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Wanderlusting No. 4: Copenhagen Cycle Culture
Chris Turner, 8 Sep 09

Wanderlusting on The Sustainability Trail
Postcard No. 4: Copenhagen Bike Culture Shout-Out Triptych

There’s been quite a bit of Bike-O-Rama talk around here lately, and Copenhagen –- home of probably the world’s best urban cycling infrastructure and maybe its most sophisticated biking culture -– provides a fine coda to that tune.

Copenhagen has hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike lanes, separated from motorize traffic by small curbs or other barriers on major roadways. There are dedicated bike signals and designated “Green Wave” routes through the city where the traffic-light timings have been calibrated for cycling speeds. Recently bikes were given a few seconds’ head start and the stop lines for motor vehicles at some major intersections were pushed back a few metres so motorists couldn’t help but see cyclists before attempting a righthand turn. All of which has added up to 37 percent of the Copenhagen metro area’s residents (and 55 percent of the residents of downtown Copenhagen) commuting by bike –- about the highest rate you’ll find anywhere in the world.

In fact, cycling’s so seamlessly woven into the city’s fabric that it’s barely been talked about until recently. I only discovered the cycling culture of Copenhagen on my first visit in 2005 because I’d heard about the citywide network of free bikes.


© Ashley Bristowe

These somewhat ungainly single-gear machines -– the first in my triptych of Copenhagen cycling culture shout-outs -– are used almost exclusively by tourists, and after many years of dutiful service the whole program is now seen as outmoded. The city is now shopping for a more sophisticated bike-sharing system that might actually be of use to locals on their commute. Still, the homely Copenhagen free bike warrants a shout-out, because it was the pioneer that inspired bike-sharing networks from Paris’ Velib’ to Montreal’s Bixi.

On this visit, I was determined to learn more about the local way of the bike – which leads to Shout-out No. 2. No need for me to wax eloquent and insightful about biking in Copenhagen, because the stylish, charming Mikael Colville-Andersen, a local filmmaker and urban biking consultant, has been doing the job just fine at a handful of excellent blogs for a few years now.

Mikael Colville-Andersen
© Ashley Bristowe, Click to enlarge.

Check out Copenhagenize for his daily insights on urban biking or surf Copenhagen Cycle Chic to gawk at stylish cyclists on the streets of Copenhagen and beyond. Or, if your Dansk is better than mine, read up on why Mikael vehemently opposes mandatory helmet laws at (It’s pretty easy to piece it all together from the posts at Copenhagenize labelled “bike helmet.”)

Here’s the upshot of the helmet argument (paraphrasing from the stat-dense, scientific-study-backed version Mikael made for me firsthand): There is no conclusive evidence that mandatory helmet laws (or bike helmets generally) reduce the incidence of serious and fatal urban cycling accidents. Rather, there is only one proven way to make cycling safer, and that is to increase the number of cyclists on the streets -– a number which is known to decrease in response to mandatory helmet laws (which send a clear message that cycling in an urban environment is a very dangerous thing). Anecdotally, Copenhagen sees about 500,000 cyclists take to the road every day, and at a rough estimate I’d say one in ten at most bothers with a helmet, and it is statistically proven to be one of the safest cities anywhere to cycle in.

Even more anecdotally -– moving to Shout-out No. 3 –- I can tell you that I spent three days cycling helmetless in Copenhagen, this after many years of fanatical helmet use in a handful of cities across Canada. And I can tell you that cycling in Copenhagen without a helmet feels much safer than it ever did to traverse certain bike-hostile streets on my regular cycling routes in full body armour. In fact, I even let my four-year-old go without a helmet in the “pouch” of our funky three-wheeled Winther Kangaroo.


© Ashley Bristowe, Click to enlarge.

This bike and a couple of others I tried out were rented at Biasikeli, which bills itself as “the best bike rental shop for the world.” I wouldn’t dispute the claim, not only because the range of bikes is impressive, the price fair, and the service excellent, and not only because Biasikeli provides a kind of recycling service (it buys cheap used bikes from local insurance companies, bikes otherwise headed for the scrap heap because they’d been reported stolen and the claims had already been paid out), but also because the bike rental shop is basically just a fundraising front for an NGO that sends free bikes to Africa.

© Ashley Bristowe
Click to enlarge.

A last photo for this postcard: Pictured at left is Henrik Smedegaard Mortensen, the easygoing, helpful proprietor of the best bike rental shop for the world.

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope, a Canadian bestseller and multiple award nominee detailing his 2005-06 travels in search of the state of the art in sustainable living. He has recently embarked upon a new global research tour for a forthcoming book on the structure of the sustainable twenty-first century economy. He is posting “postcard” blogs from his travels here on This is the first posting in the series.

Read previous "Wanderlusting" postcards:
Wanderlusting No. 1: The Welcome Mat in Copenhagen
Wanderlusting No. 2: Livability
Wanderlusting No. 3: Lego Power

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