Photos by Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek
The capital of Denmark sets the standard for livable cities. And it all starts on a bike.
It was around the time I crashed into an innocent woman near the Little Mermaid that I knew something had to be done.
I would like to be able to say that it was the woman’s fault, that she had just descended, as so often happens in this city, from one of those massive air-conditioned buses that haul tourists around Copenhagen and had cluelessly stepped into oncoming traffic. But no, the woman was clearly Danish, clearly paying attention, and clearly knew that bikes were meant to stop at crosswalks, not scrape the shins of unsuspecting pedestrians. “Hvad laver du?” she screeched.
What was I doing, indeed? I had no business being on a bike. A near miss of an accident in childhood had left me terrified of them, and I hadn’t ridden one in decades. It’s not as though I had missed bikes, either. As an adult, I had lived in New York, Los Angeles, a small town in Ohio, and Madrid, where the primary modes of transport (subway; car; walking; and subway + walking + best taxis in the world, respectively) negated the need for me to do anything so perilous as balancing on two wheels. But several months before my run-in at the statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s diminutive siren, I had moved to Copenhagen, acclaimed as one of the top three bike-friendly cities in the world, a place where there are quite literally more bikes than cars. Copenhagen, where 41 percent of the population cycles regularly to work or school. Copenhagen, a place where anyone interested in how I was acclimating to my new home would inevitably ask, “Have you bought a bike yet?”
For months, the answer was a sheepish no. “It’s winter,” I deflected, or “I like to walk.” And it was true: I do like to walk. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a flaneur, a connoisseur of the street. And Copenhagen was perfect for roaming. It was small enough that I felt I could get almost anywhere I wanted on foot, with closely packed streets that might reveal a tiny shop selling delicate ceramics resembling sea creatures, or a Turkish grocery erupting in tulips and delphiniums, or a playground with children catapulting into the air from trampolines anchored at ground level. Perfect, too, to go slowly enough to marvel at the sculpted faces and sparkling locks of all those genetically gifted Danes.
No one was ever going to mistake me for one of them.
But as the sheer novelty of living in this Nordic city wore off, I found myself wanting to fit in a bit more. I was taking twice-weekly language classes, but Danish is a notoriously difficult tongue and I wasn’t making much progress. I had made some friends, but more expats than Danes. And one day, in a weak moment brought on by the sight of a couple wearing huge matching scarves as they rode by holding hands, I found myself thinking: I should get a bike.
I enlisted a friend to help me scout options, and just like that, I bought one, a black upright with a leather saddle and a wicker basket. Made by a German company but based on the Dutch style of “granny bikes,” it was heavy and utterly lacking in special features, which made it generic enough, I hoped, to escape the notice of the bike thieves that I had heard plagued this otherwise safe city. It was also cheap enough to reassure me that I wouldn’t feel too awful if I never took to it. Most important, it satisfied my romantic notions of what a European woman’s bike should look like—something Audrey Hepburn would ride through the French countryside. As I paid for it, I imagined myself riding back from the market, my skirt trailing behind me, yellow tulips spilling over the top of the basket, maybe a baguette peeking out, too.
My earliest forays into riding, however, undermined the fantasy. The skinny, pastel-colored houses of Nyhavn—the old harbor, one of the city’s most iconic sights—may be picturesque, but the bumpy cobblestones that line the streets there nearly separated me from my bike. A ride to the trendy Meatpacking District, past buzzy restaurants and impossibly seductive shops, became a bad video game as I attempted to steer clear of fixed-gear speedsters on my left and bearded young men on my right, too deep in conversation to notice they had stepped into the bike lane. And a trip to Torvehallerne, the newish market and food hall that I imagined as the supplier for those bread-and-tulip fantasies, earned me what I can only assume were Danish curses as I haltingly tried to negotiate the throngs.
Cycling is serious business in Copenhagen, and the bike lanes, though plentiful, are jammed with riders who are as intent on getting where they’re going as any New York taxi driver in Seventh Avenue traffic. These people have been cycling since they were born, they ride in all kinds of weather, and they have assimilated not only the arcane system of signage, signals, and rules governing bike traffic but also a deep-seated knowledge of when and how to break those rules. I, on the other hand, could barely keep myself from toppling over when I tried to turn. Or stop. Or start. There were cars to watch out for on the left, pedestrians carelessly stepping into the bike lane from the right, plus traffic lights and the right-hand turn you have to make first whenever you actually want to turn left. But mostly there were other cyclists, all zipping effortlessly by and freaking me the hell out.
I tried to tell myself to ignore them, that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t keep to a straight line or if people passing me a few inches away terrified me, that I just needed a little practice. But I had a tendency to jump off and start walking anytime the situation seemed even a little complicated.
