Bicycle Culture Mythbusting

19 NOVEMBER 2007

Source: Copenhagenize

414919854_6bf7336cccThere’s one thing we often hear at Copenhagenize – “Denmark and The Netherlands only ride so much because the countries are flat…” For the four years of this blog we hear the same things all the time and this is just one of them. Myths need debunking.

First of all, while The Netherlands is quite flat, apart from some hilly regions, in the Danish national anthem we sing the praises of our hills and valleys. So fair enough… Copenhagen is flat but much of the rest of the country isn’t. Our second city of Aarhus is hilly. Like Sydney or Gothenburg.

Actually, the geographical features of the two nations, and the two capitals, have little to do with why so many people ride their bikes here.

It is a historical and political issue. When Bicycle Revolution 1.0 swept the planet in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s everybody, everywhere in the industrialised world, rode a bike. The bicycle liberated women and it liberated the working class.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, there were Cyclist Unions just like anywhere else. When cycling became a sport – which happened quickly and with great impact – the cyclist unions in many countries then had to compete with Sport Cycling unions. In the Netherlands they saw the bicycle as a social activity for the people, with many societal benefits. They even banned bike racing for a time in order to preserve the bicycle as an integral part of the culture.

In Denmark, the cyclists’ union was well-organised and politically active from the start and, throughout the 20th century it remained so. In both countries the unions were powerful and vocal advocates of bike culture and they were heard.

We reap the benefits to this day. So THAT is why we ride, not because the cities are flat.

So look to effective advocacy to get started. And stop looking at the percieved negatives.


HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

People and societies have short memories. The most important thing to consider when whining about hills or weather is that – you know what? – people used toride those hills or ride in that weather. They did it for decades and decades. On bicycles heavier than the one you own. So it boggles the mind that people actually use hills as an excuse. Or heat/cold. It is simply ridiculous. Lame excuses based on personal perception and with no historical face to back them up.

There is a potential for cycling virtually everywhere. We know this because people used to ride there in great numbers. Period.

TO THE HILLS!
If we’re debunking flat myths, have a look at the list of the Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the world that we compiled here at Copenhagenize.com, based on trips by bike / modal share. Many flat cities feature on the list but there are cities that have a hilly topography. Gothenburg, Aarhus, Tokyo, Stockholm, Bern AND a high modal share for bicycles.

HORIZONTAL HILLS
As for countries like the Netherlands and Denmark… people never mention the wind. Try riding to work in a storm, with hurricane strength gusts, in the middle of a dark January morning. The North Sea winds do everything they can to blow us off our bikes. In vain, we’d like to add.

The Dutch pro cyclist Johnny Hoogerland has said what we all know in the Netherlands and Denmark. Riding in the winds we have here is about the same as riding in the Pyrenees. A stiff headwind can be the same as a mountain climb.

But it doesn’t stop the bicycles.

WE’RE NOT ALONE
And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the myth that it is only Copenhagen and Amsterdam that ride like the wind.

Let’s face it. Bikes are used regularly almost everywhere in Europe. More in Northern Europe, sure, but the great Emerging Bicycle Cities like Barcelona and Seville (it’s very hot in the summer) are debunking myths by showing, not telling. The hills of Barcelona are no laughing matter, either. Who is riding on them? Citizen Cyclists in regular clothes on regular bikes.

So let’s look at the oft overlooked cities and towns in Europe that enjoy a high level [compared to other regions] of bike usage.

In Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, 19% of all journeys are made by bike. By comparison, the city of Davis, in California, has a figure of 17%, one of the highest in the US.

And then there is Ferrara, Italy, about 50 km from Bologna. Here 31% of trips between home and work are biked.

Then there is the fine town of Västerås in central Sweden. Icy cold during the winters but still, 33% of journeys are by bike.

It rains quite often in Cambridge, UK. This doesn’t discourage the inhabitants from making 27% of all journeys on two, manpowered wheels.

Many German cities enjoy bike culture, too. In Münster 30% of all trips are by bike. Now that Berlin and Paris, not to mention Barcelona and other cities, are investing in bike infrastructure, bike usage in Europe is on a rapid rise. Over 60 cities have bike sharing programmes and that number grows every quarter.

SIZE DOESN’T MATTER
Many North American cities are, indeed, urban sprawls but we often get people commenting on the fact that American cities are WAY too big to ride in compared to European cities.

Copenhagen has the third-largest urban sprawl in Europe. People commute for a hour and a half by car to get to the city, like many other places. Intermodality is the key. Riding your bicycle to the local train station – combining travel modes – helps increase bicycle share.

Statistically, distances are less that you may think. 50% of Americans live within 8 km of their workplace. That’s a lot of Americans who could ride a bicycle.

The same stats apply for most western nations.