Danish cyclists never lost their political clout

It does become rather wearisome, hearing how Copenhagen had lost virtually all of its cycling by the late 1960s, before clawing its way back from nothing. People are told this supposed fact, to be primed ready for instructions on how to  reenact history. Most, it would seem, have recently been touched by Jan Gehl. Gehl’s whole routine depends on convincing folk that their shitty dump cities are exactly as Copenhagen once was, before someone (surely not Gehl himself?) step-by-step rebuilt the bike share.

But look at this photo of Copenhagen in 1964. You could hardly say cycling has disappeared. I can count more bikes here than cars, and there are certainly lots of pedestrians. To my eye, this looks like a population ready to vote for more footpaths and bike paths. It’s certainly not a city with a modern Australian or American bike share, of 2 or 3% max. The political reality in countries like mine, today, is very different from that of Denmark or the Netherlands 4 decades ago.

Cycling has been marginalised, and so must look to the margins. Our activists’ limited energies aught not be spent contesting main streets that drivers lay greater claim to each time they vote. Our efforts would be better spent lobbying for high density affordable housing and public facilities (all with no parking) near to networks of bike paths on rail easements, waterways and reserves. I would rather move away from the cars altogether.

14 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    Hmm. Maybe. I guess it all depends on where you’re standing.

    I grew up in a little town in the south of England called Eastleigh. I used to sit on my Raleigh Chopper and watch trains from this bridge (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparrowhawk7/7415365018/) during the school holidays. I remember when it was knock-off time from the railway works, there would be swarms of men walking down that ramp from the bridge you see in the background. Many were walking and lots of them were on bikes (the sort of bike that Pashley still makes). Back then (late 1970s), There were so few workers coming by car that I could honestly count them on one hand. All you could see from that vantage point were little heads bobbing up and down and the ones on bicycles moving smoothly above them.

    That was quite common then. It was the same with schools. Most children would walk or come on a school bus but a lot of us used to ride our bikes.

    That has all changed as we know. England could have gone the way of the Dutch and Danes but it didn’t and you can see the results of it today. Judging by the Triumph Herald right in the middle of your picture, I reckon that could be a scene from a number of English towns in the 1960s. Lots of bikes among the Austins and Morris’s but something you do not see today.

    Not sure about Australia though.

  2. Steven says:

    Thanks Edward. I’ve sneakily edited my post after your comment, to make it clearer that I’m comparing 1964 Copenhagen to other cities in 2012. Whatever went wrong in our cities, back then, is by the way now.

    Okay, so with that out of the way, let me share my own childhood recollections of Newcastle and Sydney. I remember lots of cyclists holding onto slow buses and trucks and hitching free rides, and my mother warning me not to do that when I got older. I’m guessing this was around 1969-71.
    It was around 1977 or 1978, age 9 or 10, that I was taught vehicular cycling with the hand signals and all that, and sent on my way to ride on the road. In the back of my mind I knew it was suicide, but nonetheless legal and proper. Funnily, the decent numbers of cyclists holding onto the backs or busses and trucks had thinned out terribly buy the time I was riding myself. But I guess that’s all history 🙂

  3. Stefan Ertmann says:

    Bike and car modal share crossing into the inner city (called søsnittet in Danish) statistics intersected around 1952 (1:1), by 1975 the car to bike ratio was around 6:1 (22.000 cars versus 4000 bikes), and it was not until 2005 that the ratio was back at 1:1 (17.000 cars and 17.000 bikes crossing søsnittet) – these number are peak hour, the hourly interval with the highest absolute traffic the day it was measured.

    That is the closest you get to an accurate assessment of modal share, since the city didn’t start measuring modal share for the whole city until the first bicycle account which was released in 1995

    I realize an approximate modal share of 18% at lowest point of the chart is still far better than other cities today, but its still a 325% increase in 20 years, and bicycles still wasn’t anywhere near a powerful political force during the 50s and 60s – the Danish cyclist union was in a coma on life support with only a handful of active h
    I realize an approximate modal share of 18% at lowest point of the chart is still far better than other cities today, but its still a 325% increase in 20 years, and bicycles still wasn’t anywhere near a powerful political force during the 50s and 60s – the Danish cyclist union was in a coma on life support with only a handful of active members until the first oil crisis in 1972, which was in stark contrast to FDM (the automobile owners union) whose membership skyrocketed during those dark 20 years.

  4. Steven says:

    Brilliant. Thanks Stafan. I’ll have to get my hands on a source of those stats at some time, to a reference a paper I would like to write about this. An 18% modal share is still relatively huge, enough to motivate politically, to win 2.4m wide bike paths. Now your rates have doubled, you should have some rallies for 4.8m paths.
    I would be interested to hear from anyone involved in the recent demonstrations in London. Are 18% of people entering the London CBD, entering on bikes? Maybe!
    That still leaves the question of pressure from outside the city. My sense is Copenhagen had far more than 18% out in suburbs. 18% are those braving traffic to enter the city. In London, there is less cycling in the neighbourhoods than in the city centre, as those riding into the city are motivated by commuting time. You get different results when the motivation is to save time, rather than saving oil.