And the truth was that every single time I got on my bike, my shoulders tensed, my heart started pounding, and I became convinced I was a menace both to myself and to any Copenhageners in my path. The collision near the Little Mermaid only confirmed that belief. I needed help. I needed someone who could teach me to navigate the city’s cycling culture. I needed, I decided, Mikael Colville-Andersen.
I had first heard of Mikael when I came across his blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic. A former filmmaker and cycling advocate, he started posting photos of the ordinary Copenhageners he saw riding their bikes—the hipsters in massive scarves, the men in suits on their way to work, the women in stilettos. The response was positive and massive. “Women riding in miniskirts and heels?” he would later explain to me. “People couldn’t believe it. They wanted to know: Where is this place?” He was able to parlay the blog into Copenhagenize, a consulting business that advises the city of Copenhagen, and other municipalities around the globe that want to copy it, on how to improve bicycle infrastructure. Here, in other words, was someone who had made a career out of Denmark’s cycling culture.
We agreed to meet at his office, which is located on Papirøen, an island in Copenhagen Harbor. Getting there would mean going over the Knippels Bridge, one of the busiest in the city, where cars plummet down the hill toward Christianshavn with only a thin stripe of paint separating them from all those whizzing cyclists. Needless to say, I walked.
“Where’s your bike?” Mikael asked as he shook my hand. The question felt more reflexive than accusatory. In his mid-40s, with stylishly floppy hair, he has the whippet body of someone who spends a lot of time on two wheels. I made excuses for myself as we walked around the corner to grab a coffee from a stall at Copenhagen Street Food, a former warehouse that is now home to a collection of food trucks selling everything from hot dogs to bibimbap. Sitting outside on a late September day, watching the rays of sunlight bounce off the canal water, I could see why this had become one of the most popular spots in the city for hanging out—and not just for the employees of all the start- ups that had located their offices nearby.
I explained my plight, and he nodded as if he had heard it before. “The first thing you need,” he said, taking a sip of espresso, “is an indicator species.” His theory, it seemed, was that I needed to find someone on a bike who looked like me. “The reason more people don’t ride in the United States is that all the people they do see on bikes look like warriors from Planet Spandex. But you need that social mirror if you want people to ride bikes. Here in Copenhagen, you’ve got indicator species on each elbow all day long.”
I kept an eye out for mine as I walked home. Mikael had agreed to meet with me again a few days later for a lesson, but in the meantime, I needed to try to find a cyclist I identified with. It certainly wasn’t the guy with the full sleeve of vintage-style tattoos, texting as he pulled into the graffiti-covered entryway to the free town of Christiania, or the mom with her two blond children tucked into the front of her cargo bike as she rode over the Knippels Bridge. (She made me feel better, though— how dangerous could it be if people rode their kids around?) Finally, as I passed one of my favorite Copenhagen sites—the old stock exchange with its spires carved in the shape of downward-facing dragons—I saw her. She was in her 40s, wearing cool boots and a black coat. It’s not that she looked like me—she was blonde, for one thing—but she at least looked like someone I could be friends with.
I told Mikael about her when we next met. I had managed to ride to his apartment, which Google Maps had told me was 15 minutes from my house but which turned out to be a very fraught 30 for me. “Let me guess,” he said, eyeing the bike that I had unwittingly parked so that it was blocking the back exit from his building. “She was riding an upright.” And indeed she was. I hadn’t realized it, but subconsciously I had chosen someone who rode the same style of bike I did. Surely that was progress?
Mikael introduced me to my instructor for the afternoon: his daughter Lulu, age seven. Tiny and blonde, Lulu wore pink and purple striped leggings, a pink top, and a pink vest. She looked at me skeptically.
“Daddy says you’re afraid to ride a bike.”
The shame was searing. “Weren’t you ever afraid?” I asked. “Even when you started?”
“No.” Lulu shook her head dismissively.
“What did I always tell you?” her dad asked.
“Concentrate. And watch the curb.”
Lulu jumped on her bike, its basket decorated with plastic flowers, and motioned for me and Mikael to follow. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. There are no laws requiring them in Denmark, not even for children, and many cyclists (myself included) don’t wear them. Mikael was convinced they served primarily to make people needlessly afraid of something that was, at least in Copenhagen, safe. “Let’s cut away the fear and look at the facts,” he told me. “People wouldn’t do it if they felt it was dangerous. They feel safe enough not only to ride without a helmet but to text while they’re doing it. To drink coffee while they’re doing it.”
