The city of Copenhagen wants 50 percent of its commuters bicycling to work or school by 2015. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to urban motility expert and Copenhagenize Consulting CEO Mikael Colville-Andersen about how the city is faring and what other cities can learn about making room for bicycles.
GELLERMAN: Now to Copenhagen, Denmark—one of the bike capitals of the world—to update a story we did back in 2009. Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky rode around the Danish capital with Marie Kastrup, project manager for the city’s bicycle secretariat.
BOLINSKY: There are 217 miles of bike tracks in Copenhagen, plus 25 miles of tree-lined cycle routes that crisscross in the city center. They’re reserved only for bikes and pedestrians and there are plans for even more.
KASTRUP: In Copenhagen investing in cycling is not just for the bicycles, it’s to make a better city. And in the city center we just have too much congestion if we want to have cars for everyone so the bicycle is a very space economic mode of transport.
BOLINSKY: And people in Copenhagen who choose pedal power are an enthusiastic bunch.
MALE: It’s economical. It's best for our little economy, so we just use the bike.
OLDER WOMAN: It’s easier to get around. Also, it costs a lot of money to take the bus. Then it’s for free and easy.
WOMAN: It’s freedom. You can get anywhere you want in a very short amount of time. And you get exercise, and you get fresh air, and all the good environmental stuff as well.
BOLINSKY: In Copenhagen’s harbor is a statue of the city’s icon – it’s Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. But now, the city’s bicycle project manager, Marie Kastrup, says Copenhagen has a new symbol.
KASTRUP: The bicycle girl is this cultural icon in Denmark, it sort of represents this healthy, authentic, happy, active woman, which is a symbol of Denmark. It’s the freedom you can have on a bicycle, and also sort of a healthy, democratic feeling that everyone is free to go on the bicycle and do whatever they want.
BOLINSKY: And what Copenhagen wants is to have half its residents commuting by bicycle in five years.
GELLERMAN: That was Living on Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky. Three years ago when we aired that story – 37 percent of Copenhagen commuters regularly rode bikes. The goal was to up that to 50 percent by 2014. To see how the Danes are doing we’re checking in with Mikael Colville-Andersen. He’s CEO of Copenhagenize Consulting, which promotes bicycling. He’s also known as Denmark’s bicycle ambassador. Ambassador Mikael, welcome to Living on Earth.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Thanks very much.
GELLERMAN: So, what does the term Copenhagenize mean?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Well, it seems to mean the kinds of ways that other cities can be inspired by what Copenhagen has done to promote the bicyclist as transport. What we’ve done here has been exported to many cities in the world, so Copenhagenizing is really a way of describing what is possible for other cities based on the Copenhagen experience.
GELLERMAN: Back in 2009 when our reporter was in Copenhagen, 37 percent of the city’s residents would be commuting by bicycle. The goal then was to have 50 percent of the city commuting by 2015, and where are you now?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Unfortunately, we’re at 35 percent now, so it’s going in the wrong direction! There seems to be a little bit of lack of political will to take it to the next level here.
GELLERMAN: Well, hold it! Why is it going down and how does politics play into that?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: The level that we’re at now, or have been for many years, has been rather stable, and we have completed in many ways, the infrastructure for bicycles in this cities, including the bicycle lanes or bicycle tracks if you like. The next step really is taking even more space away from cars. We just don’t have any municipal politicians at the moment who are sort of willing to take that next big step.
The other thing, unfortunately, that has happened here is that the Road Safety Council started promoting bicycle helmets for the first time…three years ago and since then the same thing has happened here that has happened everywhere in the world: the number of cyclists is falling. We’re heading in the wrong direction. We should be promoting cycling positively and reclaiming the streets as it were and making them more human streets, more livable streets.
GELLERMAN: Well, hold it! You’re saying that the requirement that people wear helmets has led to a decrease in bicyclists?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Yeah, there’s no requirement. There’s very few places in the world where there’s mandatory helmet laws, but the simple promotion of them - suggesting that people wear them - we’ve seen this in every region of the world where helmets have been promoted, that cycling levels fall.
