19 November 2007

Bicycle Culture Mythbusting

Bikeland (by [Zakkaliciousness])

There's one thing we often hear at Copenhagenize - "Denmark and The Netherlands only ride so much because the countries are flat..." For the four years of this blog we hear the same things all the time and this is just one of them. Myths need debunking.

First of all, while The Netherlands is quite flat, apart from some hilly regions, in the Danish national anthem we sing the praises of our hills and valleys. So fair enough... Copenhagen is flat but much of the rest of the country isn't. Our second city of Aarhus is hilly. Like Sydney or Gothenburg.

Actually, the geographical features of the two nations, and the two capitals, have little to do with why so many people ride their bikes here.

It is a historical and political issue. When Bicycle Revolution 1.0 swept the planet in the late 1800's and early 1900's everybody, everywhere in the industrialised world, rode a bike. The bicycle liberated women and it liberated the working class.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, there were Cyclist Unions just like anywhere else. When cycling became a sport - which happened quickly and with great impact - the cyclist unions in many countries then had to compete with Sport Cycling unions. In the Netherlands they saw the bicycle as a social activity for the people, with many societal benefits. They even banned bike racing for a time in order to preserve the bicycle as an integral part of the culture.

In Denmark, the cyclists' union was well-organised and politically active from the start and, throughout the 20th century it remained so. In both countries the unions were powerful and vocal advocates of bike culture and they were heard.

We reap the benefits to this day. So THAT is why we ride, not because the cities are flat.

So look to effective advocacy to get started. And stop looking at the percieved negatives.


People and societies have short memories. The most important thing to consider when whining about hills or weather is that - you know what? - people used to ride those hills or ride in that weather. They did it for decades and decades. On bicycles heavier than the one you own. So it boggles the mind that people actually use hills as an excuse. Or heat/cold. It is simply ridiculous. Lame excuses based on personal perception and with no historical face to back them up.

There is a potential for cycling virtually everywhere. We know this because people used to ride there in great numbers. Period.

If we're debunking flat myths, have a look at the list of the Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the world that we compiled here at Copenhagenize.com, based on trips by bike / modal share. Many flat cities feature on the list but there are cities that have a hilly topography. Gothenburg, Aarhus, Tokyo, Stockholm, Bern AND a high modal share for bicycles.

As for countries like the Netherlands and Denmark... people never mention the wind. Try riding to work in a storm, with hurricane strength gusts, in the middle of a dark January morning. The North Sea winds do everything they can to blow us off our bikes. In vain, we'd like to add.

The Dutch pro cyclist Johnny Hoogerland has said what we all know in the Netherlands and Denmark. Riding in the winds we have here is about the same as riding in the Pyrenees. A stiff headwind can be the same as a mountain climb.

But it doesn't stop the bicycles.

And while we're at it, let's get rid of the myth that it is only Copenhagen and Amsterdam that ride like the wind.

Let's face it. Bikes are used regularly almost everywhere in Europe. More in Northern Europe, sure, but the great Emerging Bicycle Cities like Barcelona and Seville (it's very hot in the summer) are debunking myths by showing, not telling. The hills of Barcelona are no laughing matter, either. Who is riding on them? Citizen Cyclists in regular clothes on regular bikes.

So let's look at the oft overlooked cities and towns in Europe that enjoy a high level [compared to other regions] of bike usage.

In Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, 19% of all journeys are made by bike. By comparison, the city of Davis, in California, has a figure of 17%, one of the highest in the US.

And then there is Ferrara, Italy, about 50 km from Bologna. Here 31% of trips between home and work are biked.

Then there is the fine town of Västerås in central Sweden. Icy cold during the winters but still, 33% of journeys are by bike.

It rains quite often in Cambridge, UK. This doesn't discourage the inhabitants from making 27% of all journeys on two, manpowered wheels.

Many German cities enjoy bike culture, too. In Münster 30% of all trips are by bike. Now that Berlin and Paris, not to mention Barcelona and other cities, are investing in bike infrastructure, bike usage in Europe is on a rapid rise. Over 60 cities have bike sharing programmes and that number grows every quarter.

Many North American cities are, indeed, urban sprawls but we often get people commenting on the fact that American cities are WAY too big to ride in compared to European cities.

Copenhagen has the third-largest urban sprawl in Europe. People commute for a hour and a half by car to get to the city, like many other places. Intermodality is the key. Riding your bicycle to the local train station - combining travel modes - helps increase bicycle share.

Statistically, distances are less that you may think. 50% of Americans live within 8 km of their workplace. That's a lot of Americans who could ride a bicycle.

