27 October 2012

A Nation on Two Wheels

One night in Copenhagen, as the two of us were riding our rented bicycles to dinner, a policeman stopped us on a bridge.  At first, I assumed that he was motioning to a passing car, his stance was so official.  But he was making eye contact, and I noticed that a few other cyclists were also stopped there on the sidewalk, talking to other officers.
"Where are you from? How long have you been in Denmark? Do you live here?" he asked, once we'd pulled over.  We were smiling and almost laughing at him - it didn't seem like we could be in any trouble. Our passports are in fine order, we hadn't broken any laws. Turns out, he wasn't worried about our immigration status, and we were doing something illegal.
"I can take you to the bank right now," he said.  "Seven hundred kroner fine for you" - sticking his finger in my chest - "seven hundred kroner for you" - pointing at Rebecca. "Payment immediate, or I arrest you."  He put his hands together, miming handcuffs.  Uh… what?
It turns out that bike lights are required at night in Denmark.  It's a national law.  As soon as the streetlights are illuminated, every cyclist needs a white light in the front and a red light in the back - this being one of the most bicycle friendly places on earth, riding un-lit is a bit like driving a car without working brake lights.  The policeman very sanctimoniously let us go - walking our bikes - because we were foreigners.  "Buy lights at a seven-eleven," he grunted.
Yes sir.
About half of Copenhagen's citizens bike to work or school every day.  In a flat, mostly temperate metropolis like this, it's hard not to see the benefits of taking a bicycle instead of a car - it's faster, easier and maybe even safer.  During the three days that we had our rentals, we fell in love with the capital's terrific double transportation system - one set of lanes and traffic signals for cars and a separate one for those of us on two wheels.  It's orderly and well set-up, and almost everyone plays by the rules.  Cars are very careful of bicycles and every rider stops at the miniature traffic lights.  Most main roads have good bike lanes, and on smaller streets the smaller vehicles have the right of way.
This reliable bike is a postal trike, for delivering the mail.
Like in Holland - another flat, much cycled country - the wealth of different cycle options is really outstanding.  Ingenious, front-mounted platforms and crates allow people to carry heavy loads - we saw one man riding with a set of four dining room chairs.  Children are whisked around in a similar way, in the front bucket.  There's a multitude of different companies making vehicles like this - from Copenhagen's own Christiania Bikes to the hipper Bullitt Cargobikes. There are mail bikes and delivery bikes, street vendor bicycles and cycles with pizza-boxes built in.  Sometimes the cargo is carried behind the seat, but usually between the handlebars and the front wheel.
The best part about getting around by bike is that you never have to look for parking - just pull over, flip down the kickstand, lock the back wheel and walk away.  The woman we rented our apartment from told us not to worry too much about bike theft.  "Sure, it happens," she said.  "But not like in New York, for example."
One reason why is that there are so, so many bicycles parked out on the street.  Huge masses of them - like shoals of shining fish - congregate around train stations and supermarkets.  In crowds like that, the nicest bikes are usually the only ones fastened to something sturdy.  Most - like our rentals - just had a locking bar that clicked through the spokes and prevented the bikes from being ridden away.  We didn't worry too much.  Someone might have picked up our rickety old things for scrap, but that would have been a lot of work.
It's not just the city streets of Copenhagen that are full of cyclists.  All through Denmark, people are enthusiastic about riding.  On Funen island and in Kolding it was about as common as in the capital, if a little less organized.  Local governments have been banding together to create "superhighways" for two-wheeled commuters, complete with air-pump stations and winter plowing.  Several of these mega-paths already service Copenhagen's suburbs, and the government is planning on adding more soon.
An initiative (curiously) named "karma" has also been started, to reward cyclists for following the rules of the road.  Supposedly, volunteers on the street hand out chocolates to riders who obey traffic lights and use the proper signals.  I'm not sure why this is really necessary.  Barely anyone breaks the law.
In recent years, there's been a wave of public bike rental plans - or bike "sharing" - in European cities.  Most of them work with some kind of easy, credit-card based system.  The idea is, you have a charge card that's billed for the amount of time the bike is used - or, maybe, a payment is made that's good for a full day.  Special bike racks are set up at different points so that it's possible to pick up a ride on one side of town and "return" it on the other.  Some version of this exists in 165 cities worldwide, with notable examples in Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and soon in New York.
Copenhagen has one-upped the other cities though, with free "borrow" bikes.  A twenty kroner coin is all it takes to unlock your ride.  You get the money back when you re-chain the lock - much like the  deposit mechanisms on supermarket carts or airport baggage dollies.  They're not the greatest vehicles - heavily built, with airless, hard tires and balky gears - but they're dependable.  They also come with handy maps mounted to the handlebars.  We didn't use them - they're not always easy to find - but did see plenty of them around town.
The night we were stopped by the police, we did end up buying lights (dinky, flashing, plastic things) and making it to the restaurant we were heading to.  There, when we were talking to the American chef, he congratulated us for arriving "like the locals."  He laughed when we told him about getting pulled over.  "I always play the tourist card," he said.  "I've been in Copenhagen for four years, and I still haven't gotten the lights. Never got a ticket."


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