South America learns from Danish cycle experts

| January 12, 2016
Bikeable City Seminar August 2015

The group got to experience Aarhus’ cycle solution first hand guided by Pablo Celis from the municipality’s bicycle program.

In August 2015, a group of stakeholders from six South-American cities participated in the Cycling Embassy of Denmark’s Bikeable City Seminar. Claudio Olivares Medina from the organisation, Bicivilizate, shares his experiences from the seminar. 

By Claudio Olivares Medina, Bicivilizate.

This post was originally published in Spanish at

Getting knowledge from the Danish experience to design our own solutions

In Latin America, we often look at the cycling culture of Europe, or rather, the way in which the countries of northern Europe have integrated the bicycle into their daily lives. We are dazzled with the solutions that seem a beautiful dream, and at the same time, it seems impossible to realize similar solutions in our own cities.

Streets full of city life, with human-scale public spaces, places to simply stay, share, watch and get around easily. Thousands of citizens of all ages, social status, women, children, men, seniors, pets … all of them on bicycles. We are seeing the result of years of work, political decisions, design processes, learning, and citizen participation. We see a perfect reality in our eyes, and we forget that they had in the past what they have today, and that they are dreaming about the future too. New challenges and improvements to enhance the urban experience. Cities are dynamic.

Between August 24-28, the Cycling Embassy of Denmark in alliance with Bicivilízate and Despacio, organized the first version of the Bikeable City Seminar. The goal was to bring together key stakeholders from cities in Latin America to learn firsthand about the Danish experience and the integration of bicycles in their culture. But above all, the aim was to understand the processes that over the past 50 years have led to the vibrant, active and liveable cities that they have these days.

The participants from Pasto and Bogotá (Colombia), Toluca and Guadalajara (Mexico), Santa Fe (Argentina) and Santiago (Chile) were the first group of 12 people, with representatives from government, private sector, and civil society organizations that could meet and learn firsthand from their Danish colleagues in the cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus.

What we saw
The seminar took place mainly at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen. The Cycling Embassy of Denmark, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation, and the Municipality of Copenhagen presented their objectives, experiences and future challenges. Several field visits allowed us to learn about and experience the results gained.

One of the highlights was meeting the work experience and vision of Gehl Architects, the studio of famous urban planner Jan Gehl. Here we learned about “Streets for People” and its holistic approach to urban planning. We also spent a day in Aarhus, the second largest city of the country, where we talked about the challenges and projects to promote the use of bicycles. Pablo Celis, who was born in Chile but has spent most of his life in Europe, leads the Aarhus Cycle City program.

Everything needs a spark and requires a process
It is important to take the first step to start working towards more liveable and virtuous cities. All good things about Copenhagen for cycling, walking, and urban life are the results of social movements and constant political pressure. During the 1970s a “logic of the automobile” was starting to generate the harm that we all know. Highways, parking lots, streets for speed…, but the public reacted to protect urban life and public space.

The bicycle is integrated into daily life and Danish culture
In Denmark, cycling is not an activity exclusive for some and there is not a particular culture around it (or sub-culture). It’s just the easiest, most practical and convenient way to have city access, hence it is simply completely ordinary and logical to use. The integration of the bicycle with public transport is a key feature to extend their possibilities far beyond while transit get support from bicycle use. It is symbiotic.

Human relations, public space and cycling along the life cycle
Paying attention throughout the life cycle of individuals is a key feature on Danish vision. For example, children are partakers of urban life very early. From a very early age, they can enjoy independence in public space to mobilize and have access to school, for example. At an early age they begin to establish social ties, to develop collaboration, communication and interaction in public scenarios. For them, the bicycle is also a tool through which they develop physical and social skills in addition to helping establish a positive emotional link with the bicycle. The seeds are planted early.

Latin American cities have the challenge to expand the use of bicycles among the population since today it is mainly used by young men in recreational settings. How can we increase women’s, children’s, and seniors’ use of this means of transportation? These are some of the questions we must begin to answer.

Bikeable CIty Seminar, August 2015

The group also met with Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects whose theories about creating livable cities have been and still are very influential.

Planning for people
Road design should be based on the needs of people, thinking first of the pedestrian, then, cycling and public transport, leaving in last place the use of private motor vehicles. To move forward in achieving this transformation citizens’ participation is essential, from the beginning of any process. They are the most relevant actors, without people there is no design.

Getting to work at the local context
Bicivilízate and Despacio held a workshop structured in three stages during the seminar. The workshops aimed to help participants recognize an improvement possibility in each of their cities, find allies, establish a solution hypothesis, and design a pilot project to test and observe its performance (and then, of course, improve it).

We were able understand that directly “importing” Danish products may not be the solution. The Danish solutions are the result of learning and participation processes plus important aspects of their own reality. However, the objectives are very similar: How to give all citizens easier access to the city? How to reduce traffic “accidents” and their terrible consequences? How to achieve a more attractive and better quality of city life? How to achieve more equitable cities? The Danes did not wait for ideal conditions to make the changes nor suffocated with strict regulations. They applied common sense, collaboration, and got down to work. They made decisions, they started small with pilot projects that respond to the basic needs and that eventually were improved and enhanced applying the lessons obtained. They observed and continue to observe.

These dynamics can also be realized in our cities in Latin America. Instead of looking at problems, we must begin to devise solutions, and establish indicators that allow us to know and verify whether we are achieving the objectives we have defined. We must take the first step to generate our own experience and establish our own results. They may be different or similar to the Danes. What is relevant is that results will be our own, and someday, we will be telling others how we get them, inspiring other regions or even better, among our very cities.

Testimonials from participants
Which was the best part of the Seminar?
The site visits were essential to know specific infrastructure solutions and understand the processes that allowed its realization.
• The Danish case study was the center of the seminar and to see how to take it contextualized to our cities was the goal. The pilot project to implement solutions in our cities is the gift of the seminar.
• Being able to meet personally and professionally responsible for policy planning, monitoring, safety and promoting cycling at the city level.
What are the three key elements of the seminar you take home?
• It is important to have a vision of the city. The sense of community is essential. Everything has its process. It is better to start small rather than expecting perfection from the start. The important thing is to deliver solutions and improve over time based on experience. It is a dynamic process.
• Changes take time, we must be patient and persistent at the same time. The best way to get support and gain allies is to have indicators.
• The cycling infrastructure is only one component of an entire system composed of multiple elements, but should be attractive and pleasant.
• It is not just about infrastructure to attract people to use the bicycle. You need to understand and respect the logic of the city, at human scale.
• The changes won’t happen overnight. It is a long-term process, and it should be started NOW.
• Planning to maximize benefits. Work in multidisciplinary teams. Measuring, checking, and reporting are essential.
• It is crucial to involve citizens. You can’t work with your back to them; be with them. In this regard, it should be incorporated into the various sectors of society, citizens, government, and private sector.

It was a wonderful experience that we hope to do again in the medium term. This seminar leaves us full of optimism about the energy and motivation existing in our region to achieve liveable, equitable cities with a better urban experience. Now we need to keep working to change the logic of our still car-centric cities.

We want to thank the entire team that made this seminar possible, especially Lotte Bech, Anne Eriksson, Andrés Valderrama, and Iván Salinas.

Read more

Read more about the Cycling Embassy of Denmark’s Bikeable City Masterclass.

Photographs of this post: Juan Manuel Prado, Rolando Torres, Juan Manuel Robledo, Carlosfelipe Pardo and Claudio Olivares Medina.

Category: Events with the Participation of the Cycling Embassy

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