The same stats apply for most western nations.


Anonymous said...

Well said, with excellent examples. After seeing Dutch cycle tourists in Luxembourg (hardly a flat spot in the whole country) riding heavily laden omafietsen and not worrying about their lack of gears, I came to realize that it is the attitude and the motor that moves the bike forward, and that obstacles are there to be overcome. The Seattle area, where I ride, has many grades of up to 10%, sometimes miles long, as well as wind and rain. In spite of all this, I am far from the only one out there on two human powered wheels, and we continue to work to reach the level of truly bicycle freindly cities. Wish us luck! Val

Zakkaliciousness said...

A wonderful post. Thanks, Val! And you have our warmest wishes. Good luck!

Buck said...

Hey thanks for the article. In my experience it's more about the culture (especially supporting bicycles as a means of transportation) than the geography. I recently moved from San Francisco to Maine (yeah, I ask myself, "Why?" often). San Francisco has one of the most lively bicycle cultures in the U.S. - and yep, some of the biggest hills of any U.S. city. Getting around by bicycle here in Maine is usually a nerve-wracking experience. The lack of an infrastructure (country roads with increasing car and truck (thanks to Poland Spring Water) traffic) combined with automobile drivers who don't think I should even be on the road is helping to age me prematurely. But I sure am liking the rise in the cost of gasoline.

Zakkaliciousness said...

Thanks for giving us insight into your experiences, buck. Indeed, San Francisco is an excellent example of how bike culture can exist in a vertical world.
You'd think Maine and that area was a little more advanced in regards to bike friendly infrastructure.

nattyg said...

It's refreshing to read a positive spin on hilly biking terrain. As a cyclist in Seattle I often hear potential cyclists moaning about the hills. I, for one, think hills can be embraced by cyclists and as said by others in this post, it is really the attitude towards cycling that counts. You don't have to be a road jock to ride up hills. Two shouts for the granny gear!

Zakkaliciousness said...

thanks for the comment!
hills are no hindrance to urban cycling.

if you want to ride bad enough, you'll muscle it up that hill.

eradler said...

After you get a decent PEDELEC starting at 700 € there are no excuses even if you have a hilly terrain..

Zakkaliciousness said...

Electric bikes just don't fly here. I have a mate who is developing a bespoke model and there are no plans for selling it in Scandinavia.

Unless you are elderly, you WILL be mocked...:-)

If you can't muscle your way up a 7% grade on a three speed, clunky old bike, then you aren't Danish.

Georgia's Work at Home Journal said...

It definitely is the attitude, and perhaps the type of bike. After not riding a number of years and trying mountain bike, I couldn't even balance.They would be a definite asset in mountains for the coordinated!
Georgia Jenkins - check my blog re. dogs and business

D. Banerjee said...

I completely agree with your post. If there is a bicycle infrastructure, people WILL ride more, no matter where. I live in a town just north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and work 30km. away in another town. The only direct route is one very congested road with no shoulders to speak of. I’ve cycled to work a few times, but it’s just not worth my life to do so, so I gave up and sit alone in my car every day, churning out pollution. There’s no public transit either. Very North American!! LOL! The governments are very short term in their outlook when it comes to urban planning here. By the way, I can attest to the winds in and around Holland. Some years ago I was cycling from Holland through Belgium to the Atlantic coast, and the wind was so brutal that at one point it was all I could do to inch forward using all my strength!! I’ve also cycled through Switzerland. I was amazed at their cycling infrastructure, but while cycling towards Bern from Basel I got lost and ended up pushing my fully loaded bike over a rocky mountain path. Well, it was a mountain to me, but probably in reality it was just a Swiss hill :)


Zakkaliciousness said...

thanks for the comments! great to hear your points of view.

Isaac Kojima said...

I'd like to translate this post to Portuguese, to post in my blog Tota Urbs Vincit. May I do it?

Mikael said...

sure. just send a link when it's up.

Isaac Kojima said...

I translated the text and posted at

Thank you!

M'dame Jo said...

I do agree that flatness cannot be a sufficient reason by itself, but it certainly helps. When it's really hilly, many people don't even want to try cycling around. And actually, Basel and Bern are considered flat to the swiss standards ;-)

Living on a city built on three hills makes cycling harder, many people from Lausanne don't want to bike because they think it's going to be too hard. One can actually avoid the steepest roads and adapt their itinary http://www.lausanne.ch/view.asp?domId=63517&Language=E and the bicycle association edited a map a few years back with all the cycle-friendly, not so steep itinaries.

