Who wouldn't want this? The joys of cycling in Copenhagen

Copenhagen a joy to ride

On Your Bike's Michael O'Reilly takes a spin around the Danish capital and finds out why Copenhagen is a cyclist's dream.

It's probably the most enjoyable traffic jam I've ever been in. It's 8am and I'm crossing Queen Louise's Bridge, one of the pinch-points for anyone heading to the centre of Copenhagen, ringed as it is by waterways.

Vehicles are strung out behind and in front of me, and hem me in on each side – but they're two-wheeled vehicles, on a broad path designated solely for bicycles. 

My fellow travellers defy glib categorisation. Most of them are dressed for work, from scruffy jeans to smart office attire; some are wearing helmets, but most are bare-headed in the bright sun. Their bicycles range from fancy to old-fashioned to utilitarian. They are old and young, and women appear to outnumber men – or perhaps I'm so used to a predominantly male cycling culture, my mind is overcompensating. 

Did I say jam? Not for long. Packed in tight, with the traffic light prioritising bicycles over cars, the phalanx around me makes it through on one change, without adding exhaust fumes to the crisp morning air.

And as I roll onwards, I ask myself: How could anyone not want this in their city? 

Why is it that cycling is so vociferously opposed by so many in Australia, when the benefits of a bicycle-friendly culture - including liveable cities, reduced congestion and improved public health - are so demonstrable, and so apparent to anyone who has travelled overseas?

The Scandinavian way

Copenhagen was the final destination on . I'd rolled around Stockholm and Oslo before loading up my panniers and riding some 1100 kilometres through Norway and Denmark.

People are very quick to point out that Denmark is one of the world's most dutiful suppliers of cycling infrastructure, both in cities and the countryside. 

But my experiences in Norway were, in some ways, more impressive.

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As I trundled along busy roads that squeezed their way through the mountainous landscape with no room for a road shoulder, let alone a bike lane, I would see and hear massive Scania trucks coming up behind me. 

If necessary, they would slow to match my pitiful 16km/h pace, wait patiently until the way was clear, and then cross to the other side of the road to overtake, giving me as much space as was physically possible. 

Every other manner of motor vehicle did much the same. In four weeks of continuous cycling, I never had a single bad interaction with a motor vehicle. Not one unnervingly close pass, not one hoot of a horn. 

'When you're behind America - that sucks!'

In Copenhagen, I spent an hour chatting with Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban mobility expert who created the "Cycle Chic" movement after . He has previously lived in Australia, and spoke at the Velo-City Global conference in Adelaide in May.

When it comes to cycling culture, he told me, "Australia … [is] a part of the developed world that is the farthest behind in this conversation. It really was depressing to be there, just to see it once again with my own eyes.

"America is generally far behind on this topic but when you're behind America - that sucks!" he continued, before rattling off a list of cities – New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco – that are "light years ahead".  

The "holy trinity" for getting people onto bicycles, he said, was proper infrastructure, a share bike system that works, and traffic calming.

"All over Europe now, there's like 150 cities that have implemented 30km/h zones," said the CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co. "So this slows down cars, which saves lives, reduces injuries, and makes the city feel slower and nicer, right?"

Right. And yet, for some reason, when there is talk of lowering urban speed limits in Australia, it's portrayed by many as a violation of our rights.  

Good public transport is also a key part of reducing reliance on motor vehicles – especially if trains are equipped for carrying bicycles, as many are in Denmark. 

In most European nations, liability laws are strongly weighted in favour of vulnerable road users. Efforts to enact . Queensland's trial of a minimum passing distance for motor vehicles overtaking cyclist has been an ongoing source of public outrage, despite many cyclists reporting a noticeable improvement in road  behaviour.

The most fun you can have with a European bicycle rider, however, is to tell them of the continual wailing in Australia that cyclists should be registered or licensed. They can't comprehend what you're saying, it's as if you're speaking Martian to them – and indeed, such laws don't exist anywhere on planet Earth. .

What about Australia?

Despite the challenges, Australia is moving forward with cycling, and for good reason – most of us want to ride more often, and we buy more bicycles than we do cars. In Melbourne on Wednesday, road safety authorities said cyclists are  to protect them. 

"This isn't Europe, you know," people often say, as if our combative road culture is a badge of honour. They list the hackneyed excuses of climate, of urban sprawl, of hills, of subcultural exclusiveness – several of the topics I discussed with Colville-Andersen in my full interview, which .

I'm not saying we can turn our capital cities into Antipodean Copenhagens overnight. 

But instead of being vilified, cycling should be seen for what it can be – a catalyst for transforming cities into quieter, happier, healthier places.

As Colville-Andersen told me, "A 19th century invention is solving 21st century traffic problems in cities and it's not going to go away this time." 

Have you ever ridden a bike in a city like Copenhagen? What do you think it will take to increase acceptance and support for cycling in Australia?

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