Today I got to go on a bicycle tour of Copenhagen guided by two representatives from the Dansk Cyklist Forbund (Danish Bicycle Federation). It was a great way to learn about Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure by actually riding around and experience it, stopping periodically to have things explained. I’d been to European cities with impressive bicycle infrastructure before—Berlin and Stockholm very recently—but those places seemed like a difference in degree compared to the United States. Copenhagen was a difference in kind. There’s just not—at all—a sense of danger or even competition with the automobile. On streets that are heavily trafficked, there are bike lanes, and the lanes are usually physically separated from the road. On streets where there aren’t bike lanes, there isn’t much traffic. And most of all there are tons of people on bikes wherever you go. Thirty-seven percent of Copenhagen commuters use bikes. And given that presumably some people are walking to work, some people are using the bus, some people are using the Metro, and some people are using the S-Tog the resulting situation is one in which cyclists and drivers are really equals.
It’s actually impressive to a degree that’s somewhat unsettling. Regular bicycle commuting in the United States is, among other things, a somewhat meaningful identity category. Initially it’s thrilling to see so many of “your people” everywhere. But looking closer you start to see exactly what was explained to me—the whole reason you have so many people biking around is that cycling is totally mainstream in Copenhagen and doesn’t constitute an identity at all.
From a policy perspective, what you’re basically seeing in Denmark is path-dependency on steroids. Back in the 1970s there were a substantial number of cyclists in what I guess you would call the “pre car” mode where people ride bikes because the country is too poor for everyone to afford a car. Then came the oil crisis and driving got even more expensive. And alternative policies started to be explored where for the first time the country started consciously trying to encourage bicycling. And the policy was never really dropped. So you have lots of cyclists which creates a constituency for more infrastructure which leads to more cycling which creates a constituency for more infrastructure. Denmark is the country with the highest share of GDP going to taxes, and part of that is very high taxes on cars and on gasoline so even though Denmark is a very rich country today lots of families still have a strong financial incentive to limit car ownership and car use.
I think you can already see embryonic versions of this positive reenforcement cycle in some American cities—New York and Washington to name two—but it still looks very different and I think something dramatic would have to happen to really change the path dependence dynamic. Then again I think that if you look at where oil prices were before the financial crisis hit it’s not all that unlikely that something dramatic will happen, comparable to the oil crisis of the seventies. At any rate, the current center-right government in Denmark hadn’t actually been very interested in bike-promotion over the past eight years (the Copenhagen city government is another matter) but no they’ve changed their tune and are appropriating about $200 million in competitive grants to municipalities for bike projects.