If the long-running television show The Simpsons is a measure of mainstream pop culture, then the prevalence of cycling in Copenhagen has been added to the list.
Among European cities, it’s not just Copenhagen but Amsterdam too that are especially well-known for cycling as a popular way to get around. (And of course, so many other European cities have substantial cycling mode shares, but Copenhagen and Amsterdam are the two most commonly cited cities, so we’ll focus on them here.) In 2017, 41 percent of all commute trips were on bike in Copenhagen; in 2015, 32 percent of Amsterdam residents commuted by bike. To compare, the cycling mode share in Portland, OR — considered the cycling capital of the U.S. – was 7 percent in 2015.
But why is cycling so popular there? Are the Danes and the Dutch just a bunch of hippies and socialists? Did they not outgrow the childish habit of biking? Do they not value their freedom to drive and park anywhere in their cars?
On the contrary, the main reasons why they choose cycling may resonate with many Americans.
Biking is easy.
The City of Copenhagen’s 2017 cycling survey found that 53 percent choose cycling because it’s the fastest way to get around and 50 percent because it’s easy. The belief that cycling should be an enjoyable experience is built into the transportation planning: Amsterdam’s 2007-2010 long-range plan set out a goal that by 2010, 37 percent of residents would prefer biking — which they achieved by 2008.
Biking is convenient.
Nearly every street has a bike lane or is otherwise accommodating for cycling. And given their densities, locations are much closer together. In Amsterdam’s 2016 mobility and accessibility report, it found that services in central, north, and south Amsterdam (defined in the report as doctors, childcare, restaurants, and grocery stores) were within 3 kilometers. That’s just under 2 miles — about a 10- to 15-minute bike ride.
Biking is versatile.
Bike parking is abundant in both cities, whether it’s at a giant bicycle parking garage or simply by the curb. Bikes can also adapt to different needs. Is your destination on a pedestrian-only street? Plenty of places to park your bike nearby. Want to travel further away or feeling tired? Just bring that bike onto public transit!
Amsterdam and Copenhagen are bike utopias because they built them. But it wasn’t easy.
Believe it or not, neither city has always looked this way. Let’s look at Amsterdam. In the 1950s and 1960s, it too jumped on the automobile bandwagon: allocating more street space and parking for cars. The turning point came during the Stop de Kindermoord protests in the 1970s. Directly translated to “Stop the Child Murder,” these protests called attention to the increasing number of traffic fatalities, especially among children. These fatalities peaked at 3,300 deaths in 1971, including over 400 children.
American cities faced a similar backlash with the introduction of the automobile in the 1920s but this is where the Americans and the Dutch diverge. In the U.S., local car companies aggressively opposed local rules to limit car speeds to 25 miles per hour, while automobile industry groups fostered a culture of shame around pedestrians with the pejorative term “jaywalker.”
On the other hand, the Dutch reached out to local elected officials to bring their attention to the increasing traffic fatalities. Overlapping with multiple factors – such as the Middle East oil crisis of 1973 and subsequent increase in gas prices – this marked a shift in how Dutch decision-makers designed their roads, prioritizing bikes and pedestrians over cars. (You can read more details about the Stop de Kindermoord movement here).
It’s a cumulative effect that has given us the Amsterdam as we know it today. Given the ease and convenience of cycling, it’s very likely that many Dutch residents who drive also regularly cycle — and can better understand the cyclist’s perspective. In addition, children are required to take a cycling test by age 12, instilling the habit early on.
In Copenhagen, children start learning to bike between the ages of three and six. In addition, the city continues to improve their bike lane network. Recently, the city connected a gap in the network by building a bike bridge (charmingly translates to The Bicycle Snake) and has timed traffic signals that allow cyclists biking at 14 mph to hit all the green lights, known as the Green Wave.
What does this mean for American cities? As some cities increase their cycling infrastructure, some residents feel that their city could never be Copenhagen or Amsterdam, or they don’t feel safe riding their bikes beyond parks and beaches. The fact is, Amsterdam didn’t always look like the Amsterdam as we know it now. When the Stop de Kindermoord activists reached out to local elected officials, they listened. This outreach ultimately led to more cycle-friendly planning and safer streets overall in Amsterdam and many Dutch cities.
It’s not say that the Dutch shun driving; they find joy in it too but there is a much more significant overlap between those who drive and those who bike. But the reasons why so many the Dutch and Danes prefer cycling are many of the reasons why Americans prefer driving: it’s seen as the easiest and most convenient way to get around. Driving is easy and convenient because American roads are designed for driving to be the easiest and most convenient. But other modes are also capable of being easy and convenient. We’ve seen examples of this shift in the popularity of the Biketown bikeshare system in Portland, OR and most recently in the emergence of dockless electric scooters.
It’s a matter of what decision-makers in American cities want to prioritize. Until people realize that driving doesn’t have to be the default, others will continue to maintain the status quo of cars and dismiss the notion that we could benefit from having other options.
Photo of a woman biking in Copenhagen with kids by Mikael Colville-Andersen.