There’s a fine line between drawing inspiration from a place and imitating it. Best practices may be just that, but not every best practice can be applied to every place. And so it was with a little wariness that I visited copenhagenize.com. It’s easy to be intoxicated by cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Freiburg, and Groningen. Historic cities with charming human-scale built environments, cities with character, with good transit, cities that encourage socialization and a reduced ecological footprint by their very design. It’s also easy to try to replicate their most desirable aspects without considering the complex web of circumstances that created and maintain those attributes.
Personally, I long for more such places in America. I would love to see (and think circumstances will eventually necessitate) the gradual consolidation of human settlement here. A thousand struggling, mediocre, disconnected townships becoming a hundred vibrant cities of varying shapes and sizes. Too many places are anonymous, settled only through speculation, with no endemic industry and little vernacular culture. It’s good that the state of our cities is becoming more of a national conversation, and it’s good that we are open to lessons offered abroad.
Modernization helped us deal with problems of sanitation, congestion, and deprivation (among many others), yet we have often followed its tenets blindly, and to our detriment, throwing the baby out with the bath water by ignoring the qualities that enabled cities to successfully sustain themselves for hundred of years. The City is defined by the presence of citizens choosing to live in close proximity, to live socially and even to some extent communally, yet we’ve increasingly spread our cities thin. We’ve teased out the various threads that are traditionally woven together to create an urban fabric. Cities are for people, yet we’ve built them for cars.
Expansion and contraction seems to be a fundamental cycle throughout the universe. Stars pulse, then wink out. Life grows, then withers. Our chests rise and fall with our breathing. Our metaphors speak of pendulums swinging out, then back. We say that everything that goes up must come down. We develop some new system, some new toy, and we gorge until we retch. So it has been with automobiles. They are incredible inventions, their significance probably can’t be overstated. But the great and rapid expansion of their role in our lives has led to the inevitable contraction. We are recognizing that, to paraphrase Pete Seeger and Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season and a purpose; cars do some things wonderfully, others not so well. We are rediscovering walking. We are rediscovering biking.
I think that the role of biking in American cities will change and grow as our cities redefine themselves. The key is to not imitate cities like Copenhagen, but to learn from them and shape local solutions to local problems. I was pleased to discover that Copenhagenize.com focuses more on information and possibility than propaganda. The site states:
Each and every day a kabillion citizens choose the bicycle in Greater Copenhagen. This blog highlights who they are, why they do [sic] and how it was made possible. Forty years ago Copenhagen was just as car-clogged as anywhere else but now 55% of the population choose the bicycle. Copenhagenizing is possible anywhere.
A recent article, excerpted below, details the city’s efforts to expand biking infrastructure. One of the comments left by a reader asks the author,”do you have any advice for how cities without existing cycling infrastructure (of Copenhagen’s quality) can incorporate some of these ideas? For example, I’m thinking of how short-sighted many city planners were in my area when they designed our urban road system.”
The author, Mikael Colville-Andersen, responds, “whenever consultents, like myself, advise cities with little or no infrastructure, building super commuter bikeways is not at the top of the list. :-)
every city that has successfully implmented infrastructure started with a little piece of paradise. starting with, for example a neighbourhood or a sizable section of a city centre and then worked out from there. creating the culture first.
His point is that cities are complex beasts. Dropping biking infrastructure from the sky in no way guarantees that folks will jump out of their cars and start pedaling. There is a process that will find a different iteration in every locale. That said, projects like Copenhagen’s Bicycle Commuter Superhighways are very, very exciting.
The City of Copenhagen is currently planning to expand the existing, extensive network of bike lanes to extend farther out into the suburbs. A network of 13 high-class routes – ‘bicycle superhighways’ if you will – dedicated to bicycle commuters and aimed at encouraging more to cycle to work.
Currently 55% of the citizens in central Copenhagen ride a bicycle daily and the number is 37% for Greater Copenhagen. While in many other countries anybody who cycles to work is often considered a ‘bicycle commuter’, most of the 500,000 people who cycle to work or education in Copenhagen don’t fit into the Danish version of this statistical category.
A ‘commuter’ is loosely categorised as someone who travels more than 10 km to work. The City of Copenhagen and the surrounding towns are aiming to increase the trips by bike on the new routes. There is an efficient network of public transport throughout the region but just as any train passenger or motorist knows, it feels much quicker and is much quicker if you don’t have to stop all the time. The same principle applies to cycling to work and it is the key to the development of this new net of superhighways.
Just like anywhere, there are many people who cycle longer distances but the focus for the new plan is the ‘middle ground’ – the zone between 7 and 15 km from the city centre.
There are roughly 100,000 people who currently commute into or out of Copenhagen County [as opposed to within], travelling between 4-15 km. 15,000 of them ride their bicycle.
The remaining 85,000 who take the bus, train or car are the target group for this project.