Copenhagen 2009

Before I delve into the intricacies of Copenhagen’s bicycling infrastructure, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly recount how the notion of studying bicycling infrastructure and design first popped into my head. I studied architecture at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in the Spring of 2009. While there, I lived with a host family in the suburb of Gladsaxe 12 km north of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen Spring 2009

Before Copenhagen, I was a runner. On summer jogs through Central Park or along the Riverside promenade, I would habitually curse out the Lance Armstrong-wannabes whizzing past me in spandexed cohorts of ten. Their approach rang like a swarm of locusts at my back. Far worse was the hipster, whose skinny, ramshead, perfectly faded fixed-gear bicycle weaved in and out of traffic in purposeless defiance. Their skinny bikes, like their skinny, tattered jeans, epitomized the bicycle as a passing fad and, as an devout contrarian, I simply would have none of it.

Trains, not bicycles, in fact, were and have always been my primary interest as transportation goes. I love subway maps and station names, and on weekends, I am the type to get off at a random stop because I want to see how the name and place compare. (My favorite, still, is the Wonderland terminus on Boston’s blue line. The name comes from a theme park that burned down in the early 1900s.) But here, in the damp chill of Copenhagen’s come-early winter, I find myself jotting down notes on paving patterns and photographs graffiti blemished bicycle signage. How did it come to pass?

I fondly recall the spring day when I first came to realize how a proper bicycling infrastructure could change the way people use and interact with cities. My host Dad, Klaus, had just finished fixing up a bicycle for me to use, and as the frost of winter had begun to subside, I saw it fit to do a test ride into the center of town. Until then, I had been commuting on Copenhagen’s regional trains, the S-Tog. S-Tog trains come every ten minutes and in general, hit their schedules. Door to door, my morning commute lasted about 50 minutes, which, given my frenzied commuting experiences in New York and Boston, was about as refreshing as I could imagine.

Arriving at my university that morning, however, I noticed that my ride by bicycle from the suburb of Gladsaxe to the center of Copenhagen’s old town had taken me only 40 minutes. The difference, though modest, took me by surprise. My ride had been leisurely. I observed the scenery, stopped dutifully at all the red lights (a peculiar Danish habit), and gave myself copious time to get lost and meander. Still, I had cut my commute by ten minutes, and though my back felt a tad damp from the ride, the endorphins had lifted my groggy morning spirits.

In the ensuing weeks, spurred on by the wondrous efficiency of my new mode of travel, I became attached to “my bicycle.” Even on days when I took the train, I always took my bike to the train station and back. By bicycle, I explored Copenhagen to its fringes, and as my riding became second nature, so too did I begin to comprehend and mentally map Copenhagen in relation to its bicycling thoroughfares. When friends invited me to dine with them or their host families at the city’s outskirts, rather than risk getting a fine on a bus or train, I instead let myself be lured by those smooth, consistent bicycle paths which seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.

The bicycle path, in my eyes, was the essential ingredient. If there existed a path, a stellar, straight route that could safely ferry my wandering self away from traffic jams and pedestrians, there would be no reason for me not to use it. On top of being the fastest way to get around, bicycling allowed me to engage my surroundings, to become familiar with my new city and environment, and of course, to always arrive at the dinner table with a big appetite. Copenhagen has plenty of routes, but what amazed me most about this infrastructure was how minimal it seemed. The bicycle paths of Copenhagen consist mostly of a small, intermediate step, a simple change in paving and elevation between cars and pedestrians which creates an adequately demarcated space for people of all ages to feel comfortable using on a daily basis.

Post Copenhagen

On my first day home from Copenhagen, I got on my bike as naturally as ever. I had a doctor’s appointment located a little over a mile from my house, and reckoning that there was no real logic to driving such a short distance when I could bike it, I defiantly saddled up. Immediately, I felt distressed. I was pushed to shoulder of the road. Stuck between parked cars and heavy traffic, I was nearly doored three times, and finally, an old brown Buick knocked me off my bike. The accident was minor by ay standard. My bike had only a minor scratch, and in truth, the driver seemed a bit more shook up than I did. Still, I had been pushed off the road, and at a higher speed, might have been knocked unconscious.

My accident, however slight, aroused in me a conviction that some right of mine had been taken away. I was using a street that in Copenhagen would easily have supported a bicycle friendly, safe path, but here in the states, was tyrannized by the frenzy of traffic and parking cars. These not only made for an unpleasant bicycle ride, but an unpleasant streetscape in general. I could see that the street was wide enough to support an intermediate path between the parked cars and the pedestrians, and that the neighborhood’s density and environment would be ideal for routine bicycling, but that simply is not part of the visible agenda in the states. Out of my frustration grew the seed of  this research fellowship, and so I find myself with a notebook of street diagrams and bicycle maps.

As I started, I will finish. I am a runner. In Copenhagen, I use a bike because it’s the fastest, most enjoyable and carefree way to get around. In New York or Boston, like many, I bike recreationally, but don’t delude myelf into thinking that the infrastructure is comfortable or safe enough to convince me to start commuting by bicycle. With the proper connectivity, a bicycle system can be as permanent and important a piece of the transportation network as a sidewalk, street, or tramway. What it takes is a change in mindset, a shift in the way we see streets- as spaces composed of roads and sidewalks, to ones which appropriate space for a third element in the hierarchy- the bicycle path.

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