Day 65: Copenhagenized

It feels like ages ago, but the last time I updated my blog was the night before I left for Copenhagen. Having heard all about the Scandinavian infrastructure, and being a fan of Danish design in general, I was excited to take a long weekend away to gain an insight on cycling affairs outside of Scotland. We touched down into Copenhagen at around 6PM Danish time, arriving into Kongens Nytorv Metro station around 45 minutes later to be greeted with a freezing facade of bicycles outside Copenhagen’s central shopping mall. It was madness! It looked like a mass dumping ground, and the beautiful, cluttered mess of bike frames was a stark contrast to the ornate, elegant face of the shopping mall.

Something tells me that they’re rather keen on their bikes in Copenhagen

There were road works going on outside the Metro station, and even they accommodated cyclists alongside diverted pedestrians, something that felt both natural, and on reflection, peculiar – like one of those things you know is odd but can’t quite put your finger on. Walking down the street to our AirBnb, I noticed both that some bikes were just sitting by the edge of the street, open to theft (that’s the Dundonian in me talking). The Danish are so trustworthy of other pedestrians, but I guess at the end of the day, any potential thieves probably own a bike themselves.

Walking down a single street in Copenhagen was a real eye-opener to how the country is so different to ours. Cyclists have priority on the road, and instead of obscure markings on the road, the cycle paths in the city sit on a raised pedestal above the road, neither car nor pedestrian, but a different beast entirely. The most jarring thing I thought about was how different it was to a place like Amsterdam, which I’ve visited twice before. A place like Copenhagen could serve as a great model of progression for a place such as Scotland — the streets are like a hybrid mash of Glasgow’s wide streets surrounded by commanding buildings, yet retaining a sort of quirky village-esque kitsch that you can find in Amsterdam.

 
The colourful streets are wide and not without a plentiful supply of cars

I say this not only due to the similarities of urban space, but because cars are hardly a dying form of transport in the city. Infact, over the weekend I was there, the number of bikes in the city overtook that of cars for the first time ever — a coincidental statistic to emerge shortly after my trip. It goes to show that these cities should not be idolised because of their cycling infrastructure, but their transport infrastructure as a whole. Even the metro had a subtle beauty and simplicity to it, and as a visitor to the city, found it both simple and non-intimidating.

I began to realise that in order to improve British roads for cyclists, we have to make a change to our cultural mindset. However, this cultural mindset will not be initiated by one single change, such as more cycling paths. It requires citizen engagement and a major need for these services, for citizens to show that these things are needed by making their voices heard. It’s a difficult cycle to break (pardon the pun), as for more cycling paths to be implemented, more people need to want them – yet for more people to want them, people need to feel safe on the roads in the first place and begin to cycle. It’s hard to explain at the very least, but the benefits of proper cycling infrastructure are so clear to see somewhere such as Denmark.

For instance, the winter is a major turn-off for the budding British cyclist, yet in a place such as Copenhagen, where the weather is arguably worse, everyone is happy to take their bikes out. It is clear that the Danes do this not because they are for some special reason a brave people, or that they have some magical prowess for two wheel transport, but because their environment allows them to do so. This has taken years of change, and even in the 70’s, the government had a realisation that cars in the urban environment are not the way to go. This change can happen in Scotland. It just requires baby steps, and a gradual shift in how we move ourselves around our cities.

Horribly rainy and cold – yet the Danes still take to their bikes thanks to the fantastic infrastructure

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking it upon myself to solve these issues for the entire nation — that would be utterly delusional. However, using my skills in design, I can contribute to these baby steps, and hopefully create an outlet to enable or encourage more people to cycle. With that sentiment, I have finally found the general narrative running throughout my project.

As the weather in Denmark was genuinely dreadful, we decided not to hire bikes until the rain was less horizontal. Luckily, on the Sunday we had a relatively nice day that was still freezing cold, and we covered most of the city, from the Little Mermaid to Tivoli Gardens on our electric bikes. Cycling, due to the incredible infrastructure and non-intimidating roads, is such a fantastic way to discover Copenhagen. The city’s rental bikes are electric, which perfectly counterbalances the sheer weight of them, and they function like a pedal-powered motorbike. They are also very easily accessible, with a tablet type device set on the handlebars that provides an interactive map of the city and contact details incase anything goes wrong amongst other services. They are very well-designed, with a simple sign up service, especially for clueless tourists and even have a lock embedded within them that solves the issue of having to find a place amongst the hordes of bikes scattered around popular attractions.

 
Minimal and well designed – the rental bikes of Copenhagen

We even got to visit the design museum, which offered me a different dimension of inspiration for my project. I was in awe of the Danish design on show, especially since a fair bit of it related back to cycling itself. One interesting thing that I saw was a charming little traffic bollard, something that is usually not really paid attention to. I found it a curious design, as it acts as something functional, yet we never really consider it to be an aesthetic object. However, on further reflection, I was unsure if I liked it. It depends on what my design does, and if it is integrated into the city. I’m sure if I plonked something such as this onto one of Scotland’s streets, people would walk by in wonderment, or a state of confusion. As my final design will interact with people and their mundane environments, would it really be right for me to disrupt that with a fancy, irrelevant thing to look at? Nevertheless, I found it interesting that cycling extended even into Denmark’s own design culture, with not only this bollard, but exquisite wooden bikes on display throughout the building.

Cool – but would it look out of place somewhere like Dundee?

It felt like cycling was such an intrinsic part of the city, yet it wasn’t the main focus of what Copenhagen is all about. Mobility is a service, and one that is very well done. It opens up the city to tourists, and enhances the lives of those living there, and not only that, but the Dane’s bikes are absolutely beautiful. All in all, the experience provided me with a lot of insight and inspiration on how cycling should be done, yet also made me realise that yes, Scotland is quite a distance off from achieving something similar, but it can indeed be done.

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