And, the countries that have legislated them - Australia and New Zealand back in the 80’s and 90’s, they had a fall of cyclists of 30 to 40 percent. And they’re struggling to get back to pre-law levels. It really is a sort of bullet-in-the-back-of-the-head to any bicycle culture.
GELLERMAN: Boy, that’s not what we learn here!
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: (Laughs). No, I know! But we do have a different tradition, really in Europe, of promoting cycling instead of promoting helmets. Even the high levels of the European Union government, you know, they’ve published studies saying: do not promote helmets because it makes cycling look more dangerous than it is. And all of the studies that show that cycling levels fall when you promote helmets is working in the wrong direction. So, we want more people on bicycles.
GELLERMAN: Boy, I’m going to safely predict something, and that is that we are going to get a lot of angry listeners responding to this.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: It’s a whole different tradition that you have over there. And it’s really a question of marketing. Every city in the United States had a lot of bicycles on the urban landscape for decades and decades. What happened really was the advent of car culture, when folks started to focus on the automobile first instead of the other forms of transport, and the bicycle really was sort of pushed off the streets.
GELLERMAN: I can come up with an alternative hypothesis.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Uh huh?
GELLERMAN: In 2009, you had 37 percent of your population biking regularly, and now you have 35 - when I was there in Copenhagen, one of the things you had was bicycle traffic jams! And the other thing you lacked were bicycle racks! There would be bicycles stacked on top of each other! Could that be one of the reasons that people are turning away from bikes, perhaps?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: These are issues, but I don’t think that’s a reason that you’d lose 2 percent. The places I go in the hours of a day, I don’t have a problem parking my bike - if you leave it outside of one of the train stations, sure. You see the chaos of parking outside of some of the train stations, sure - but I don’t think lack of parking would knock off two percent.
Traffic jams, there are some streets which are heavily congested on bicycles, but we’re improving that here in the city of Copenhagen, we’re putting in greenways for cyclists on five main arteries now, so, if you ride your bicycle 20km per hour, you’ll hit green lights all the to the city center. This actually has increased cycling on many routes. So, we’re tackling the issues of bicycle congestion and parking and bicycle rush hour, but it’s still not going in the right direction…
GELLERMAN: I know that Copenhagen had two goals to make cyclists feel safer in traffic and reduce the number of seriously injured cyclists by half, so….
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Even the city of Copenhagen’s bicycle office will say the same thing: that this is about infrastructure - if you want to reduce injuries and death, you have to make it safer for cyclists with better facilities for cyclists - you know, taming what we call the sacred bull in society's China shop - you know, the automobile - making it safer for bicycles and pedestrians and people taking public transport.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, I’ve been to Copenhagen. What you’ve got are a lot of clunkers - heavy-duty bikes… very utility designed.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: It’s not just Copenhagen, it’s all the main cities in Europe- it’s practical bikes for regular citizens. Citizen cyclists is what I call them to sort of separate them from the avid cyclists if you like. And all of the emerging bicycle cities we’re seeing now: Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Seville, there were no bicycles in these cities five years ago. And now, they’re all doing amazing things to get people to ride bicycles, and the bikes that people are riding there are just regular bikes for regular people.
GELLERMAN: So, Mikael, I take it you don’t wear spandex-lycra shorts or a bike jersey?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: No, only in my dark bedroom at night.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: No, I don’t at all! I wear a suit if I’m going to a meeting on a bike - you can see that everyday here. We don’t dress for our journey; we dress for our destination. We don’t wear bus clothes when we take a bus, and we don’t wear car clothes when we take a car, it’s the same on a bike. You’re just a fast moving pedestrian. You look the same as the people walking on the sidewalks.
GELLERMAN: A lot of cities - Boston is where I am - we have these, you know, rental bikes that you can rent by the half hour or so. They’re very popular!
