By Jon Sharp, Smart City Data Analyst at See.Sense
I’ve considered myself a cyclist and I studied urban planning, which gives me a professional interest in cycle infrastructure. I've lived and cycled in various cities in the USA, where I’m from, and one common experience is that cycling can be strenuous with the limited facilities and cars dominating the streets. I traded this chaos in though when I decided to do a masters in Copenhagen, the city often considered the most bike friendly in the world. One would guess that cycling in the US and Denmark is as different as night and day and you’d be right. Further, you would guess that it wouldn’t be intimidating cycling in Copenhagen for me and you’d be wrong. Cycling during rush hour the first couple times was overwhelming with cyclists coming out of nowhere and nearly brushing your shoulders as they whiz by. I promise you get used to it and soon enough you’ll be that person flying by the tourists and recent transplants. I’ve put my life in Copenhagen on pause though for the opportunity to do an internship here at See.Sense in Belfast. I’ll admit my experience is limited here, but below I’ve compiled my five biggest differences between cycling in Copenhagen and Belfast.
For the most part, Copenhageners opt for a no-frills bike that allows them to sit up right and cycle at a leisurely pace. This is often purchased second-hand, which due to the sheer supply of bikes in the country is really cheap. If you’ve got little ones, you may opt for a Christiania Bike. This is an often electrically powered bike that has a sizable square box in the front that can fit up to four small children. Alternatively, if you’re on the way to a party, it has enough space for a few inebriated friends and your Carlsberg. I’ve yet to see a Christiania Bike here in Belfast; instead, you find commuters on touring bikes and road cyclists with their racing bikes. I can’t recall seeing a bike with a basket here yet, whereas in Copenhagen it’s ubiquitous.
Much like their uncomplicated bikes, Danes don’t wear special attire to cycle, nonetheless they have achieved worldwide notoriety for cycling so stylishly. To check out some sartorialist shots take a look at the blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic. Scrolling through these photos, you’ll notice that not many are wearing helmets. It’s not uncommon though to see people wearing helmets, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see a legendary Hövding. Here in Belfast, cycling attire is chosen around safety; popular colors include any shade of neon and helmets are simultaneously the must have accessory of the season and never going out of style.
If you are lucky enough to have traveled to Copenhagen, you would know that everyone and their grandma does it, literally. I am a young, fit guy but I am routinely passed by all kinds of people, which is a whole other thing. There is no clear disparity on who cycles in Copenhagen. The elderly, men, women, children, immigrants, and tourists are all biking. 63% of politicians cycle to parliament at Christiansborg Palace and you can even see Crown Princess Mary leaving Amalienborg on her Christiania bike to drop her kids off at school. Speaking of school, children get bicycle safety training as part of their curriculum and start biking to class at an early age. I don’t have any statistics for Belfast, but in my experience cycling is dominated by 30-50 year old men that can afford these expensive bikes and kit. I know Stormont isn’t exactly bustling with activity these days, but are any politicians cycling to work there?
The head of the Copenhagen Cycling Department claims that cycling there is like brushing your teeth; it’s not something you need to think twice about, you just do it. The cycling network really is an intuitive structure that can get you from A to B without so much as a hassle, even more, you have various options on how to get to your destination. Bike facilities are everywhere; there are paths going through parks, bridges exclusively for bikes and pedestrians, and various cycle superhighways. Occasionally, I’d bike to class at Roskilde University, which is 19 miles (30 km) from where I lived. Throughout this trip, the land changes from urban to suburban to rural but there was not a single point on that whole journey that didn’t have separate cycle infrastructure. Quite literally, there is no questioning the Danes’ commitment to cycling infrastructure.I’m new to Belfast, so maybe it’s not familiar enough to know the best routes, however, it often isn’t intuitive for me to know where I should position myself.
Bike lanes start and end in surprising places and sometimes it’s even encouraged to cycle on the sidewalk (Cromac Street picture). Belfast does have some assets though; my favorite being the path along the River Lagan that takes you all the way to Lisburn.
There was a study done in Copenhagen about why people cycle and it was discovered that even if cycling were somehow bad for the environment, they would still continue to cycle, it just makes the most sense. As the city was developed pre-car and how it sprawls over a series of islands with limited bridges, a bike will beat a car in a race nearly every time, especially during rush hour. I’ve asked my coworkers why people cycle here as it seems like the city is dominated by vehicular traffic. This is it though, it’s so easy to drive here that Belfast now has some of the worst traffic in the UK, which makes cycling a quicker option.
Although it sounds like I have been preaching the gospel of Copenhagen, I do understand that having tons of bike facilities does not necessarily a friendly cycling city make. For example, installing bike lanes may increase safety but it doesn’t guarantee that more people will cycle to work next year. It’s necessary, in my opinion, to indepthly understand cycling practices in order to improve safety and cycling rates. This is why I’m incredibly excited to be interning here at See.Sense. Our intelligent bike lights provide us with comprehensive insights of cycling practices around the world. From here, I hope to be able to use my education and experiences, to improve safety and develop smarter infrastructure for cyclists all around the world.