The city of Lausanne is also doing something smart. It partly subsidises electric bikes and over 500 electric bikes have been bought like this. We see more of those and, even tough I'm not an electric bikes fan myself, I do agree it may be a good alternative for many.

Another good think is a "free loan" bicycle service now open all year round. And there's a "bike to work" event every June country wide so encourage people trying and maybe stick to it afterwards.

You'd think everyone would bike? Not quite...

You mention Basel and Bern... This actually support your argument: swiss german are culturally more encline to using their bikes, many drivers are also cyclists and it makes riding in swiss german cities generally much nicer because people are civil to each other. Most drivers around here consider that bicycles should not be on the roads, period, and many give us a hard time. I really wish we'll reach the critical amount of bikes in town, so that the space devoted to us doesn't get wheeled on constantly. Plus it's proved the cycling get safer and safer the more cyclists ther is.

Spring/Summer's better, most people bike, I've found myself waiting at the red light with 2 or 3 other bikes lately, yeah!

M'dame Jo said...

(My last sentence "most people bike" is an error, maybe a form of wishful thinking, I meant "more people bike".)

Erik Sandblom said...

Some more numbers on Århus, Denmark: 20% of journeys are done by bike. To get from the harbour to the ring road, you cycle three kilometres at a 3% grade.

Anonymous said...

Why would I be mocked in Denmark if I rode an E bike?

Once people who needed gears were mocked too. We'd think that very strange today. Skiers use tows to get up mountains. Should they be mocked also?

The Dutch, who know almost as much about bikes as the Danes, bought 126,000 E bikes last year and sales are heading for 180,000 E bikes this year. What does that come to? About 500 for each bike shop in the land?

Perhaps it's just old Dutch folks buying them. But a Gazelle E bike, The Innergy, won Bike of the Year this year, and that honor a win against all types of bikes, impresses all ages.

It also impresses me that Gazelle, which has been making great bikes for 116 years, has very cautiously and soberly gone into this new field.

I'm especially interested in E bikes not just because I have one, not just because I'm old, unfortunately, but because I think they might be the secret weapon we need to get my fellow Australians commuting on bikes.

The situation is very serious here. The patient is very ill. Our bike commute rate is .8%. Is there anywhere else in the developed work were the vital signs are weaker?

How will the E bike help? Well, the usual excuses for not riding are our distances, our hills, and our hostile traffic. I claim the E bike takes care of all three.

The first two, you understand but hostile motorists, how can the E bike help with those, you ask?

Well, right now no one in this country sits up straight on a bike. Everyone rides helmeted and hunched over, like they are grumbling at the world.

Such riders make no eye contact with drivers. They don't see well and are not seen well.

On an E bike, it's so easy to be different, to do what European riders do so naturally, sit up tall, smile, enjoy the scenery, hold a lover's hand.

Up straight makes for a less annoying cyclist and the E bike, headwind neutral, helps one be that way.

No one here gets this except me, and when I broach these theories, I'm consided mad.

But then this is a country where if you go into a bike shop asking for a commuter bike because you'd like to ride to work....

... the guy will show you a bunch of bikes with flat bars, no mudguards, no bike racks, no lights, no chain guard, a narrow seat, and that a commuter bike in local opinion

He even has the your ride to work clothes ready too, your spandex, your lycra, the curvy helmet, the lot.

So, you see the situation is already bizarre and in this context, my thinking is rather sane when I say we need a shock machine to scramble brains.

Here, you see me putting theory to the test as I accost a typical hunched over cyclist, and offer him something very different. Mike Rubbo


Anonymous said...

Looking back over what I just posted on Electric bikes, it reads as far more aggressively than I meant to be.

Sorry about that. Of course I understand who some of you think an E bike is cheating.

People may indeed buy them to cheat in the sense of not pedaling very much.

But the funny thing is that when you have one, as your legs get stronger, you use the motor less and less.

Pedaling an E bike as an ordinary bike, is just so enjoyable, that I find myself doing just that, leaving the motor switched off. True, it's heavy but no heavier than the classic Dutch bikes.

That's why I see the E bike as possibly a way to entice a suspicious population back into biking so that when they find how much they love it, who knows, maybe they'll switch back to a regular bike.

And if not, so what? They are still traveling clean, still getting exercise. And they may even get more exercise than a regular bike because they'll use the E bike every day, as I do mine, and not just on weekends, as most Aussie bikes are used.

You know, Australians laugh at Europeans when they arrive here so scared of the sharks the spiders. "What pathetic softies they are! "the locals chortle distainfully.