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Yeah! I think there’s about 450 cities around the world with these bike share programs now, and it realty transforms the urban landscape - it’s really a great way to kick-start mainstream bicycle culture in a city. It’s a simple urban planning question, you know? If you think bicycle first, and you make it quick and simple and easy for people to go on a bicycle, then people will do it. That’s why we ride here - when we ask the citizens of Copenhagen every year what their main reason for riding a bike is - the majority, every single time, they say it’s quick and easy. Period. It’s simply the quickest way for me to get around.
GELLERMAN: So, your goal is still 50 percent of the citizenry riding cycles, and if so, by when?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Well, now it’s 2025, last I heard from City Hall. So that was actually changed since you were here, because 50 percent is really unattainable at the moment with the current climate. We need politicians who will really just do something to take it to the next level.
GELLERMAN: So, Mikael, instead of being Copenhagen’s bicycle Ambassador as an honorary title, why don’t you run for public office?
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: (Laughs). Bogged down in meetings and really bad coffee? No way!
GELLERMAN: I’ll bet you they have exclusive bike racks!
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: Oh, god, they do! That building, it was from 1905, and they have the most beautiful bike racks on the planet! Indoors, mahogany paneling, it's gorgeous really, but that wouldn’t be enough for me to want to run for office.
GELLERMAN: Well Mikael, thank you so much.
COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: No problem, thank you.
GELLERMAN: That’s Mikael Colville-Andersen – Denmark’s Bicycle Ambassador.
Actually, according to Denmark’s Council for Safe Traffic, one cyclist in three in Copenhagen wears a helmet.
GELLERMAN: So, do you wear a bike helmet? Well, fortunately, the Living on Earth studios are right next to a bike path and most of us commute to work by bike… and, everyone wears a helmet. It’s on this bike path that we did a little bit of an informal survey and spoke to people about whether they wore helmets:
WOMAN: It’s a lot safer! I got hit by a car the other day and it was really helpful! My head hit the pavement, at least my face did, and I think the helmet stopped worse injuries.
MAN1: I wear a helmet every time I ride a bike because, well, my friend got into an accident, and he wasn't wearing a helmet and now he has severe brain damage.
MAN2: Most of the time I don't wear a helmet - I guess the reason is, I mostly ride in conditions where I feel pretty safe.
GELLERMAN: Not exactly a representative sample, but according to the latest figures, half of Americans who ride bikes wear helmets most of the time. And Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah is here with me now, and Ike, I know you wear a bike helmet all of the time, right?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Yeah, my mom made me and I have since then.
GELLERMAN: So, she’s not checking on you know, but…
SRISKANDARAJAH: …It’s on my head.
GELLERMAN: So we asked you to investigate and people should wear bike helmets?
SRISKANDARAJAH: And it makes sense! I mean, if you think about a head-on collision, you want a piece of plastic in between your soft skull and the hard road, but it’s actually a lot more complicated than that and this gets very polarized very quickly. Actually, people call it helmet-wars.
GELLERMAN: So, bike helmets - are they all they’re cracked up to be? A special report by Ike on his bike, next week on Living on Earth.
SRISKANDARAJAH: See you then, Bruce!
GELLERMAN: Now, back to Cambridge Massachusetts where a crowd gathers at the finish line to see who came in first, in the three-mile, Rush Hour Race - bicycle commuter, car driver, or public transit rider:
ANNOUNCER: And for the moment you’ve all been waiting for...with a time of 20 minutes…starting in Davis Square and ending in Kendall Square...at Genzyme Center we have our winner: Josh the bicyclist…
GELLERMAN: It wasn’t even close - the subway rider finished in second place, in 29 minutes and the car driver pulled in last, taking 32 minutes.
[MUSIC: John Cale “Bicycle” from Hobosapiens (Or Music)]
GELLERMAN: Be sure to check out our website for a new feature we call: Living on Earth Now - daily updates, new stories and features. You’ll like the one about witches and climate change. That’s LOE dot ORG. Coming up – Bubble - bubble - toil and trouble - what's brewing at LOE is sour and heady stuff -- stay tuned to Living on Earth!
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