08 December 2009

The Galapagos Islands of Bicycle Culture

I've called Copenhagen and Amsterdam the Romulus and Remus of modern urban bicycle culture before. Another analogy applies to Denmark and Holland. These two countries are, in many ways, the Galapagos Islands of modern Bicycle Culture. We're different species of Darwin's Finch, yet we both love to fly on human-powered wheels.

These two countries and the main city in each have evolved in each their own way over the past thirty or forty years. Many of the details are interesting anthropological observations that would probably be difficult to trace to the root. Here are some of them.

Freedom Bike Baskety Goodness
Very generally, pannier bags are used in Holland whereas front baskets are the norm in Denmark, usually wicker.

Wind in His Hair The Daily Haul
This is all very general, of course, but often when the Dutch do have a basket it's a sturdy plastic crate. And you do see pannier containers in Denmark, too. We all agree that carrying stuff on a bike is paramount, but it's fascinating to see how these two standard forms developed.

Lady Like You and Your Girl
Doubling on a bike in Holland involves sitting side saddle as a rule whereas in Denmark it's the straddle that is the norm. Personally I don't know which one I prefer, as a passenger. They both have their qualities. But again, two Galapagos Islands worked out different norms.

Family Balance Family Bike *
Both countries, however, are known to be creative in passenger transport when need be.

Four on the Floor Street Music
When it comes to cargo bikes, the Dutch have a tradition of two wheelers. In Denmark the average cargo bike has three-wheels. Fascinating to speculate as to why that is, from a modern historical and anthropological point of view. Especially considering the fact that 60 years ago, the type of cargo bikes on the streets were much the same.

Dutch Locks Suits Him
Bike theft is a big problem in both countries. In Amsterdam a heavy chain lock is a must when locking your bike. In Copenhagen, the basic wheel lock is the way to go.

Cargo Bike Baby Transport
Again, exceptions exist like this blue cargo bike in Amsterdam on the left and the two-wheeler in Copenhagen on the right.

Now it's safe to say that the similarities between our parallel bicycle cultures far outnumber the differences. Like Darwin's Finch we are all birds that love to fly and we act and live like the same kind of bird. I love, however, these details of the evolution of bicycle culture and could spend far too much time speculating as why they are different a mere 650 km to the south.

If you have any other anthropological observations, dear reader, please add them in the comments.


It is a similar thing with the way that our infrastructure has developed. Decades of slow, steady development has resulted in similar solutions but also a number of different variations.

Study trips are something of a more modern development in city planning. There was contact between Dutch and Danish planners over the past decades but not as much as today. Now we see Danes travelling to Holland and the Dutch travelling to Denmark. We all travel to Germany and Japan and beyond to learn from their innovations and solutions.

Raising one nation's solutions above others is folly. Imagine if there were actually people who spent time trying to do that! What we all have today is the result of countless traffic planners work over several decades in a wide geographical area. There are many instances of common Best Practices, just as there are many instances of solutions that are unique to one country or even one city or region.

Those from abroad who come shopping for bicycle infrastructure models and/or inspiration often visit both Holland and Denmark. There are excellent examples of small city solutions in both countries.

For larger cities, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are goldmines of inspiration and innovative solutions. Personally, I prefer cycling around Amsterdam. I love the organic flow of bicycles in the city. Amsterdam is so wonderfully unique.

I have written before that the city is perhaps too unique. I don't believe that we will see a new Amsterdam emerge in my lifetime. The whole layout of the city is so specific to Amsterdam that is often hard to translate what you see there to other cities.

What I hear from the traffic planners who visit us in Copenhagen is that they can stand in this city and envision their own city at the same time. There is an old historic city centre, sure, but the broad boulevards, the motorways and the urban sprawl [3rd largest in Europe] with the accompanying public transport network - all integrated with bicycle infrstructure - can all serve to resemble other cities on distant continents if you squint a bit.

