Putting the Dane in Dane County
Posted: 4:18PM July 24th, 2014 | Comments
Having just returned from a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, I am thrilled to be back in Madison for the summer, interning for Sustain Dane. My month back has been a busy one, making up for lost time at the Farmer’s Market and the Memorial Union Terrace, attending the Concert on the Square, and eating deep fried cheese curds (you just can’t find those in Europe). While I took every opportunity to boast about Madison while abroad, I also fell in love with Copenhagen as it became my second home. My coursework in sustainability and urban livability showed just how advanced the Danes are in sustainability efforts, perhaps most notably in their thriving biking culture.
My semester in the “City of Cyclists” inspired me to dive deeper into the motivations behind the everyday bicycle commuter. Do they lie in the sustainability benefits to regular cycling? In the health benefits? How are commuters motivated to make the switch from car to bike? Is it the infrastructure? The education? The policies? My goal in this series of blog posts is to address these questions through my observations and studies in Copenhagen and my continued research and involvement in Madison. I will address the benefits of a cycling society, strategies used to make Copenhagen a success and how they compare to strategies being used in Madison. I hope to create awareness of all that is being done for cyclists in Madison, a dialogue for continued progress, and a vision for the future of biking in Madison. But first, I’d like to share a snapshot of biking culture in Copenhagen, the biker’s utopia.
Biking is a way of life in Copenhagen. Every road is lined with a beautiful, raised and curbed bicycle lane. A quick glance down the street reveals a mom with three little ones plopped in the front of her cargo bike, blowing bubbles as they enjoy the ride, a teenager with a boom box strapped to the back of his bike playing loud forall to hear, a couple holding hands as they ride with ease, and a mail carrier hopping on and off his bike as he delivers letters.
In true Danish fashion, I rented a bike for the semester; it was a classy, black, upright city bike with high handlebars, a low crossbar for ease of hopping on and off (to stop and pick up a quick Danish pastry on the way), and, to my greatest delight, a lovely basket in front. Biking in the city was daunting at first; the sheer mass of bikers was amazing, weaving around each other and riding three or four across as everyone commuted to work. During rush hour, I counted over 100 cyclists waiting at the busiest traffic light. The energy of being surrounded by so many bikers, drinking lattes, talking on the phone, holding newspapers, each about their daily routine but sharing in the biking experience, was unforgettable. The beauty of biking lays not only in the sustainability benefits, but also in the fact that commuting becomes human-scaled, a shared experience with those you can now see and hear and feel around you.
It was both inspiring and encouraging to see such an established culture of bicycle urbanism. The city of Copenhagen facilitates such a culture with concrete strategies, policies, and actions to make biking a safe, comfortable, and convenient mode of transport. Contrary to the traditional motivations for biking in the United States, few Copenhageners bike for recreation or exercise, financial limitations, or for the environment. Rather, cyclists in Copenhagen bike primarily because it is the fastest, most direct form of transportation throughout the city.
The key to achieving this bicycle urbanism lies in making biking a normal, comfortable, and accessible form of transportation for all, not a form of transportation that requires sacrifice or a change in routine only undergone by extreme cyclists, environmentalists, or those who have no other choice financially. Bike commuters should not need to buy neon racing gear to compete with cars while traveling the city; office attire should suffice. Bike infrastructure should not be designed for the recreational and competitive cyclists; rather, it should be designed with the comfort, safety, and freedom of the everyday commuter in mind. When asked about the ideal size of a bike lane, my professor responded “it should be wide enough that a cargo bike can comfortably pass a couple holding hands while riding.” To achieve true bicycle urbanism on the Copenhagen scale, we need to expand the biking community beyond the enthusiasts. Infrastructure needs to be improved to enhance both perceived and actual safety. Bike lanes need to be expanded onto more roads so commuters have a consistent network, giving them the freedom they deserve.
Madison is undeniably ahead of the biking game in the US, consistently making the list of top biking cities in the country. I remember arriving in Madison as a freshman; I was in awe of the bike “roads” (most notably the Southwest Commuter Path and the eastbound bike lane on University Avenue through campus). Even upon returning from the bike utopia that is Copenhagen, I am impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of the Madison biking community. Unlike the Danish, whose Welfare State has the power and finances to implement aggressive policies promoting a biking culture, here we choose to bike because as individuals we care and we love it. We work from the bottom up, creating change within the system. We have made some amazing achievements; programs like Bicycle Benefits, the Dane County Bike Challenge, and Bike Friendly Businesses to name a few. But there is much room for improvement.
Madison has taken a huge strides in promoting and facilitating a biking culture. Let’s keep moving forward. The Danish have a great model to follow; the beauty of Danish infrastructure, like its furniture, lies in its simplicity. It speaks for itself, making it easily implementable. It is concrete and achievable. Let’s follow their model, and let’s improve it. I look forward to further researching and exploring the benefits of cycling to the individual and the community, the ways in which bicycle urbanism is developing and can be improved in Madison, and the specific strategies that could be smoothly imported from Copenhagen.