Copenhagen: Bicycle Haven

Copenhagen: Bicycle Haven

All my life I have enjoyed the freedom and adventure of riding around on a bicycle. I never knew how lucky I was to grow up where I did—a place where I could ride safely without concern and my parents would never bat a lash when I left home early in the morning to start my day. I rode to elementary school, junior high school, and high school most mornings throughout my childhood. I grew up in Chico, California, a small community where cycling was an inherent part of the city’s culture. My brother and I were in first and second grade, respectively, when my parents rode with us through Bidwell Park to our first day of school. We saw many other kids, parents, dogs, cyclists, and scooters on their way to begin the day as well. Bidwell Park is a 30 mile long park consisting of two parts, Upper and Lower Park. Upper Park begins in the Sierra Nevada foothills and slowly descends down into Lower Park—a lush linear green belt. The common connection and circuit between the two parks is Little Chico Creek, which meanders through Lower Park and features bike paths along the banks and many swimming holes, with the occasional foot bridge to traverse the park’s edges. 

Map of Chico, California highlighting Bidwell Park. Credit: CSU Library

Bidwell Park granted safe passage from bordering residential neighborhoods into the various school districts, shopping areas, and downtown corridors. I had always had plenty of space to move about, converse with friends, and even stop at the occasional swimming hole to cool off in the summer. This proved difficult to replicate when I moved to various cities in the country, namely, San Francisco and New York City. Mainly, I was not used to sharing a lane with cars. Yet, starry-eyed bike buds from these cities would always come back from Copenhagen and leave raving reviews about bike infrastructure and trails. I had to see Copenhagen for myself.

Cyclists on the main road in Lower Bidwell Park. Chico, California. Credit: Anthony Dunn (Flickr)

Before I stepped foot on the plane I wanted to temper my expectations. Was it overhyped? Am I getting too excited for something that I already had back home? I loved the idea of European cyclists: stylish, graceful, poised, not smiling, and safe. This community resonated with me not because of the sheer coolness, but by how the infrastructure served its citizens. By comparison, New York City cycling requires psyching yourself up. Will I be yelled at for riding? Will I be honked at for veering out of my lane to avoid a parked car? Will I be doored? Most days cycling in New York City is very social. I nod “hi” to the delivery folks at busy intersections. I compliment a person for their nice bike and sometimes drivers even commend me for being “brave” only because I ride in Brooklyn. 

In New York City, I always leave the house with my helmet, a reflective hi-vis triangle, and a ton of courage. In Copenhagen conversely, I observed the majority of cyclists without helmets and I am not sure I can accurately call them ‘cyclists’. In the United States, cycling is counter to transportation norms. We vehemently refer to ourselves as cyclists because we spend each day fighting for what is rightfully ours—the ability to share the road with cars. Cycling in Copenhagen is as natural as walking or taking the subway would be in New York City. The normality and coolness was there and feels as though it always has been. 

Cyclist turning off Frederiksberg allé. Frederiksberg, Copenhagen.

Aiyana (my partner) and I had unfortunately landed during the first week of rain in a while, a fact every local kept reminding us of. We had to endure three or four days of observing the cyclists from a warm cafe. Danes are very friendly but they are incredibly fast and agile cyclists. We really wanted to make sure we looked like locals so it’s best to keep up, blend in, and know your directions beforehand. Since we were in a new city we had to constantly be looking at our phones to make sure we were headed to our destination. Danes kept cool and seemed unaffected by us tourists on bikes starting and going upon their daily routes. They whooshed by without a clamor.

Aiyana pointing directions in a dedicated bicycle turn lane. Vesterbro, Copenhagen.

We researched several places to find a local bike rental and we decided on a place a couple blocks from our Airbnb in Vesterbro. The shop is called “Recycles”. They built up vintage steel frames and give them a second (or third) life. We liked this concept and figured we would support their efforts in sustainability. To our surprise the shop clerk was American. We talked with him about cycling and half way through the conversation we realized we had a mutual cycling buddy—small world. He set us up with bikes that were great rickety old tanks. Swept back bars, upright ergonomics, and a strong coaster brake. The clerk gave us the keys to our wheel locks which are a flimsy piece of steel that locks your rim to the frame. This was our only form of security as we leaned our rides against the wall of our apartment building overnight. Unlike in New York City, the bicycle were safely there come morning.

“Recycles” Bicycle Shop. Vesterbro, Copenhagen.
Our bikes (right). Vesterbro, Copenhagen.

The bicycle paths were integrated into the city streets and planned in such a way that they connect canals, parks, and bridges. Priority felt given to cyclists by nature as I didn’t hear one honk—even as I slowed to check my phone for directions. The cars didn’t have to honk as we were completely separated.  Bike lanes were protected not only by parked cars but by other design considerations like paths being elevated, edges expressed in cobble stone, proper signage, and mass. More importantly there were citizens of all walks of life from Copenhagen on bikes, sometimes even accessorized with pet transportation equipment. We saw all types of bikes: cruisers, road bikes, dutch bikes, cargo bikes, child transporting bikes, delivery bikes (non-motorized), even a unicycle or two. The quantity of folks was even extravagant. 

Public bicycle storage at Copenhagen Central Train Station. Vesterbro, Copenhagen.
Apartment bicycle storage just off of the sidewalk. Fredriksberg, Copenhagen.
Rush hour bicycle traffic over Dronning Louises Bridge. Nørrebro, Copenhagen.

Bicycle infrastructure is celebrated in Copenhagen, as both past and future representations of Danish ingenuity. The Dutch Baroque Style “Rundetaarn”, built in 1642, was a round tower observatory that was known for its 7.5 helical turn equestrian staircase. The helix walkway ascended with a barrel vault occasionally offering a view of the city through double arch windows complete with a perching bench. The thickness of the walls made these viewpoints highly desirable. I couldn’t help but think that if bicycles were around in the early 17th century this would have been one hell of a ride.  Similar to the Rundetaarn, the Danish Pavilion for Expo 2010 by BIG, finds inspiration from the helix as a delicate sloping ramp for wheeled riders. 

Rundetaarn, equestrian staircase and barrel vault. Indry By, Copenhagen.

Hiding in a tiny arch at Rundetaarn. Indry By, Copenhagen.

View from atop Rundetaarn. Indry By, Copenhagen
Danish Pavilion by BIG – 2010. Expo, Shanghai. Credit: Iwan Baan, Hanne Hvattun

Bikes were a big sensory layer to Copenhagen, hearing the bells, whirring of the chain friction on chainrings, and catching a view into a casual conversation between two cyclists as they whizz by. Even though we got to ride one day it reminded me of the relaxed nature of riding in Chico. Bidwell Park’s ancient trees towered over the path just as the 16th century city hovered and flanked the city streets of Copenhagen. The parked cars and pedestrians suspended in time as we jumbled through the cobblestones. The best part was that everyone was in on it. I imagined the folks on the sidewalks walking back to their bike after work or coffee with a friend. The last day we finally got some blue sky that we hadn’t seen for a week and we rode home to grab our suitcases to fly back to the city where our journey began. New York City has many years to go to be on par with Copenhagen but improving the city, advocating for more bike infrastructure, and learning from the successes of city’s such as Copenhagen, and even Chico, we can ride into the future confidently and with coolness.

Riding home through Nørrebro, Copenhagen.