To be honest, I wish every city could be like the city centre in Amsterdam but it seems that most larger cities are working towards a Copenhagenize solution. Small provincial cities have it easier. There are many examples of smaller cities moving quickly towards reestablishing the bicycle as an accepted and respected form of transport on their streets, in France, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy and abroad.

Large urban centres are trickier. You need more dumplings in the soup, as the old Danish saying goes. The challenges are greater.

Fortunately, if you look at both Denmark and Holland, Copenhagen and Amsterdam [not to forget dozens of Japanese cities], the sources of inspiration are many.

Sprint Cycle Ballet
Whatever the case, one thing is certain. Wherever you go you'll see a ballet of human-powered movement. The melody may be slightly different, the lyrics altered somewhat, but you'll be able to hum along and tap your foot to the orchestra of bicycles.


Erik Sandblom said...

Another similarity -- if I may be so bold -- is that many people in both cities still manage to miss the potential of bicycles, even though it's right there in front of them.

Henry modestly says that cargo bikes only went mainstream in Amsterdam after he opened his shop. He's probably right. I can see how your typical Amsterdamer just didn't think of bicycles as useful for anything more than a child seat, a pannier or a basket.

"Of course I don’t take credit for the growth in general, but I do believe WorkCycles has done its share to professionalize and market cargobikes, traditional dutch city bikes and the likes."
An American with a bike company in Holland?

I notice the same thing in the green movement. Environmentalists look favorably at bicycles, but they don't see them as a serious form of transportation until you show them the modal share of places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and how the bike traffic has risen even since 1990 (+75% in Copenhagen).

Cycling is becoming mainstream again, but it looks to me like there's going to be a prolonged adolesence in the public consciousness.

James D. Schwartz said...

Mikael, was this article a retaliation or a truce to David Hembrow's recent crticism of Copenhagen? ;)


dukiebiddle said...

J.D.S., I got such a hoot reading that yesterday, him pointing out that Copenhagen's bike lanes are far too narrow at 2.2 meters, as opposed to the Dutch 2.5 meters. Craziness! The whole thing was such a knee slapper.

Sue 'sans' helmet said...

i'm just jealous 'full stop' of all of you!

Anonymous said...

An excellent and fun reply, my UK finch is a mountain bike with front and rear racks, ridable in all European states. Mark

Kevin Love said...

Mikael, I would be interested in a source for your oft-repeated statement of 55% cycle mode share in Copenhagen.

Where I live here in The Riding of Toronto Centre, the commute mode share is:

38% public transit
34% cycling and walking
26% motorist (drivers and passengers)

Here's my source, The Toronto Star (Canada's largest circulation newspaper) which in turn cites the 2006 Census at:


Erik Sandblom said...

Kevin, download the Copenhagen Bicycle Account 2008 (English version).

Under the heading "Cycling to work or education," it states:

37% of everyone working or studying in Copenhagen cycles to their place of work or education in the city. That figure includes Copenhagen residents as well as people from other municipalities who work or study in Copenhagen. In other words around 150,000 people cycle to work or school in Copenhagen every morning.


If we limit ourselves to Copenhagen residents working or studying in the city, the cycling share of transport is 55%.

So there you have it. Thanks for the Toronto stats!

David Hembrow said...

Mikael: You say "Raising one nation's solutions above others is folly. Imagine if there were actually people who spent time trying to do that!" I wholeheartedly agree.

So, why exactly did you post a list of "
The World's Most Bicycle Friendly Cities
" with your dubious "55%" prominently at the top ? You won't find any such list on my blog.

James: Is this a response to my post ? I don't know. However, I really don't want to criticise Copenhagen. It's a great city. They've achieved a lot. It is merely dodgy statistics that I feel need to be pointed out.

dukiebiddle: You've missed the point entirely. The width of the cycle lanes is merely part of what explains the low feeling of safety for cyclists in the city and the lower take up of cycling as a result. That Copenhagen still thinks it is acceptable to build junctions on which cyclists going straight on have a green light at the same time as drivers turning right is another probably cause. We don't have those here.

