Almost Paradise
by Ernst Poulsen (August 1997)

Some countries have bicycles built into their culture. The Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Denmark are especially well known for this. Here's an inside report from a bicycle paradise:

You probably won't like this article. And I don't like writing it. It will seem nationalistic in its approach, and, to be honest, I don't like loud-mouthed, bragging people who believe everything in their own country is better. In fact, I can't stand them. So, let me get this much straight: I don't believe that Denmark is the world's best place to ride a bike. I use every opportunity to tell local politicians and civil servants that they should wake up and make this country truly bicycle-friendly. But, I understand that it might be inspiring to read about a country which at least has gotten some things right. I hope you'll accept those premises for this article. There's an e-mail address for those who would like to flame me.

Let me get right to it: I like cycling in my own country, mainly because I never feel alone. This is a cycling nation. No parents would deny their children a bicycle, because they all remember learning to ride one themselves. I remember the freedom I felt when I could suddenly venture on an expedition to the other side of town--or when I went on a trip with some friends across the entire country (Denmark is 200 x 200 miles) when I was 14 or 15. I enjoyed it even though we never finished our trip.

I later got an opportunity to cycle as a teenager in the friendly, calm Long Island suburbs about 35 miles from Manhattan. Even back then (1980-81) my fellow Americans used knee-pads and helmets when riding their bikes. I just rode. How else should I get around? And why use a helmet for an everyday activity like riding a bike?

(I know some of you are frowning now because of what I just wrote about helmets. But I'll quote the former Danish Minister of Traffic, Mr. Jan Troejborg: "We intend to double cycling before 2005, and with that goal in mind, a mandatory helmet law would not be good idea." Riding a bicycle is indeed thought of as an everyday activity--for everyone in this country.)

If you ask the Danish Bureau of Statistics, they'll tell you that Danes collectively cycle 5-6 billion kilometers a year. That's 2 miles a day every day for everyone in the country. And of course not everyone rides. Babies, for example. It's not from economic necessity,either: no, we don't cycle because we're poor. Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany are among the richest nations in the world--and their wealth is very well distributed among the general population.

We ride because it makes sense to bicycle to work, to the store, to the kindergarten, or on our vacations. Our Minister of Environment has made zoning laws which ban huge supermarkets and malls--simply because they generate a lot of automobile traffic. The result is that you'll still find small stores distributed all around town. What's even stranger is that we have chosen a government which has put a 180% tax on cars. Yep--you heard right. Any Dane who wants to own one car pays for three. We are surrounded by nations in which the citizens pay almost no taxes on cars--and we haven't even had a revolution yet. (Did I mention that gasoline is around 3-4 dollars a gallon?)

A third of all trips into the capitol (Copenhagen) are made by bicycle, a third by car, and the last third by train or bus. The minimum width for bicycle paths is 2.2 meters (7 feet), and you'll find bike paths leading right into the city. You may bring your bicycle on subway trains outside of rush-hour (it's free this summer), and there are several trains a day to the rest of the country on which you may bring your bike. Most county buses have room for 1 or 2 bicycles.

But there's more: four years ago the 14 Danish counties decided to signpost a national system of bicycle routes. Within 2 years a total of 10,000 kilometers of back roads and separate bike paths were tested and posted. Every county then issued a bicycle map, most of them in scale 1:100,000. Some 40-50,000 specific bicycle maps are sold every year.

And finally: the Danish Cyclists Federation has 30,000 members--from a population of 5.2 million. I guess that would equal some 1,300,000 members if we had the same population as the US.

I know it's just a lot of numbers, but I hope that some of them will convince you that this is a nice place to ride a bike. I think so. But, I'll admit that I'm one of those people who are hard to scare away from bicycling. I've tried Rome's madness, Frankfurt's automania, and the craziness of Manhattan. I rented a bike on the northern edge of Central Park this spring and rode it down to Rockefeller center and back. I guess it was on Fifth Avenue that an old lady yelled at me: "You can't ride a bike here. This is New York." Can, or can't--it's all a matter of cultural perception. I had a lot of fun that day. So I could.

Now, from the description I've given you might actually believe that Denmark is a paradise for cyclists. I could leave you thinking that--but I won't.

Our government is building a new bridge (12 miles) between Denmark and Sweden, but of course there was never a thought of a bike path. They've already built a bridge between the two main islands in Denmark--also without a bike path. And although you can simply get your bike across on the train instead, anyone with a bicycle trailer, a handicap-bike, any form of hpv, or a moped will have to use a bus instead.

A Danish cyclist who wants to turn left has to ride to the opposite corner and wait there before he can actually cross. There are plenty of city centers which are impossible to navigate because cyclists are not allowed on the system of pedestrian streets. And our government is of course still investing billions in highways and bridges.

So, in every paradise, there's always a couple of snakes.

Ernst Poulsen