  5. Paul says:

    “Cycling has been marginalised, and so must look to the margins.” Nice Sound bite!

  6. Colin says:

    The mode share for residents of councils like the City of Sydney is nudging toward 10%, and on current trends will overtake driving within a few years. And that’s why the City of Sydney is spending the bucks on cycleways, not at the magins, but right through the guts of the city. They have the electoral support.

    Sure, the state and federal governments won’t do it because their voters really are just a bunch of drivers.

    • Steven says:

      Colin. Thanks and I think that’s a fairly realistic assessment of one city. Cycling in sydney is succeeding thanks to the failure of everything else: drivers hit grid lock and trains are under funded, so cyclists will tolerates danger and stress to just get to work. Where’s the pleasure though? Wheres sydneys manhattan waterfront greenway? where the mental and physical health benefit?
      As a cyclist I have never applied for a job in Sydney, nor would I.
      Is the 10% figure from household survey data?

  7. Herb says:

    I can see your argument working in some places, but I don’t think it maps well to Toronto politics.

    Here we have core where commuter cycling is approaching 15% in some places (http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/reports/statistics/pdf/statistics-modeshare.pdf) but in the burbs it abysmally starts approaching 0%. Due to a force amalgamation over 15 years ago downtown Toronto has had to tolerate a lot of suburban politicians who can’t see the point in bike lanes.

    Downtown we have a street network that was built around streetcars and really long north-south blocks in many places. So it really limits alternatives to the main east-west routes. North-south we can take residential streets, but not particularly true east-west. So we’re stuck with what we got. The suburbs can look at building trails in ravines and rail corridors, which is what is happening now. But downtown, sooner or later, we’ll have to confront these major streets soon or later. It’s that or get nothing. We’ll be getting our first short stretch of separated bike lanes so hopefully that will get the facts on the ground for future battles.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Herb. That “battle” for bike lanes down town will go on for ages and ages. We’ll all be old, and feel we’ve wasted our lives, before suburbanites give up their right to use the down-town for a race track.
      What former industrial land, waterfronts, and rail corridors (in-use or defunct) do you have to work with in and around the car-city? Keen cyclists can populate and develop those areas, and hope the streets that have been ruined by drivers become so bad the drivers are forced to convert.
      Thanks for that map. Wow, Wards Island is the place to be, no? What’s the other hot-spot? A bohemian quarter? I suggest guarding that for bikes too, while you expand along rail routes and waterways. Surely that would be better than political “battles” and us being maters.

    • Herb says:

      Toronto Islands – owned by the City and residents won to keep a small community there from being turned into a City park. There’s a waiting list to live there. The houses are private but the land is public. And the best thing is that it’s all car-free. It really gives people an idea of how we could live without cars, or if we parked our cars across the water somewhere else (I think some must still own cars).

      The hotspot to the right (east) of that is mostly unpopulated – industrial land in the Portlands (http://www.portlandsconsultation.ca/sites/all/themes/portlands/files/Port%20Lands%20Public%20Meeting%20August%208%202012%20Final.pdf) and the Leslie Spit which is mostly a once-accidental park.

      And the hotspot a bit to the north is where I live. Lots of cycling, nice side streets, great culture, but crappy main streets with streetcars. Despite it, over 10% bike.

      Cyclists should maybe hold out then for the Portlands to be redeveloped. 🙂

    • Steven says:

      As you know from our emails, you have me intrigued, and staring at all kinds of maps of your city. Look forward to a blog post soon, on Toronto. You seem to have a lot of great greenways, that terminate abruptly, when if they could only be all sewn together (properly, I mean), they would generate many times more bicycling traffic. But Herb, surely you have some more abandoned industrial sites out in the burbs, perhaps not so far from rail corridors or waterway bike routes?
      You island there reminds me of free town Christiania that acted as a beacon for Copenhagen. It must be an inspiration for everyone there in Toronto, about the merits of shafting cars.

  8. Herb says:

    I actually can’t think of any other abandoned sites in Toronto that haven’t already been filled up with condos, or will soon be. I took a look around on Google Maps and couldn’t find anything that I knew was abandoned. It’s all low rise commercial and light industrial.

    There is the old Downsview airport that is now being developed into a park and housing.

    There was Liberty Village which was abandoned until 10 years ago. Now’s it’s completely full of condos and absolutely zero bike lanes installed. The local BIA (business improvement area) is trying to encourage cycling since it’s a crappy place to get in and out of. It’s cut off by a railway corridor and only has bus service. Many people walk out of it to the streetcar line or drive to the nearby highway.

    There is the West Don Lands, just north of the Portlands, which is now quickly being filled in for the Pan Am games, with the idea of having a ready community post games.

    And the Portlands. I saw you posted something about so I can put my comments there about it.

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