the 1950s cars had overtaken the bicycle in Denmark. Automobile ownership was celebrated as a marker of economic and social progress.

Then the 1970s hit. Oil production in the western world had peaked, most of these countries were going through a boom and had maximised their local oil production increasing their reliance on foreign imports. These imports came from the oil rich OPEC countries. This meant that oil became a diplomatic tool (prepare for some Inception level confusion). The US had reached its peal production capacity by 1971 and the consequences were beginning to be felt. In 1973 the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its  Arab neighbours (tracing its roots back to the 7 day war) took place and the US came down on the side of the Israelis. To make a show of support for Palestine, the oil producing Arab nations announced an oil embargo on the US. According to experts the embargo never really amounted to anything – but it allowed the American politicians to blame someone and the Middle Eastern politicians to score political points at home. This was the first shock.

The second shock happened after the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah.

The new government’s oil policy was erratic and to cope the other oil producing nations increased oil supplies. However if there is anything markets hate the most, it is uncertainty so the price of oil increased.

This volatility was felt as far as Copenhagen. Cycling looked like a more stable option. As cars became more ubiquitous however more roads had to be carved out for them, proposals involved cutting paths across cherished public goods like parks. For a people with a cultural past that focuses on nature this was a travesty.

All this resumed in shifting the national consensus to one about options. It was decided that the cities in Denmark had to be developed to accommodate all forms of transport. Rules were tightened and safety increased.

New advantages arose as time went by, biking is healthybiking is environmentally friendly, biking is a way of maintaining a high quality life. By the 2000s, Copenhagen had become the bike city of the world.

The choice to bike became a way of life and to the rest of us looking in, a marvel. Amazing designs were developed, included the Christiania with a barrel in front for goods and children.

The practicalities of biking are undeniable, I’m just impressed at people still biking in winter and snow.

Pay attention when walking around Copenhagen, you might not get killed by a car but you could get injured by a bicycle.


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