Bicycling in Copenhagen

It’s s dream many of us share.  Using our bikes all day, every day, all year around.  Getting from this place to that place on protected bike lanes.  Riding among a sea of riders in a place where bikes are given priority on the road.

Copenhagen, as you know, is that place.   Here’s what we learned from Thanksgiving week riding in Copenhagen.

1.  It’s not about the bike

There are not many “nice” bikes in CPH.   As a bike nerd/fetishist, I spent the first day scanning hundreds of thousands of bikes, looking for special ones.

Yes, hundreds of thousands!

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The biggest cultural divide between me and most Danes is that they don’t give much thought to what they ride.  They ride more often, more places, mostly as their exclusive mode of transportation.  But they don’t have fancy bikes, most don’t use panniers or bright lights, and they don’t wear special or reflective clothes.   Americans riders — most of whom ride less often and fewer days — have special bikes and special gear for this thing and that.  Not most Danes.

Their bikes rattle, clang, and squeak.  Many Copenhagen bicycles are “rustne kæde types,” rusty chains.  Cranks hit chain guards on every revolution.  Groceries bounce around in makeshift boxes and baskets.   Most ride upright, but not all.  There are new and old English style bikes, Dutch bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes with flat bars.  There are cargo trikes (like the Christiania and, my favorite, the Bullitt) and delivery bikes.

Have you ever seen a food show in which an Italian grandmother cooks a feast for 20 on a two-burner electric range using a fork as her main implement?  It makes you feel a bit silly, turning out mediocre food on a prosumer, high-BTU stove with a special piece of gear for every kitchen operation.

Many of us want to emulate bicycle culture in Copenhagen, but I wonder whether our acquisitive nature is the first thing standing in our way.  Do you fancy your next bike, something more esoteric, more pro, more custom, more purpose built than the one you already have? If so,  I suspect you will feel that way all over again once your next bike becomes your current one.

[If you follow Bike Law on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, you already know that we brought a Bullitt home with us.  Much more on that later, but what did I just say about our acquisitive nature?  I am so happy that I did!]

To be fair to us, nice bikes in Copenhagen are not locked outside.  So I just didn’t see them.  Bike theft is a real problem, and most I spoke to complained about it.  Except for the bike shops.

2.  It’s all about the infrastructure

This was my third trip to Copenhagen.  I’ve seen it before, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the bicycle infrastructure.  Our cities are so far behind that we are not in the race.  There are protected, stand-alone, two-rider wide bike lanes in almost every direction going almost everywhere.  Words cannot describe it.  (But unprintable words can describe my first ride back in Charleston!)

And people use them!  Here are the numbers for the bike lane on a busy street, the primary connection between the Norrebro (the center of bike culture in CPH) and the city center.  That is the number of riders so far that day and so far this year.

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This was early in the day.  About 200,000 bikes pass over this bridge every day, year around.

3.  They follow THE RULES

Put aside any notion of mellow cycling.  Every ride is a group ride with thousands of strangers.  There is tension.  There are pairs of kids on their way to school, two or three abreast, gossiping about whatever kids gossip about.  Riders yammering away on cell phones in one hand and bags of groceries in the other.  Bike culture kids filtering through the mass.  Roadies on the left, going pretty fast, sometimes too fast.  And every now and again, a tourist on a rental bike all over the place. Mostly regular folks in regular clothes riding much much faster than you’d think possible on a rusty bike.

It’s intense.  Certainly intense enough and fast enough to challenge many recreational riders here.

But it works.  Yes, there are audible complaints about other riders (mostly directed at the roadies on the left).  Yes, there are some dodgy moments.  Yes, folks bitch about the phone yappers.  And yes, there are the bells.   They use their bells like cab drivers in Calcutta.

It works for two reasons: 1) the infrastructure (see above), 2) they follow the rules.  They ride in the bike lane and not in traffic, they ride in the direction of traffic, they stop at lights, they pass on the left.  And, as you may know, to take a left, they stay in their lane on the right, cross the intersection, turn 180 degrees to be on the right of the new lane (at a red light, they bunch in front of stopped cars, as in a bike box).

4.  Conclusion and Quiz

All I say is that I would rather spend the day riding in Copenhagen than anywhere else in the world.  Go anywhere, do everything by bike, ride fast, and be surrounded by my tribe.  Even though 1) most of them don’t identify themselves as cyclists or a member of anything and 2) even if they did, they wouldn’t see anything special about it.

First person to identify where this picture is taken gets a Bike Law cap.  Most specific answer below wins.

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