But they don't realise they are just the same when it comes to riding somewhere . "You rode to Gosford?" a friend asks incredulously. "But that's 20 kms! You must be half dead!"

In the face of the friend who thinks I've taken some terrible risk riding 20 kms, I see the same look as on the faces of those tourists who fear the surf.

Though we are tough in some ways, Australians are the new wimps when it comes to riding somewhere for a purpose.

The reason? They never rode to school. Buses picked them up or Mum in the station wagon took them. So now they cant imagine a bike as transport. Mike Rubbo

Lucy said...

A bit confused about this post, and the people congratulating you on your choice of examples.

"If we're debunking flat myths, we simply must take a trip to Switzerland. The city of Basel is built on the steep banks of the Rhine and yet 23% of journies are made by bike."

Perhaps you ought to take a trip to Basel - the city is actually flat. Telling lies about the terrain of Swiss cities won't help debunk anything.

Here in Zurich there are plenty of cyclists, but for the most part we ride in the flat part of town (the flat Limmat valley). The hilly parts of town are almost free of cyclists without mountain bikes and special outfits.

What better illustration of the role terrain actually plays?

Mikael said...

lies? that's amusing.

anyway, here's a list of the top cycling cities in the world.

topographically unexciting cities feature prominently, but as you can see there are many topographically interesting cities on the list.

next question?

M'dame Jo said...

Lucy's not saying that you "lied" about Basel not being a cycling friendly city, but Basel is indeed pretty flat - as I also said in a previous comment - and saying that it's build on the "steep banks" of the Rhine is actually misleading.

Mikael said...

In civilised discussions "Telling lies" would be presented as "giving the wrong impression" or "misleading".


The information was originally sent to me by a Swiss reader. I googleearthed a bit and wrote it. fortunately it is only one city and there are many other examples.

M'dame Jo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M'dame Jo said...

I certainly agree that the word "lies" is too strong. I generally try not to focus too much on wording on blogs where many of us speak English as a second or third language. I've mildly insulted people often enough with no intention of it :-)

Anyways, if you ever come in Lausanne, we'll talk about about how a country being flat can't explain a bike culture by itself, but how steep slopes can certainly discourage many people to even try cycling...

Lucy said...

"but as you can see there are many topographically interesting cities on the list."

such as.....? I'm not familiar with them all by any means, but if there are better examples, why highlight the relatively flat city of Basel?

I am not claiming to know whether or not your ideas about topography and cycling are based in fact, all i'm saying is that your examples are unhelpful.

Also, as I pointed out, it is one matter to observe a lot of cycling in a city with hills, and another entirely to claim that these hills are cycled.

Lucy said...

oh, and i apologies for causing offence with "lies" - it wasn't meant in an inflammatory way at all.

Anonymous said...

I ride most days in Calgary and have an elevation difference between work & home of 210 metres and don't get me started about the crazy neoconservative bike haters we share the roads with.

Ben Wilson said...

I ride in Auckland and it's very hilly, being a volcanic town. I can tell you that it is certainly a discouraging factor to cycling. Auckland is by far the biggest city in New Zealand, but Christchurch seems to have most of the bicycles, being flat. It's hard to find a secondhand bicycle online that doesn't have to be shipped from there. I compare these cities because the 'culture' is generally much the same between them, so the difference really is geographic.

Which is not to say that cultural and infrastructure factors don't play a big part. But this is a chicken and egg problem - which came first? Auckland being hard to cycle in, or Aucklanders not liking to cycle, and thus neglecting cycling infrastructure?

My own solution is electric - I'm not a sport cyclist and don't like to arrive at the top of every hill drenched in sweat. It's not so much about how steep the hills are here, it's about how many there are, and how long they can go on for. Between my house and the city, 10 kilometres away, there are about 6 reasonably hard ascents, and the city itself is a hill.

I'm sure hardcore cyclists do laugh at my bike, and they certainly make a point of overtaking me all the time. Of course they are totally unaware that the electric bike is only slow because of regulation prohibiting it from speeds in excess of 40kmh, and a power limit of 300 watts (in NZ). For my purposes, it is almost entirely a way of avoiding excessive sweating on hills, and I don't use the power anywhere else. Nor do I have any interest in competing with sport cyclists anyway, that would be like trying to outrun every jogger I see, when I'm out for a pleasant walk.

I regularly take my son for long rides, something that would be very tough even for trained cyclists in Auckland, carrying an extra 30kg is hard work.

