Lessons From Denmark’s Cycling Culture

How Deep Meaning Can Change A Society's Perception and Behavior

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Photo Credit: Next City.  Copenhagen's "cycle superhighway" is one way this city is supporting it's cycling culture.

Last Sunday, my wife and I wanted to go out and grab our favorite cup of coffee. Google maps calculated the drive to be eleven minutes, a walk would take us an hour and twenty-five minutes and a bike ride thirty minutes — so guess what we did? After reading the L.A. Times report last month that Los Angeles saw a huge surge of payouts last year to injured cyclists to the tune of $19.1 million and that L.A. is still one of the deadliest cities in the world for cyclists, we decided to drive.

I live in Los Angeles, a city of over 18.7 million residents, where the US Census Bureau reports that only 1% ride their bikes to work. Compare that to the stats of the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, where out of 5.7 million inhabitants, 47% are male cyclists and 53% are female cyclists traveling to work about 34% of the time and riding an average of 3.0 kilometers a day.

Lotte Ruby from the Danish Cyclists Federation writes an informative piece on “How Denmark Became A Cycling Nation.” In it, he describes how the bicycle, since the early 1800s, has represented freedom to the Danes, when ordinary men and women could gain freedom of movement from the cramped tenement houses of the inner city and get into the clean air of the growing suburbs.

When I was in Copenhagen last summer, I discovered that for about $4/hour I could rent a bike equipped with GPS, electronic engines, and electronic maps. The official website of Denmark reports that projects such as cycle superhighways, bike- only stoplights, lean rails for bikers to be used while waiting at stoplights, and street-based notifications to help bikers avoid stoplights and delays are all helping to support cyclists in Denmark.

City officials planning an infrastructure that supports cycling should first ask themselves, “Is biking safe and is it attractive in my city?”

For me, it boils down to creating the infrastructure to promote bike riding as a viable option for commuting as well as developing social awareness and integration as I’ve seen in Denmark. Coming from L.A., I am always amazed to see businessmen in suits and women in dresses on their bikes riding to work. I’m told that companies make it easy for cyclists by having changing areas in the workplace. In fact, the three most populated cities in Denmark have also branded large campaigns that place cyclists in a positive light on advertising billboards and on the Internet; the goal being to increase the number of cyclists and create cleaner, healthier, and livelier cities.

The Danes have associated deep meaning to their cycling culture through their beliefs and values of freedom, health, and personal energy associated with biking. These emotional states, instilled in them at a very young age, become the driver in what they feel is important to experience.

Tamika Butler, the former head of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition said that Angelinos need to see people as bike riders and not merely cyclists. She says that the more drivers who see these people as grandmas and mothers and kids trying to go to school, the less injuries and fatalities we will see on the streets. Across the pond in England, researchers Rachel Aldred and Katrina Jungnikel have found that non-cyclists who are surrounded by other cyclists may be more likely to have contemplated cycling and thus more responsive to policy interventions.

It may take some time to shift perception and change behavior in Los Angeles, a city where cars still rule the road, but change is already happening, I can see it.

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