A statistic you can throw to the winds: More people commute by bicycles in Greater Copenhagen than in the entire US. Or you can mull over it, as you wheel into the heart of the Danish capital on your very own pair of two wheels, and be amazed!
Amazing it is, for in Copenhagen, you find more bicycles than people. A staggering 560,000 bicycles, and about half the number of people. Small wonder then, it is known as the safest city for cyclists in the world. Cyclists are granted all rights of passage in the streets; motorists are viewed askance. More than 36% of Danes cycle to work, or school or college. They find it a good way to get around – also cheaper, and environment friendly. Perhaps, it is also a happier way to reach a workplace or a college term exam.
In fact, getting on a bike is the perfect way to connect to the city and the uniquely vibrant Danish culture. A few days of exploration, and even a first-time visitor is wheeling comfortably in one of over 390 kilometres of well-maintained bike lanes.
On a recent trip to the Danish capital, I got my chance to experience a three-hour bicycle ride through its entire length and breadth. What added to the charm quotient was a drizzle that started just as we zoomed off from the side of the creek.
Our group, of about half a dozen people, was led by Anna, a pretty and athletic instructor-cum-guide. Not everyone in the group was ‘bike-ready’ – some did not know how to ride, and many had not hopped on to a bike after school – but oodles of enthusiasm made up for a lack of skill or familiarity, and the tour began. Breezing through the seaside area and then, on to the busy roads, our first stop was Christiana.
Christiana, also known as Freetown Christaina, is a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood in the borough of Christianshavn in Copenhagen. It is regarded as a commune and governed by a special law. Set up about 50 years ago as a hippie locality, Christiana continues to remain free-spirited even today. In fact, its residents, Anna tells us, consider themselves separate from Copenhagen, and even from Denmark, for that matter.
Stray dogs, people smoking pipes outside their homes, chipping paint off the exterior walls of houses, and graffiti splashed in unexpected place: I was reminded of our own ethnic city-village, Hauz Khas Village in the heart of south Delhi.
For now, Christiana sparkled with its pubs, bars and patios, its gypsy look. Even for the not-so-young, a trip to Christiana is strongly recommended, if not for its flower children, then for its singular brew of art and music. And yes, it must be on a bike! But also remember, the townsfolk here are happy within themselves, and not especially fond of visitors, so ride through the sights and sounds, with a smile and a hope for a happy memory!
Next up was an encounter with the rush and tumble of the city. Everyone here is on bikes – students, working professionals and housewives visiting friends or buying grocery. They ride all kinds of bikes, with baskets in the front for toddlers, and a small rear carrier; cargo bikes and more. I also must mention the bike helmets – oh yes, everyone puts them on, even children accompanying their parents.
Visitors to Copenhagen are encouraged to use bikes. Ask anyone where you can rent a bike from, and they happily guide you. The people you rent the bikes from also brief you on bicycle etiquette and how to look out for appropriate signs for turning and stopping.
For some, bicycles come in twos: people living in the suburbs and who work in the city, two bicycles are the norm – one, to travel from home to the nearest metro station, and the other to reach their destination from the metro station they disembark at.
So, I tell myself, that accounts for the city boasting of more bikes than people. One doesn’t get to see too many sedans and SUVs on the roads here. Among cars, mostly, they are mid-sized cars, and the most popular appears to be our very own Swift. While Maruti manufactures Swift cars in India, Suzuki does it there. Buying a car, even a mid-sized car, is an expensive proposition, thanks to the government’s environment policy.
We ride past the city centre. It is the last leg of our cycle tour, and the most picturesque. Pedalling on sidewalks inside lush green parks, zipping past a cemetery (the Danes respect their cemeteries as much as they do their parks), finally, weaving past a lake in the middle of the city. We circle the lake, take the wind in our faces across the bridge over the lake, and are back where we started out from – the creek. With a final photo op in front of the queen’s castle by the creek, we hand back our cycles to the crew. Breathless.
BOX: FAST FACTS
- Cycling is an important means of transportation and a dominating feature of the cityscape in Denmark. The Danish capital Copenhagen offers favourable cycling conditions — dense urban proximity, short distances and a flat terrain — along with an extensive and well-designed system of cycle tracks. This has earned it a reputation as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world.
- Every day, 1.2 million kilometres are cycled in Copenhagen.
- Cycling is generally perceived as a healthier, environmentally friendly, cheaper and often quicker way around town than by public transport or car.
- Bicycles became common in Copenhagen at the beginning of the 20th century.
- The city’s first bicycle path was established on Esplanaden in 1892.
In India, it’s Bye Cycle!
There was a time when India produced the largest number of bicycles in the world. But today, one rarely gets to even see bicycles on Indian roads, especially in big cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai. Using a bicycle for daily commuting is almost passe here. Unlike European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, Indian roads are not designed to accommodate bicycles, where any cyclist who ventures out has to negotiate with mighty trucks and buses, and zooming SUVs. Thus, the status of cycling has reduced from an important aspect of daily commute to just a recreational activity. Now, most of the cyclists that one finds on Indian roads are poor people who can’t afford a personal vehicle or public transport, unlike in the West, where a bicycle is not a sign of poverty. The cycles manufactured in India also continue to hold on to archaic designs – with back lights and fluorescent panels still missing. Even the cyclists are not encouraged to wear any kind of helmets.
Some stray efforts are being made to introduce biking as a leisure sport. In Delhi, for example, Dutchman Jack Leenaars started an initiative in 2009 called DelhiByCycle. As the former South Asia correspondent for De Telegraaf, Jack started early in the morning on his cycle to discover the back lanes of Delhi. From a couple of participants on his first expeditions, the cycling tours have become a hit on the streets. Some travel companies have also introduced biking holidays. Some of the places that are good for bicycling holidays are Pondicherry, Hampi, parts of Goa and Kerala.