I agree with the above comment that it tricks you into cycle fitness. The electric alone is never enough, and you always put in some effort, usually switching the electric off at cruising speed. The point is that you can control how much effort you expend, rather than letting the rugged terrain of Auckland decide for you. At the end of the day, it is still a bicycle, not a scooter or a motorbike, and anyone who expects that from it will be disappointed.

I don't think electric is the solution for everyone - it is certainly more costly. But it is a good solution for some, not just the elderly. It has helped me reattain cycle fitness at a pace that suited me, something that might not have happened otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I think the comment about the wind is an interesting one, and it is a comment that few people have delt with. Sure hills are tougher than flat, but you can also go down hills, so they have two sides to them, literally. If you have cycled regularly you will know that a strong wind, will have an effect the same as a hill, so personally wind and hills I think amount to the same thing. Essentially then, I agree with the writer of the blog, its more about attitude, and biking infrastructure rather than geography. A hill, and even a moderate wind amount to the same thing.

Anonymous said...

My comments on wind, need further explanation, If you are riding up a hill with no or little wind, when you get to the top you will have the advantage of going down the other side. If you are riding into the wind you will generally be riding into the wind for most of your journey, with no advantage of the wind changing direction the opposite way. It is like riding up one constant hill. If the author of this blog is right about there being strong wind, I believe it therefore backs up his claim that it is more about attitude then topography, because a strong breeze is like one constant hill that never ends.
Hills are not an excuse for not cycling, and Denmark being flat is not the reason they do cycle either. What about their stong winds.

M'dame Jo said...

Anonymous, I actually don't think going up is the only "hill issue." I've often heard people not daring to bike in Lausanne because they are afraid to bike downhill in traffic, which is seen as dangerous. And which would actually be safer if we had separate lanes - real ones, not a symbolic dashed line that just forces us to bike too close to parked cars and exposes us the risk of impromptu door openings...

Better infrastructures certainly encourage cycling, but it's a bit of a chicken-egg dilemma: why build infrastructures for so few cyclists? Unless there's a strong political will to encourage alternative transportations, it just doesn't happen.

And in the case of Lausanne, I think it's smart from our politician to promote electric bicycles (see my previous comments).

And also, biking downhill/uphill when there's snow or ice certainly requires more skills than biking on a flat road... I do take my mountain bike to commute in winter days, it's much safer. And much heavier.

M'dame Jo said...

Here's a study on what makes people cycle in Denmark, Netherland, and Germany:


tensimon said...

great post, thanks, it's very hilly here in okinawa, so people think they can't go by bike. It's also subtropical, so they think its too hot , but it's just about your expectations - if you expect to do it in an airconditioned steel box, of course cycling will seem like hard work.

however, when and if you expect to have to pedal, cycling seems like a joy because you can relax and enjoy the scenery and the exercise.

also, with enough people cycling, society will start to take notice and create infrastructure to match (showers for the summer!)

great post, thanks


Anonymous said...

I cycle in Dublin Irl everyday and yes it is a little up an down, hardly a level road going anywhere. I have a seven speed Nexis hub. It is a state of mind I dont cycle up a hill I gently wind my bike up a hill. Cycling along your city is one of the most enjoyable things you can do and it is often quicker then any other form oftransport. Just try it wherever you live.

garenend said...

I have to disagree with your claim. I live in the north of the Netherlands and the wind can be quite discouraging but it isn't there everyday. When you have a commute which has two climbs then you will have to climb them twice everyday. Stating that during the first wave of mass-bicycle use people rode bikes everywhere begs the question why they don't anymore. My guess is the alluring convenience of other modes of transportation. In the back of my mind is the memory of eventually switching to bus-rides for my high-school commutes and how I enjoyed the warmth and comfort in the bus. I never regretted ditching my bicycle. Even though I am a bicycle-enthusiast to this day. Finally, rain and extreme heat are no more than an inconvenience and of passing nature as well as the wind. As in the sciences of history and economics, you cannot ignore the influence of geography.

David Hammond said...

First off great article as well as a great web site.
I live in Denver,CO.The city
is mostly flat and easy to get around on by bike, I just wished the drivers were more friendlier.
David Hammond

ATX Bikette said...

Austin is pretty hilly, and a lot of people still ride here. (It's not called the Hill Country for nothing.) Especially in South Austin where I live, it may not look hilly, but on your bike you can definitely feel it. I finally got a much lighter and better road bike and felt the difference immediately. Oh and its also hot hot hot here. 105 F in the summer is not unusual. Tons of people still bike. It's actually in winter here where you stop seeing so many people riding.