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Copenhagen's Bike Revolution and Urban Mobility

Copenhagenization, the mainstreaming of bicycles as a mode of transit, began with a simple photograph snapped by Mikael Colville-Andersen.  When he was waiting for a traffic light one day in 2006, he was captivated by the scene of another cyclist near him, a woman a million miles away in thought.  He got out his pocket camera and took a picture and, as he did so, the scene changed to include another cyclist zooming past and two others serenely coasting by in the background.  He could not have wished for a more transformative image and, indeed, the photo went wild on the internet.  A movement was born and Mikael became a consultant and sought-after speaker for cities around the world on urban mobility.  When I interviewed him over coffee in a café, he explained urban mobility and his company, Copenhagenize; and the history of cycling as a form of transportation.

A Short History of Bicycles

When the bicycle first appeared, people walked or rode horses, and it revolutionized transport by bringing private transportation to the masses by virtue of the low purchase and operating costs.  All the way into the 1950's, bikes were popular because tram companies were still in business and provided alternative transport for bad weather days as well as for people with lengthy commutes.  After this time, bicycle ridership began a precipitous decline in numbers as enthusiasm for cars ignited some poor-choice planning in cities.  Streetcar networks were reduced or dismantled to make room for the automobile and its massive appetite for urban space, taking with it a large share of bike riders.  Today, traffic-thinning is catching hold as cities realize they can still accommodate cars but in a balanced ratio with other transit modes.


Bicycles Not Taken Seriously in American Cities

The traffic chaos in urban areas and the alarming rise in middle-class car ownership in our two biggest nations, China and India, is being met today with changes in how cities design their streets, public spaces, and transit mixes.  In the U.S., many cities are recognizing the value of bike lane networks, but are not building high-quality infrastructure.  In fact, with some exceptions in New York City - with its three mile Eighth and Ninth Avenue projects - and sporadically in other cities in isolated settings like parklands, nearly all American bike lanes are just that:  a white line painted on the street next to automobile traffic, usually between the moving cars and the parked cars, a recipe for keeping most sane people off the streets.

Recognizing the Value of Bike Transit in Cities

While the blogging and social-media spurred branding success of Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize has helped awaken a global consciousness about Bicycle Culture 2.0, which is based on sociology and anthropology, there is a lingering challenge to creating urban mobility in America.  There is still a tendency to focus on cyclist behavior instead of all traffic users' behavior.  This discourages regular citizen cyclists and keeps American cities from considering bicycles as a form of transit.  Investing in urban mobility costs about $2 million per mile per side but pays for itself in five years through health cost savings, increased business adjacent to bike infrastructure, and decreased loss of work hours due to delays and illness. Making our cities more livable means recognizing the value of urban mobility and seeing the bike as a real form of transit, not just a form of sport or recreation.

More Livable Cities through Urban Mobility

Through its low cost, ease of use, health benefits, and low profile, the simple bicycle is the 21st century's most effective tool toward making our cities more livable.  The global emergence of Bicycle Culture 2.0 is based on the success of Copenhagenize, with its namesake city being the standard bearer of high-quality bike infrastructure. Bike transit is taken seriously in Copenhagen, so much so that parents shuttle their small children around on cargo bikes, and most kids are riding their own bikes by the age of seven.  Commuting by bike permeates all socioeconomic levels, with 59% of all city dwellers who work in the city using this form of transportation to get to work.  City planners design the city at a human-scale with bike infrastructure being an integral part of the urban fabric, as much as the city's number-one rated metro system.  The visitor can appreciate the care and efficiency with which the city utilizes the bicycle as a viable transit mode with far-reaching social, economic, and health benefits.