Just another day in (cycling) paradise...
Firstly, I’m not an expert on urbanism, cycling infrastructure or the history of Northern European cycling. If you want to read an expert opinion I’d try here, here and here; but if you are interested in a ‘Mum’s Eye View’ of cycling in the cycle paradise known as Copenhagen read on...
Everyone needs to know the rules
I’d had a ‘discussion’ with my husband about Danish cycling etiquette and how this compared to the way I cycle in the UK before we left home. What my husband failed to convey was that in Copenhagen different forms of transport have their own rules, and their own space in which to abide by them.
There is, quite literally, 'space for cycling'. Bikes don't behave like cars in Copenhagen because, for the most part, they are kept separate in their own infrastructure. The cycle lanes don't just keep the road users apart physically, they provide them with a whole set of road rules.
Obviously, this system only works if everyone knows the rules and keeps to them. We saw some infringements but, basically, most of the road users understood how their infrastructure worked for them and used it appropriately. As a cyclist you do 'pull over' to cross across the traffic and into a side street, but it works because the infrastructure is guiding you (and the 30 or so cyclists with you that are doing the same thing) and it makes sense.
The roads are busy, it's not a car-free utopia where everything is human-powered, and if you don't conform to the local conditions you'll put yourself in danger. The bike lanes inside a row of parked cars require car passengers to be alert when they open their doors, while bus stops adjacent to the bike lanes need bus users to be aware of the fairly continuous stream of pedalled traffic. I experienced an issue with unaware Italian tourists who spilled into the bike lane – they screamed, I screamed, but we all survived.
It's not just the bike lanes
What was striking was that everything supports cycling, from the low bus and train steps so you can get into them without straining something, to extensive, covered and secure bike parks. I even saw bins along the bike lanes that were angled so that cyclists could use them on the move. In my husband's home town, an hour out of Copenhagen, there are on-street bike pumps built into advertising boards and the bus company is trialling bike trailers attached to buses.
As a parent, I noticed that all these interventions are supporting you to cycle with your child. Cargo or Christiania bikes are ubiquitous in Denmark and clearly are the replacement for the 'family car' for many households. The purchasing of child bike seats could keep the Danish economy afloat for some time if required; I saw more baby seats in one day in Copenhagen than I've seen in my entire life of cycling in the UK. There is little more lovely to me than the sight of a sober businessman in a suit with an unruly toddler on the back of his bike...
Once I'd got over the complications of cycling on the right (wrong) side of the road, the infrastructure and using a rear mounted child seat (I definitely prefer having my son in front of me; he found cycling in Copenhagen rather less fascinating than I did so spent some time trying to pull the back of my cardigan over his head), I felt amazingly 'free'. Free of the worry that we'd be mown down by a truck and free to explore a city that feels like it's designed to be discovered by bike. Being surrounded by cyclists was almost intoxicating; like the thrill of being at Critical Mass but without the stress of irate taxi drivers shouting at you.
Cycling as the norm
My sister-in-law and her husband told me that cycle culture in Copenhagen was increasingly a status symbol, people with the financial means had different bikes to match their outfits.. A non Copenhagen sister-in-law pointed out that there were no self-identified 'cyclists' in Denmark as everyone rode a bike. The annual road safety adverts gently remind everyone to watch out for children ‘new to traffic’.
Cycle culture surrounds you. It's quite hard to spot cycle shops because there are so many bikes parked up everywhere. Over 3 days I saw every type of person and a bike to match – a heavily pregnant woman as a passenger on a 'flatbed' cargo bike, men in suits with baby seats, women in elegant dresses (one on a cargo bike with two toddlers – I couldn't look as good as her even if I'd spent all day being professionally groomed with no toddler present), women in inelegant dresses, women in Islamic dress, men in construction boilersuits, male and female sports cyclists in lycra and helmets, people from different minority ethnic backgrounds, 'larger' cyclists, hippies and hipsters...
Finally, pretty much everyone in Copenhagen looks healthy and gorgeous. Maybe they are born like it, but maybe it's the cycling.