Category Archives: Bicycles

For All the Bicycles in Denmark


Of ghost bikes and bike lanes.

I grew up on a bicycle. At least once I learned to ride. Somehow or other I didn’t manage to do that until the age of ten. But starting then, the bicycle became the ticket to freedom and independence, as well as another way to appreciate the natural world and get a lot of exercise.

For many people who grew up in suburbs similar to the one I grew up in, what I’m describing will be familiar. Looking at it from this distant vantage point, and back at the time, the reason is and was obvious. It was all about infrastructure. Walking from my suburban home to the town center took an hour or more. I only did that when there was too much snow on the roads for anything with wheels to function. Biking it took a fraction of that time. The nearest video arcade was several miles beyond the town center. Walking there and back would have been a day-long event, but by bike it was just a good little workout.

All of this will be familiar to many. And then what happened next will be, too. At the age of sixteen I got a driver’s license and inherited an ancient Volvo from my parents, which they were passing on to me both out of love and kindness but also because the car was deemed to be no longer reliable enough to use for their interminably long commute from Connecticut to Long Island, which they both had to do multiple times a week. From the time I got that driver’s license and car, I rarely rode a bike.

There are so many forces in the society I grew up in, suburban America, that pushed me and most other teenagers and adults in that direction. With a car it becomes easier to go still further than you could easily do with a bike, and so you do, for lots of very good reasons having to do with important things like getting an education and making money. And there’s the question of your dating prospects and all those other social pressures.

But fundamentally, it comes down to infrastructure. Young teenagers in the suburbs of America often become serious bicycling enthusiasts because the distances they’d need to go by walking are impossible, there’s no mass transit to speak of, and nobody wants to ask their parents for rides all the time if they can help it, for a whole variety of different reasons. Once they’re driving cars, however, the whole equation changes. Now they can really participate in the society, as it has been designed to function — by car.

And it’s not just the distances people often need to go that is the main problem here with infrastructure. It’s not just “how it is” in a sparsely-populated place like so much of the US is. The spreading out of the population, in the way it spread out, were choices made by people and urban planners, governments and corporations.

Still we are fed on a steady diet of the mantra that we are personally responsible for the climate crisis and we have to do things like eat less meat and ride bicycles more. We are told this in so many ways, from early childhood. But despite all the propaganda, in the most bicycling cities in the US, the percentage of people commuting to work by bike on a regular basis is in the low single digits. Contrast that with cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where it’s the majority who is getting around by bicycle or mass transit.

Is it something peculiar to the Danish or Dutch psyche that makes their entire societies as bicycle-obsessed as your average suburban American teenager? Or is there something else at work here? Obviously, it’s once again about infrastructure, laws, what’s easy, what’s possible. Denmark and the Netherlands being flat countries of course is hugely influential in this, let’s not minimize that. But there are many other flat parts of the world that do not have a dominant bicycle culture going on, such as most of the American midwest. In Denmark, on the other hand, it’s prohibitively expensive to own a car or fill its tank with gas, while bike lanes are everywhere, and they’re all full of people of all ages riding in them.

You’re also not risking your life by taking a bike ride. Here in Portland I see new ghost bikes cropping up everywhere — white-painted bicycles that friends of those killed while riding a bicycle often put up in their memory, and to serve as a statement. The statement can be many things to many people — it can focus on the individual responsibility of the drivers not to text and drive, not to drink and drive, etc., and/or it can put the spotlight on the need for better, safer infrastructure, like real bike lanes, tunnels, and bridges.

Meanwhile there are cities in Scandinavia that have achieved zero annual traffic fatalities of any kind. They have done this not by relying on humans not to make human errors, but by creating infrastructure that makes a fatal accident very difficult to have. In Copenhagen, for a driver to hit a bicyclist, they generally first have to drive through a line of parked cars that separate the car lane from the bicycle lane. It is not a matter of crossing an imaginary line represented by some faded paint job they’re calling a bike lane, such as at least 99% of the so-called bike lanes in the United States, in my conservative estimate.

The UK, incidentally, is just as bad for bicycling as the US, with no real attention having been paid to this form of transit in the development of the infrastructure of the country. So the idea of Extinction Rebellion activists being slandered by the mayor of London and most of the British media for tying up not only car traffic but mass transit as well, on the basis that if they really cared about the environment they wouldn’t cause problems for commuters on the Underground, is a lot like someone saying because 2+2=4 and using the Underground saves petrol, using the Underground is the solution to the climate crisis. It’s very elementary school logic that falls apart immediately upon inspection, but it is totally mainstream logic, from Saddiq Khan to the BBC, and it is pernicious.