Lulu led us to her school. This was the daily trip past apartment buildings and across the hospital grounds that she’d been making since she was five. As she entered a roundabout, she turned gravely back at me. “You have to signal like this,” she said, sticking out her arm.
All children in Denmark learn to cycle; it has been part of the school curriculum since 1947. In sixth grade, many even take a test, complete with obstacle course, and earn a certificate. In some neighborhoods, parents form “bicycle buses” for the young ones, taking turns leading a caravan of pedaling five- and six-year-olds until they’re old enough to go on their own. “They go to school, football practice, their friends’ birthday parties, the supermarket on their bikes,” Mikael said. “I calculated it once. My kids spend a total of five hours in a car each year.”
In the school parking lot, Lulu made me try to ride straight and steady along a chalk line. She made me stop on the line. She made me ride in a circle around her, and when I had done OK with that, she urged me to do it with one hand on the handlebar. At one point, she stood next to her bike holding the handlebars, got a running start, and leaped onto the saddle. “Do that,” she said. “Don’t push your luck, kid,” I said.
Did it help? Certainly Lulu made me think that if this elfin little girl wasn’t afraid of cycling, perhaps I shouldn’t be either. But I was no more confident after our lesson was over, and I inched slowly home (with multiple stops to get off and walk in tricky intersections).
“Concentrate,” she had called after me, as I pedaled off. “And watch the curb.”
If only it were that easy. I had one last meeting scheduled with Mikael, and it was the one I dreaded most. He wanted me to ride over Dronning Louises Bridge at morning rush hour.
In summer, the wide sidewalks of the bridge draw hundreds of young people, who hang out drinking beer, listening to music, and dancing while the sun goes down over the city’s man-made lakes. But it also serves a more practical function—as the connector between the city’s center and its liveliest, most ethnically diverse neighborhood, Nørrebro. The bridge here, like the Knippelsbro, is one of the busiest in the city. Some 37,000 cyclists cross it each day (vs. 10,000 cars). In fact, it’s the busiest cycling street in the world. At rush hour, so many cyclists pile up at the light that it can take two and even three cycles of green for them to get through.
It was a cold and misty morning, and the grayness somehow added to my anxiety. I needed calming before I attempted the crossing, so Mikael and I sat on a bench
on the bridge and talked first. He told me about all the innovative initiatives the city had taken to help make cycling more attractive to people. I had noticed some of them, of course, such as the raised lanes that are physically separated from automobile traffic, and the “Green Wave,” the traffic light system timed so that cyclists who keep to a steady 12 miles an hour don’t have to stop. But there were so many others: foot rails at intersections so you don’t have to dismount at a light; trash cans angled for use by passing cyclists; eight bridges going up around the city that would be just for cyclists and pedestrians.
“And then there are the desire lines,” Mikael said, pointing across the street from where we sat. I saw a lane that cut between the sidewalk and the bike path and allowed cyclists to go in the opposite direction of traffic on a one- way street. “People wanted to turn right there, so they would cut across the sidewalk,” he said. “We work from the idea that people will tell us where they want to go. And the city listened. They first painted temporary lanes, and then they built one in—it’s a modern city that does that. Desire lines are democracy in action.”
I had to admit, I liked the idea of a city that actually responded to its citizens’ desires by making it easier for them to get where they were going. And I could see now, as Mikael had emphasized to me, that was really what all those cyclists cared about. Most Copenhageners don’t ride because they think it’s healthier or good for the environment (though both are true). They ride because it’s the fastest, least complicated way for them to get to work, to school, to the movie theater and grocery store and football match and doctor’s office.
It was 8:45 a.m., the peak of the morning rush hour—and my moment of truth. I said goodbye to Mikael and stutter-stepped into the bike lane. At first, just to warm up, I went against the rush, heading away from instead of into the city. But when I got to the other side of the bridge, I turned around and joined the tide. I was instantly swallowed up by bikes and gripped my handlebars tightly to keep from veering into them. Other riders were passing me on both sides. Some were drinking coffee as they rode, some were talking to their children in back, some just looked determined to get there and get the day over with. Most of them looked like they wished I’d get out of the way. But I managed to stop at the light without hitting anyone. And when it turned again, I kept riding.
It would be a lie to say that I suddenly felt comfortable in their midst or even on my bike. But cruising through the streets at the busiest time and place of the day, with Mikael’s words still in my head, I saw Copenhagen from a new perspective. Cycling here isn’t some strange cultural quirk, like the Madrileños’ enthusiasm for bullfighting, that would forever remain inaccessible to me. Cycling is evidence of a city that takes its citizens seriously—that listens to their wants and needs, and changes itself in response. Maybe, I thought as I rode home, I would one day have desire lines of my own.