Danish Lessons for the Canadian Cycling Movement



Writer and Social Reformist

I will persevere until Contempt becomes required reading for every family court judge in the country.


Danish Lessons for the Canadian Cycling Movement

September 19, 2019

I just spent four years living in Copenhagen, cycling capital of the world. As an import, one of your first lessons is an exercise in maneuvering a world dictated by bicycles. You learn quickly to ‘watch for the bikes’ before stepping off the sidewalk, else you’ll get run over, or at the least, sworn at in Danish.


Growing up in small town Nova Scotia, I remember The Guy that used his bicycle for transportation. He was weird. He must have been, right? Why else wouldn’t he just drive a car like a normal person?


Later I moved to Halifax, where there were a few more cyclists, darting through traffic with drivers who resented their presence. I was one of those drivers. I remember. I drove my car everywhere, because that’s what civilized people did. Those diehards were taking their lives in their hands every time they ventured into the mayhem of cars and trucks, and it always struck me as a terrifying endeavor.


The cycling movement is gaining traction around the world, with most major cities planning a way to integrate more bike lanes and to make cycling a safer mode of transportation. As with any new initiative, there are naysayers, and there is a movement of anti-cyclists who would rather keep the cyclists in parks and on bike trails.


I’ve followed some of the articles online, reading comments that make me cringe and cause me to shake my head, and think to myself, no, no, no, you don’t understand what you are talking about. A recent conversation with a family member about new bike lanes in Halifax, though, was what inspired this blog post. It went something like this:


“Did you need a license or insurance to ride a bike when you lived in Copenhagen? People here are saying you should need a license and insurance for your bike.”


“No, of course not. That would be silly. They want it to be easy for people, to encourage more people to cycle instead of drive. That’s the whole point.”


“But I understand the argument. They use the roads too, so why shouldn’t they pay their fair share?”


“Because in the long run, they are saving the taxpayers money and there are so many benefits. In Denmark, the drivers pay, because they are the ones eroding the environment and congesting the roadways. There is a 180% car tax if you own a car in Denmark. That pays for the nice bike lanes.” I smiled when I said this. I couldn’t help myself.


“But what if they hit a car? You know, if a bike drives by a car and scratches it.”


“Well…if the bike is in the bike lane, it is nowhere near a car, so that is unlikely. And besides, there is a deductible on insurance policies, and the chance of a bike causing that much damage to a car is slim. If a bike causes property damage, then you pay. Like any other situation where you cause damage to someone’s property.”


“It seems that cyclists here are getting special treatment.”


“Special? Special, how?”


Pause. “I don’t know. Just…special.”


Most Danes, the joke goes, own three bikes. Their good bike, their shitty bike, and their racing bike. The shitty bike is the bike they take into the city, the one that, if it gets stolen, they won’t cry over. The one they take to the bar on a night out. (Sidenote: I don’t recommend drinking and cycling, although hopping on your bike after a cocktail or two is far preferable to getting behind the wheel of a car - just be responsible). Their good bike is their everyday bike, and you can find the Danes decked out on Sunday mornings in spandex, the weekend warriors cruising up the coast on their racing bikes.


Everyone in Denmark has at least one bike. Children, students, moms and dads, senior citizens, blue collar workers and top executives. The very young and very old ride in a cargo bike, and you haven’t truly experienced Danish life until you’ve gone through the rite of passage of bumping along while awkwardly curled into the wagon of a cargo bike.


I think about The Guy who rode his bike around small town Nova Scotia, and how he would have had the last laugh in Denmark, because the weird guy is the one with no bike.


I had one bike in Copenhagen. I loved my bike, more than any car I’ve ever owned. Ashy grey, with red and white polka dotted panier bags for carrying belongings, I rode my bike to exercise class, Danish lessons, the grocery store, appointments, parties, the beach – everywhere. Showing up at a social event to a line of bikes parked outside instead of cars was the norm.


I was never as adept as the Danes, who would whoosh by me effortlessly, while texting and smoking a cigarette (yes, they do have a smoking problem), while I clung to my handlebars with both hands. I did, however, discover I could balance a tray of cupcakes  on my front basket and have them delivered to their destination mostly intact. I also rode regularly with my panier bags filled with groceries, two more hanging from the handlebars, puffing up the hill to my home with the weight of my purchases, only to be passed by a little old lady or man who would zoom past me.


Which brings me to the health benefits of cycling everywhere. Not only is it easier and more convenient, the act of exerting yourself whenever you go out the door keeps people healthier and stronger into old age, resulting in huge health benefits. And I am sure the mental health benefits of riding along everywhere like a ten-year-old are plentiful too, and maybe contribute to their reputation as a happy nation. Just don’t smoke.  


I fell in love with Copenhagen, for so many reasons, and although Denmark, like every place, has its problems, the cycling culture was top of list for why it is so special, and it’s one of the things I most miss. I am sure the cycling culture and mindset didn’t happen overnight there, and in Canada, there will be a learning curve for cyclists and drivers until they get the hang of it. Both cyclists and drivers had to learn how to play together on the roads in Denmark too, but they have developed a respectful co-existence that works. Cycling, as a mode of transportation, is regarded with as much respect as driving a car, and cyclists are subject to traffic laws the same as drivers. They are pulled over and ticketed if they break those laws.  


Yes, I know, Canada has harsher winters, but for probably nine months of the year, in even the snowiest of climates, most of it can accommodate bikes. In Denmark, bike lanes are ploughed before streets when it snows, and the cyclists forge on through wet, cold conditions, wrapping a scarf around their faces against the bitter Siberian wind that blows through the Nordics during the winter months. The Danes are a hardy lot.


Cities like Copenhagen have got this, and they’ve done the work for you, Canada. Look to them, and don’t overcomplicate something that should be straightforward.

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