London and other British cities are ecological disasters with industrial-era infrastructure that is crying out for radical transformation of the sort that only massive government re-prioritization of values and massive infrastructure investments can hope to deal with — as is very much the case in the cities of the US and many other countries. Only after spending so much time in Denmark did I come to realize to what a tremendous extent it is all about infrastructure, and the priorities of a democratically-run society. Danish democracy has been controlled by active bicycle-riders for a long time, with bicycle infrastructure spending being a significant part of the national budget every year since around the time I was born, and what has been achieved is obvious.

Telling people to ride their bikes more often in places like London, Glasgow, New York City or Chicago is like inviting people to die early deaths from either getting hit by a car or breathing the air made so foul by the dominance of the private car for the functioning of these societies as they are. Telling people to ride their bikes more often in Denmark, well, it’s not necessary. It would seem like a very strange thing to do. How else are you going to get around?

To the stooges of the real estate speculators pretending to be viable political leaders who like to preach about mass transit and social inclusion while they reign over societies where rampant speculation on the real estate market means people are forced to live in further and further suburbs with less and less infrastructure and more and more dependency on the private automobile for their increasingly difficult prospects for survival, we must say no, this stops now, the solution is not your band-aids – it is a total transformation of the physical infrastructure of the society, and serious, effective government regulation of the housing market.

With all respect to those many good friends of mine who are actively striving to make Denmark an even better, more ecological and more inclusive society, it is already an entirely different reality from what we know in places like the UK or the US — including in the supposedly progressive hot spots like Brighton or Seattle or wherever. In fundamental ways, it bears no resemblance.

In Denmark, the question is almost never “shall we ride or drive?” It’s almost always the former. Yes, there are fewer bus routes than there used to be, and this is not the right direction to be going in, but the point is, it’s still nothing like anywhere you’ve probably been, unless you’ve spent time in the Netherlands. These are the societies you get when you create the infrastructure for it. If you don’t create that infrastructure, you don’t get that society. We can do it, too — but first we have to stop deluding ourselves that the way forward involves anything other than society-wide collective action, of the sort that brought Denmark its bike lanes.

Public Space and the Bicycle: Copenhagenizing Cities

Indian cities are in crisis. Spend any length of time in a large city there and you will notice the overcrowding, the power and water shortages and, during monsoon, the streets that transform into stinking, litter-strewn rivers. At times, these cities can be almost unbearable to live in. Little wonder then that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is taking hold among policy makers, however flawed the notion might seem to be.

And, not least, of course, there is the horrendous traffic chaos and congestion, the choking pollution and the increasing number of massive concrete flyovers: monstrosities that have taken their place among numerous other planning disasters that blight so many Indian cities.

A couple of years back, Delhi introduced an ‘odd-even’ traffic policy whereby vehicles with certain registration numbers were allowed on the road only on designated days to try to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution. But this failed to solve the underlying problem that stems from a model of ‘development’ that associates a (wholly unnecessary) push for urbanisation and car ownership with progress.

Despite the problems, the greater the urban sprawl and the more road building that takes place, the happier are the real estate, construction and car manufacturing sectors. That’s not idle speculation: the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World describes how the car and oil industry criminally conspired to undermine public transport systems in US cities to get the population and urban planners hooked on the car.

As long as urban planners prioritise the car and wrong-headed notions of ‘development’ governed by powerful players continue, Indian cities will not only sprawl ever outwards and be defined by traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, but residents will experience an ever-worsening decline in their quality of life and increasing dependency on motorized transport.

Indian planners might wish to take note of a recent New York Times article which highlighted that Los Angeles has decided against adding lanes to a freeway. Although Andre Gorz noted this back in 1973, policy makers are waking up to the fact that building extra lanes merely means more cars, more pollution and journey times increasing. As soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity (known as induced traffic demand).

This induced demand imposes costs on us all in terms of degraded public space and serious health risks (recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children).

Just as some countries are now realising the folly of widening and building ever more roads and jamming cities with cars, Indian planners carry on regardless by blighting the urban landscape with ever more huge concrete flyovers and expressways snaking across cities and dividing and destroying communities.

Smart thinking

A day before Delhi implemented the second phase of its ‘odd-even’ vehicle policy, the city announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion by enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers and underpasses.

One would have thought that smart cities call for smart thinking. Not so in Delhi.