Erik: So the 55% refers not to "all journeys," and not even to commuters but to a subset of commuters, all of whom are adults and students ?

If you choose small enough
subsets you can of course come up with a high figure for just about anything. e.g. 100% of cyclists cycle. It's simply a way of manipulating statistics.

As no other place makes such a measurement it's something we can't compare with any other place.

It also doesn't explain "55% of the population choose the bicycle for all trips" as appears on the right hand side of all posts on this blog, nor why Mikael took this figure to put Copenhagen at the top of a selection of figures measured in different ways in other cities in his ordered listing which I linked to above.

If you really want to compare figures for different places, you have to compare like with like. If you want to know how successful a city is in encouraging all sections of the population to cycle you have to look at "all journeys" figures and not just commuters.

Do you agree that Copenhagen's true figure for cycling as a proportion of all journeys is now around 23% ?

All: The Dutch have a saying: "Meten is Weten." It translates as "Measuring is knowing."

All the measurements I've seen regarding modal share in NL are as a proportion of all journeys, all age groups and all demographic groups.

You can't fight statistics with mere rhetoric.

Julia said...

Hello, everyone:

I live in Minneapolis, MN, and today I read this on the news. In a nutshell, it's a controversy on spending money on bike paths to a new stadium. The news itself isn't as half as interesting as the comments.


There is still A LOT to do here, eh? I guess when the bike share program is put in practice in this city, the trend might be changing.


Aart said...

Although Amsterdam is in the province of Holland, I'd prefer The Netherlands for the whole country. As a silent reader for a longg time, I just had to make this remark. So here it is.

The Netherlands eller Nederlandene på dansk, tak. Hele Danmark kaldes jo heller ikke for Fyn ;-)

Álvaro said...

I think we're missing an important point here. This blog is about marketing CPH's bicycle culture to the world, and I think it does it quite brilliantly.

This is not an academic blog where raw data is gathered and discussed scientifically. It's about marketing, so data is gathered and then used to serve a purpose. Nothing wrong with that btw.

Do I prefer the DUcth model? Yes. Is someone marketing it the same way Mikael is marketing CPH? No. Maybe Beta was indeed better than VHS, but someone didn't do the right promotion.

PS: Amsterdamize is great blog, but with different mission than Copenhagenize. My personal opinion.

dukiebiddle said...

David Hembrow, I didn't miss you point at all. I was simply entertained by your interpretation.

Kevin Love said...


Thank you for the link. The information there was very interesting. Unfortunately, it does not support the statement:

"55% of the population choose the bicycle for all trips."

It only looks at commute mode share, not all trips. And that "55%" is not "of the population," but only of those people who both live and work in the legal city of Copenhagen. Copenhagen never underwent an experience similar to the 1998 amalgamation of Toronto with its suburbs, so the legal city of Copenhagen is, in essence, the downtown part of the Copenhagen urban area.

The 37% is a much more reasonable number to use for commute mode share. By Dutch standards, this is a somewhat low commute mode share. I have not seen anything that could be used as a statistic for "all trips."

Sheffield Cycle Chic said...

I think the reason Copenhagen has been latched onto as a model for creating a cycling culture is because everyone associates cycling with Holland in the same way that they automatically conjure up images of tulips and clogs. It is too easy to dismiss cycling in this context as just a quirk and not applicable elsewhere (or at least too difficult for people to imagine it translated elsewhere).

The difference with Copenhagen is that the city has set great store by explaining to the world that they too followed the same path as everyone else and embraced the motor car, but that they realised much sooner than everyone else that this was killing their city.

It is the before and after photographs that hit home to politicians and transport planners and demonstrate that it IS possible to change - even if it does take 40 years!

On a lighter note I have noticed a similar panniers v front basket thing going on between Sheffield and Manchester. Panniers are the way to go in Sheffield and front baskets seem to be more popular in Manchester ;-)

Zuri said...

The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful posting. Thank you.


Daniel Sparing said...

@Sheffield if you are into these (so am i), here are some before and after pics for you from Holland (Den Bosch), too.