Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 31, 2013

Yikes! So many bikes!

As we drove from Denmark’s international airport to our apartment in Copenhagen in what should have been the evening rush hour, husband Art, daughter Mariya, daughter-in-law Lacey and I were struck by how light the traffic was. The streets of our home town of Manhattan, Kan. are busier at that time of day, despite the population being only 10 percent or less of Denmark’s capital. Later that evening, we picked up Nadja, our 2005 German exchange student, and her boyfriend Tim. They also mentioned how quiet the city was.

The next day, as we were walking downtown, we began to realize why this was so. I was expecting to have to dodge cars, but in this city of more than half a million people and an urban population of over one million, bicycles are as plentiful as automobiles.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have made extensive allowances for bicycle use, but they are nothing compared to what the Danes have done. In fact, “allowance” is probably the key word. In most so-called “bicycle-friendly” places, a bike lane here and a few parking places there are what pass for making life easier for a bicyclist.

But in Copenhagen, every street has a lane on each side exclusively for bicyclists. Every intersection with a stop light for cars also has signals to control the flow of bicycles. Steps leading up to or down from bridges are outfitted with narrow metal “troughs” bolted onto the bricks that allow bikers to guide their bicycles up and down without jolting with every step.

Not just accommodating bicycle use, but emphasizing it is paired with a decision to discourage the use of automobiles. One way to do that is to make parking expensive. The city is divided into zones. Our apartment was in the blue zone - the least expensive for parking. The work-day rate was 22 Danish Kroner - almost $4 - per hour.

The incredible number of bikes took some getting used to. For the first few minutes of our walking excursion to the city center, the whish of bikes passing nearby made my head spin. I vowed to look carefully before stepping off the curb to make sure I wasn’t in the path of an oncoming bike - or dozens of bikes!

Men in business suits, women in dresses and heels, young people in casual wear, school-age children and even youngsters of barely 4 or 5 were out in droves. Marie, the woman we rented the apartment from, lives about 40 minutes to the southeast and commutes on her bicycle.

Bikes are outfitted in various ways for utilitarian use. Wicker and wire baskets attached to the front carry briefcases, plastic bags full of merchandise, flowers, jackets, vegetables and fruits. One man was even carting his dog around in a wooden box affixed to the front. Everywhere, you see riders talking or texting on their cell phones, carrying umbrellas in driving rain, and hauling backpacks or guitars on their backs, while calmly pedaling along.

Tricycle versions are also common. Covered carriers hold small children. Larger ones accommodate tourists, who sit in a partially enclosed area in the front while the “guide” pedals at the rear rickshaw fashion. The Danish postal service delivers mail in Copenhagen by custom-built bicycles; street vendors sell coffee, soup and pancakes from bicycles installed with gas stoves; and Copenhagen police patrol the streets on bikes.

Downtown, hundreds of bikes were parked along the buildings and in designated parking spots. Owners apparently weren’t worried about their conveyances being stolen as I rarely saw one that was locked or chained to anything.

After spending a few days in Copenhagen, I did some Internet research about cycling in the city. Copenhageners have used bicycles to get here and there since the 1880s. The city’s first bicycle path was established in 1892, and other early routes were established in 1910, when existing bridle tracks were converted into cycle-ways. In the 1920s and 1930s, the popularity of bikes increased even further. During World War II, gas was strictly rationed, making cycling the dominant form of transportation. Also during the 1940s, the first recreational bicycle routes were developed through green spaces in the city. Starting in the 1950s, Copenhagen experienced a decline in bicycle use because of the availability and affordability of motor vehicles. But the 1970s energy crisis and the growing environmental movement once again caused a resurgence of cycling.

“Copenhagenization” is now a recognized term to describe efforts in other places to replicate what this city has done. But having grown up in the wide open spaces of Kansas, I’m not sure I could ever give up the automobile in favor of a bicycle. Still, the slower pace of life seemingly fostered by replacing the automobile with the bicycle is appealing. It is pleasant to walk the streets of a major city and not be constantly bathed in fumes. It’s nice to feel that as a person on foot, you aren’t just an obstacle in the land of the automobile.

We traveled to Copenhagen as a respite from the usual, much as most vacationers seek out new places to experience things that are different from what they have at home. Yet it is often hard to resist a tendency to immediately judge those differences as better or worse. But much like Copenhagen’s decreased emphasis on automobiles in favor of bicycles, often those differences are neither better nor worse. Each has something in its favor and something against it. They are, well, just different.

Left: In front of the Royal Library, one automobile and hundreds of bicycles wait for their owners to return. Art is at left and Lacey and Mariya are at the right; middle: the small lights direct bicycle traffic; right: a man with his dog in a wooden box wait for the traffic lights to change.

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