Cycling. Of all the quotes that are out there (see link), there is one that sticks to mind when taking the bike out for a spin: The best ideas come from sitting on the bike, pedaling into the unknown, for hours on end. Bicycling has become a habit to many in Germany who are searching for an alternative to travelling and commuting. Of 90% of households that own a bike, 31% of people would prefer the bike over the car, because biking is much sexier than travelling by car- at least that’s what 22% of the population think of that. No wonder why because 72% of the population bike at least seven hours a week, the number of bike trails have increased by 25% since 2000! 😀 Germany is catching onto the Copenhagenization craze, but why?
Since coming to Germany in 1999, there has been a shift in attitude in terms of what form of transportation to use for travelling. Of course Germans love their cars (and treat them like they treat their books- as sacred as the Bible). But too many cars on the road means less time to spend on vacation for much of that is spent in traffic jams. Therefore we are starting to see more and more people hit the pedal and hit the trails- not for the purpose of commuting (like the author does), but also for travelling on vacation- to see the sites, visit places almost inaccessible by car or train, enjoy good company over a radler with some friends (not to mention have a picnick along the way), and lastly, clear the mind of all the stress and problems for at least one day.
The number of (kilometers of) bike trails have increased by 50% since 2000, with the majority of the trails running along a body of water or through the cities. This includes trails running along rivers, like the Elbe, Rhine, Main, Saale and Weser, but also those along the North and Baltic Coast lines. We also have some that connect historic villages and castles as well as dense networks of trails going through big cities. The trend is increasing as the German Bike Association ADFC has mapped out an Agenda 2020 Plan, which is designed to accomodate bikers with better trail networks, services and other ammendities. And with the increase in bike traffic comes the increase in bike shops and bike brands you can only see in Germany. The trend is clearly going towards keeping the car in the garage and using the bike as the main source of transportation.
There are many reasons for taking the bike anywhere these days. For many, it is for the purpose of independence. For others, it’s the norm. For me as an expat, minus the commute, it is for exploring new places and taking in something new each day, whether it is biking across a bridge, through the mountains and villages, or even to a castle for a tour. Sometimes seeing something new everyday is a way of expanding your horizons and having a better understanding of the place you’re living in. And while many Americans at home don’t understand the concept yet, when taking a week in Europe, going by bike to many places, like I have with my companion Galloping Gertie (a black Diamant bike made in Germany), they will eventually change their minds and do what we’ve done in the last 15 years- put the helmet on and start pedaling.
Here’s a pop quiz for you to consider before you read the column further: What is Copenhagenization and who thought of the idea to begin with?
When I first heard of the term Copenhagenization, it was during the time I was teaching the city planners English at the university and the crew at CNN and its host, Richard Quest filmed a documentary about this subject as part of the series on Future Cities (Link: http://business.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/07/tackling-copenhagens-traffic-with-bicycles/ ). Basically Copenhagenization, which originates from the Danish capital, is the process of encouraging people to use their bikes on a regular basis instead of the cars, by constructing bike trails in areas needed the most and in many cases, such as wandering through Copenhagen on a sunny day, making bikes available for people to use. As one can see while wandering through the city, one will see the most basic characteristics of Copenhagen and the much dense bike trail network: bike racks full of bikes in the city center and the railway station filling up a Wal-mart SuperCenter store, six to eight lanes of traffic; two of which are designated for bikes only and 1-2 for pedestrians only, traffic signals for bikes only, and a recent development which Mr. Quest pointed out in his documentary and I can only confirm from my own personal experience, bike jams!
Unlike cars, which clog the streets with fumes from the engine and lots of noise (a major problem in the 1950s which led to the Copenhagen city council to convert the city center into a car-free bike and pedestrian zone and push cars back to the outskirts) bike jams imply that there are too many bikes on the trail, making it impossible to pass anybody in front of you who is going slower than your speed. While the jam was not bad during my time in Copenhagen, it can be potentially worse during rush hour traffic; especially when people commute to places outside the city as well as its Swedish neighbor across the sea, Malmø.
But while biking through the city, I can see with the few cars that are on the streets, the close quarters many of the residents live in, and the lanes that are designated for bikes only, bike jams are only a part of daily life that most people have to deal with. It is as if people biking to work is the way of life in the city, and from my own point of view, there are many advantages to biking around a city like Copenhagen than by travelling with the car. You can meet new people along the way, reach your destination in the city with little or no complications, and if you’re like me and have a hobby like bridgehunting, you can visit and enjoy the places that clearly belong to your hobby (Please refer to the sister column’s article on Copenhagen’s bridges for more details).
For me though, while Copenhagenization also has a hidden meaning, which is reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and make the capital a carbon-neutral city by 2025, it does provide people with a chance to get acquainted with the city and its surroundings while at the same time, be awed and amused at the type of bikes that are being used on the city’s designated routes. I rented a city bike for the day and toured the city before heading to the shores of the Baltic Sea in the vicinity of the Øresundbro-Bridge, going through many villages, like Ørestad, Tårnby and Dragør, and even going through a large section of birch tree forest, which represented a scene from a fairy tale with a white deer roaming through. More on the harmony between nature and city-life will be in a later article. On the way to the foggy shores of the Baltic, I encountered many fancy types of bikes that residents use for getting from A to B and realized that when there is a will to go places (with or without cargo), then there is the bike. Apart from the 2-3 man tandem bike, there is the bike taxi, where the biker transports people sitting in the back seats from one place to another. As far as children are concerned, while parents would place their kids on a seat behind them on the back carrier or on the horizontal frame in front of them, there are 3-wheel bikes where the compartment is at the very front of the bike-supported by two wheels. One can use the compartment for transporting goods if he does not have a child to transport around. Others use bike trailers that are attached to the back of the bike to carry their goods around. And then there are the homeless who use their bike to carry their belongings around and camp out somewhere where no one sees them. No matter where you go, there are bikes everywhere. When taking a break on the bench, you will see an average of 40 bikes passing by in the span of only two minutes! Compared to US or even German standards, that is a lot; especially since Americans are more automobile oriented and Germans are more dependent on public transport. Admittedly though, the trend is changing as more trails are being constructed in both countries (more so in the former) so that more people are encouraged to use the two-wheelers for getting to work and back. It is no wonder why in Copenhagen, two wheels rule the streets!
In case there are some people who think differently about biking and prefer taking the car, one should list the reasons why the car is more convenient than the bike and then look and even ask the residents in Copenhagen (and even the Danes, in general) why they choose the bike instead of the car. When looking at how Copenhagenization is influencing the way city planners both in Europe and America are making the streets more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians and seeing how each town- big and small- are introducing the bike trails in their communities, there are three underlying motives for encouraging biking: cost reduction, improving one’s health and the environment, and most of all, convenience. While it may be a pain in the popo for those who were accustomed to using the car, in the end when looking at how the Danes treat biking as if it is a way of life and thinking of the long-term benefits, biking is well worth the efforts that are being encouraged by the communities and those who favor them. Speaking from the experience of a cyclist who has been biking in Europe for over 12 years and has seen the expansion of the bike trails over the years, I can say that Copenhagen deserves to be recognized for not only its efforts to encourage people to bike and make it convenient for them to get to their destinations without using the car, but also influencing others to consider making their streets and other areas of the communities biker-friendly. The more bikes that are on the streets and trails, the more people will leave their cars in the garage and take their two-wheelers to the streets and enjoy a beautiful day, like I did going by bike through Copenhagen.