The Happiest People in the World
From Metropolis Mag:
“Copenhagen is one of the world’s great pedestrian cities. Although it’s blessed with certain inherited characteristics — such as a narrow medieval street grid — the city has worked steadily to improve the quality of its street life. In the 40 years since Copenhagen’s main street was turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare, city planners have taken numerous small steps to transform the city from a car-oriented place to a people-friendly one. “In Copenhagen, we have pioneered a method of systematically studying and recording people in the city,” says Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and coauthor of Public Spaces–Public Life, a study on what makes the city’s urban spaces work. “After twenty years of research, we’ve been able to prove that these steps have created four times more public life.””
The bicycle is a year round transport option in Copenhagen, as the winter here is somewhat moderate for Scandinavia, although there can be bitter cold periods. The relationship of Danish peoples with the bicycle began many years ago and a culture has developed and matured over the last few decades to become something entirely different from the American view toward cycling.
This Youtube vid gives a sense of the magnitude of bicycle traffic during rush hour in Copenhagen.
The bike is not viewed as a toy, a sport, or recreation. Nor do people who ride necessarily define themselves as cyclists. It is just simply something you do to go from one point to another. Consequently bicycles are largely of the practical variety, equipped with baskets and racks, and many are manufactured within the region. Cargo bikes and other pedaling configurations are often employed for shopping, errands, and hauling around young kids.
All of this is going on in a cosmopolitan city. Copenhageners have somewhat of a reputation for “cycle chic” in that the activity of bicycle commuting does not require a foregoing of urban style and fashions. Lycra “sport” clothing is not seen as being necessary or practical for this lifestyle. It’s not unusual to see people in long overcoats and dress coats, women in fur hats or high heels, or a man in a suit, on their way to and from work, and bicycle-commuting workers and students in general are not dressed much differently than any other city-goers. I’m good with cycle chic. Whatever turns your pedals.
This works because it was massaged into the culture in ways that developed a full range of benefits in the fabric of urban life and is accepted now as “normal”. The 1970s oil shock inspired Denmark to develop a more energy efficient way of life and to be less car dependant. Is it sustainable? I would say for a while yes, ultimately no. Denmark has been a leader in renewable energy technology and energy conservation. But they have been a net exporter of North Sea oil for years, and are still fossil fuel and car dependant. However, considering they’ve done considerably more than other European countries, and way more than the U.S., I give them an “A” for effort goddammit. Good for them I say. Cycle chic.
Those of you who know my standard deal know that I believe the bicycle will return as a key part of our transportation scheme in the U.S., as new energy and economic realities will impose profound changes and require radical measures for adaptation. This does not mean that I think we can duplicate something like Copenhagen. Where Copenhagen’s scheme evolved over generations (cultivating the awareness, knowledge, expectations, values) and more toward idyllic benefits, we will not get that luxury, nor do we deserve it. Our conversion will happen in the context of a raw and bitter disengagement from the lifestyle of a different world. Presently in the American fat people world, it might be the guy who lost his drivers license with a DUI conviction that rides his bike to work, maybe. Or the Mexican laborer. Or the bicycle geek. American students largely do not use bikes now. Bicycle commuting here is seen as dangerous, too difficult, and it makes the butt hurt. Going somewhere other than in a car is hot, sweaty, dirty, cold, wet, slow, weird and ridiculous. Bikes are for poor people and/or are the toys of children. As Orlov would point out, we have so very far to fall in our downward adjustment to more humble modes of living. I can just hear the bitching and moaning. Ride you monkeys ride. Cycle chic.