How Denmark became a cycling nation

| January 18, 2016
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In the 1930s bicycles took up quite a lot of space on the street scene. Here, it’s City Hall Square. Photo: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

In the 1960s, cars were threatening to displace bicycles in the main Danish cities. But the oil crisis, the environmental movement and a couple of controversial road projects reversed the trend. This is however just part of the story of why Danes still cycle so much.

By Lotte Ruby, Danish Cyclists Federation

Is it possible to cycle in your city? Is it safe? Is it even attractive? If you can answer yes to all three questions, then the cycling culture in your city has good expectations for growth. But often the answers are in the negative, and then the next question is: How did this come about?

The answer lies in a city’s historical development because surprisingly many of the major cities that today are packed with cars actually have a past as cities of bicycles. A journey back into Denmark’s history shows how and why Copenhagen and other Danish cities have managed to maintain a flourishing bicycle culture. The bicycle was invented in the latter half of the 1800s. The first bicycles were quite primitive and somewhat awkward to ride. Nonetheless they soon became the big fashion craze – especially among young men in high society. Bicycles were first used for sport and recreation, but in the late 1800s some more practical types of bicycles gradually came onto the market, and the general public, who otherwise had poor access to transport, quickly adopted them.

Freedom for all

With the bicycle, ordinary men and women suddenly gained much more freedom of movement. The bicycle was their ticket out of the inner city’s cramped tenement houses and into the clean air of the rapidly growing suburbs. In a Danish context, the bicycle has from that time been inextricably linked with freedom.

Photographs of urban scenes from the 1930s clearly show how Danish cities became cities of bicycles in the first half of the 1900s. People from all social layers biked. Today, cycling postmen and home helps are for example still a permanent part of street life.

The bicycles’ first heyday lasted for half a century until around 1960 when the increasing standard of living slowly but surely made car ownership possible for more and more families. That development was welcomed because cars and single-family houses were vigorous symbols that the depression of the 1930s and the darkness of World War II had lifted, and that a brighter future lay ahead.

Decades of headwind

But what is a brighter future? The multitude of cars brought not only prosperity but also pollution, congestion and traffic accidents. It can be an eye opener to see photographs from Copenhagen in the 1960s. Many of the areas now treasured by the city’s inhabitants and tourists alike are car-free areas, but in the 1960s they were characterized by dense traffic and car parks. Nyhavn, Strøget, and Langelinie are just some examples.

Until the 1960s, Copenhagen’s history unfolded in parallel with developments in many other western metropolises. But then a number of things happened which made Copenhagen and several other major Danish cities depart from the beaten track.

During the 1960s it became increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to the many traffic accidents and the growing pollution problem. Copenhagen was no longer the city of bicycles that most Danes knew and loved, and it upset a lot of people.

For more than half a century, bicycles had steered their way into the core of Danish self-perception through the visual arts, poetry and music. The cheerful spinning of the wheels and the image of a blonde-haired girl cycling through the town – what was the city without this? At the same time the budding environmental movement and the oil crisis greatly helped to shake the dust off the cycling culture, which in the 1970s again began to appear in a positive light.

The Danish model

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Protests were led by the Danish Cyclists’ Federation and had great support. Photo: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

From the 1970s to the 1980s, several conflicts arose between bicycle and car interests in Danish cities. One example was the wave of popular protests which followed in the wake of a proposal from the Copenhagen authorities to establish a motorway across the lakes which separate the inner city of olden times from the more recent suburban districts. There was an enormous outcry because, then as now, the lakes were some of the city’s loveliest open spaces.

Gradually it became clear to most people that the solution to the problems had to be city planning that gave space to cars, bicycles, pedestrians and public transport. Out of this realization grew the Danish model with its extended network of cycle lanes along the roads, which continues to be further developed.

In the last 10 years, new challenges have emerged. In Denmark, as in other countries, there is a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. At the same time, rapid urban development means that we must constantly develop and renew our vision of what should characterize a modern metropolis. In Copenhagen and several other Danish cities, it has led to an intensified effort to maintain and strengthen the cycling culture.

The bicycle is an additional choice

Cycling – especially in a wealthy country like Denmark – is for most an active additional choice which can easily change. So the only way forward is to make it safe, easy and attractive to cycle, and that does not happen solely by changing the infrastructure.

In Denmark there is a strong tradition for people from all strata of society to cycle. Most Danes associate the bicycle with positive values such as freedom and health, and in recent years cycling has actually become a symbol of personal energy. The bicycle has become ultramodern again, aided by societal development, successful political initiatives and conscious marketing.

The three largest Danish cities – Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense – have all carried out large branding   campaigns that put cyclists in a positive light on advertising billboards, on the internet and by actively including cyclists in new bicycle projects. The result is an increasing number of cyclists and cleaner, healthier and more liveable cities.

Today, the vision of a pleasant city is different to that of the 1960s. We all want to make space for progress and development. But progress and development in the modern metropolis depends on whether we manage to make it a place where people want to live.

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