If there is one city that seems to be on the right track, it is Copenhagen. The city believes that cycling should be the foundation for sustainable transport strategies and is key to making cities clean, green and liveable. Copenhagen’s urban transport solution gives space to cars but more importantly to bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Back in the early 1970s, Copenhagen was just as traffic-clogged as anywhere. Now it has around 400 km of cycle paths. The city’s 2017 Annual Bicycle Report confirms that cycling is the preferred mode of transport for the city’s inhabitants. Each day, some 62% of Copenhageners use their bikes to go to work or school/college.

Copenhagen has in recent years been voted the ‘best city for cyclists’ and the ‘world’s most liveable city’. Throughout the world, there is now a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. As a result, Copenhagen’s renowned cycle-friendly policies are serving as a template for some of the world’s most congested cities.

Aside from health and environmental considerations, an effective urban transport policy should be democratic. Unlike cars, even the poorest segments of society can gain access to a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed democratic, not just for those who cycle but also for the rest of the population who are too often impacted by planning blight, pollution and the colonisation of urban space as a result of planning that privileges car users ahead of everyone else.

However, the bicycle is only truly democratic when spatial segregation is limited and bike lanes and appropriate cycle-friendly infrastructure exist to properly connect all areas. Inspired by Copenhagen, Mexico City’s bicycle strategy is attempting to address this issue through a comprehensive cycle path network, which aims to create mobility through areas that have been closed off due to previous planning strategies.

The arrogance of space

For cities to fully embrace the bicycle, city planners must stop thinking like motorists or capitulating to powerful lobby groups and plan for the needs of cyclists. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen-Albertslund route is the first of a planned network that will comprise 26 Cycle Super Highways, covering a total of 300 km. The network is predicted to reduce public expenditure by €40.3 million annually thanks to improved health.

Consider that in Europe 50% of most city land is dedicated to streets and roads, parking, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs. And yet the average European car is parked for 92% of the time. Of the other 8% of time, 1.5% is spent looking for a parking space, 1% in congestion and just 5% is spent driving. There are 30,000 deaths per year on European roads and four times as many disabling injuries. Consider too that an average European car has five seats but carries 1.5 persons per journey.

In Copenhagen, city planners tend to give an adequate proportion of road space to cyclists: proper cycle lanes with curbs that separate cycling space from car space; cycle lanes that are usually also sufficiently wide. After all, why should cars hog so much road space when the majority of road users are cyclists?

In the article ‘The Arrogance of Space’, it says:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with its distribution of space.

For too long the arrogance of car-obsessed urban planners has degraded our health and our quality of life. But when you have good-quality public transport and the opportunity to cycle thanks to appropriate infrastructure, there is no need to hand over excess space to cars and produce endless concrete sprawl for car parks.

Walk (or cycle) around Copenhagen and you will immediately appreciate there is much less traffic noise and pollution compared with other cities. It is indeed a spatially friendly and a compact city – and a less “arrogant city”. It is also less hectic and more tranquil than many other cities and – taking things even further – arguably more community-oriented.

The slow life

Of course, community-oriented living isn’t just due to transport strategies, although Andre Gorz said that to love your place or space, it must first of all be made liveable, not trafficable. He went on to state that the neighbourhood or community should be shaped by and for all human activities, “where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common.”

In Copenhagen, the municipality encourages outdoor living by offering open-access communal table tennis tables, basketball facilities, well thought out kids’ parks, landscaped parkland and lakes. Even during cold weather, Copenhageners congregate on the streets and in the parks to socialise and embrace the concept of ‘hygge’, probably best defined as: a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to recognise and enjoy the present. Get to know the city and you will soon realise that hygge isn’t just a cliché.

The key word in that definition is ‘slowness’ because from there we arrive at the concept of ‘slow living’.

Writing in 1973, activist and writer Ivan Illich stated:

The use of the bicycle… allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance… In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule [the car] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed, epitomised by car worship. Cars, speed and high-energy living have become essential facts of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed ‘slow living’ – in terms of intimacy, friendship and neighbourliness – for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

Where would be the need for the car when work, school or healthcare facilities are close by? Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through.

Instead, how about an enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment defined by community and intimacy? An environment free from traffic pollution or noise and where ‘neighbourhood’ has not been deadened and stripped of its neighbourliness, local stores and facilities.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with modern cities are not just due to cars or transport systems. Urban planning and the colonisation of space mirrors capitalism and the needs of powerful corporations.

By focusing on capitalism and how culture reflects the division of labour, Andre Gorz said:

It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

Although it would be naïve and misguided to think that the bicycle (and cultural change) could transform the social relations of capitalism, it is at least emblematic of a different form of urban planning and smart thinking.