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Dissidents in the City of Cyclists

The Copenhagen Post: Dissidents in the City of Cyclists

WEDNESDAY, 01 JUNE 2011 21:20 JENNIFER BULEY FOCUS ON

Have city planners gone overboard with the ambition to be “the city of cyclists”?

New bicycle bridges soaring over the inner harbour and linking the city centre, Christianshavn and the Opera. Plans for 26 suburban ‘bicycle superhighways’ by the year 2025.

Hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes. Some 37 percent of the population riding their bicycles to work and school everyday – and a full 50 percent expected by 2015. These are the reasons we love living in Copenhagen. Aren’t they?

Amidst the fanfare of proposals and newly rolled-out projects for bicyclists, it is sometimes tempting to forget that “the city of cyclists” still has residents who do not want to a ride bicycle, thank you very much. Some Copenhageners still prefer to walk or even – gasp! – drive a car.

But does Copenhagen prioritise bicyclists’ needs over those of pedestrians and others?

“That’s not only true of Copenhagen but also for the other cities in Denmark,” Mikael le Dous, chairman of the Danish Pedestrian Association, told The Copenhagen Post.

Le Dous suggested that the Danish Cyclists’ Association, which was established more than one hundred years ago and has approximately 17,000 members today, had been very successful in getting the different city governments to adopt its proposals.

That success has perhaps led to a bicycle-focused culture, where cyclists break traffic rules – like riding on sidewalks and against red lights – with near impunity.

“We started our organisation a little more than five years ago, precisely out of frustration with cyclists who violate traffic laws,” said le Dous.

“Many bicyclists are terrorists in some kind of way. They break a lot of laws and it makes pedestrians feel unsafe. Our goal is that everyone on the road – cars, cyclists, pedestrians – follows the rules.

If a certain question has just popped into your mind, it has already been answered on the Danish Pedestrian Association’s website under the FAQs.

“Question: Aren’t you guys just some bitter, old idiots?”

“Answer: It’s true that we are mostly mature folk. Maybe that’s why we know how fragile life is. We don’t believe in hastening death just to break some clearly written traffic laws.”

Le Dous suggested that balanced city planning depends on not lumping cyclists and pedestrians together or assuming they want the same things.

“The best solution is to stop thinking that pedestrians and cyclists are the same – they are not,” he said. “In Aarhus and Aalborg and parts of Copenhagen, they put up signs saying cyclists can ride on pedestrian streets. That’s fine, but then you shouldn’t call it a pedestrian street. Pedestrians and cyclists are very different things.”

The city’s development plan for a bicycle (and pedestrian) bridge that will connect Nyhavn harbour to Christianshavn island by 2013 seemed to put the interests of cyclists, pedestrians, boaters and drivers all at odds.

When the new bridge – which, incidently, will be named after the winning entry from a bridge naming contest, with a new bicycle as the prize – is finished, more than 3,000 bicyclists are expected to cross it every day.

Copenhagen’s Centre for City Design saw an opportunity to turn Nyhavn’s shady side – where the bridge will connect to the inner city – into another version of its lively, pedestrian-friendly sunny side by eliminating the existing car parking and combining a promenade with outdoor cafe seating and a direct bicycle path between Kongens Nytorv square and the new bridge.

“The shady side has the potential for relaxing as well as cultural and maritime activities along the quayside,” the Centre for City Design wrote in its development proposal.

But while some local residents were jubilant over the bicycle path and bridge and the end of car parking on Nyhavn, others took to city’s website to protest the prioritisation of bicyclists over pedestrians, cars and even boats.

“It is wishful thinking to imagine that you can get everybody to ride a bicycle or take the train when, for example, they are going out to a restaurant at Nyhavn,” wrote ‘A resident of Nyhavn’.

Another local resident, Ida Pagh Davidsen, wrote: “I think the neighbourhood committee should prioritise pedestrians more than cyclists, who – plain and simple – ride wherever they want anyway.”

Pedestrians and outdoor cafes along Nyhavn’s shady side, plus 3,000 cyclists – riding at an average speed of 16 kilometres per hour in the city, according to Copenhagen’s “city of cyclists” website - might be a dangerous mix, according to the Danish Pedestrian Association’s chairman.

“You cannot relax and you have to be alert. You cannot let your children run around,” le Dous said. “Bicyclists today ride much faster than they did 40 years ago – they go four or five times the speed of a pedestrian. Plus bicycles are a big force compared to old people and children.”