The Life-Sized City Blog: Danish Police Ignorance About Cycling

Last week I attended the National Cycling Conference in Fredericia. To my surprise, I discovered that the town was in Jutland, the Danish mainland. I thought it was on the island of Funen. So I got a geography lesson, too. I was invited by the Road Directorate and the Danish Cyclists Federation to take part in a debate with sociologist Anette Jerup Jørgensen and Mogens Knudsen, police officer and Superintendent in Copenhagen's Police Traffic Unit. Journalist Adam Hannestad from the newspaper Politiken was the moderator. Anette started by discussing some her findings regarding the behavour of cycling citizens. In the blue corner, Mogens was representing the police's tradtionally staunch conservative line that cyclists should just obey every single rule. Period. I have since learned that this is perhaps more Mogens' personal line rather than the entire Danish police. In the red corner, yours truly. I was on the other side of the scales, saying that traffic laws should be adjusted according to the needs and behaviour of our Citizen Cyclists. It was Fight Night in Fredericia! Although it was a light-hearted affair. I started my bit by revealing that in the week up to the debate I had recorded every traffic violation I had committed. I had turned right at red lights 15 times. I rolled past the stop line at red lights 19 times. I started rolling before the light turned green 9 times. I forgot my lights twice. I rode down one-way streets 8 times. All in all the police missed out on fines totalling 26,500 kroner [€3530]. All these infractions were done at low speeds and without bothering any other cyclists or pedestrians and at no danger to myself. I'm a Crime Rider! Crazy! Anette had some results showing that cyclists responded in a survey thus: 51.6% said they always obeyed the traffic laws. 46% said that they did most of the time 2.3% said that they never do. This was a different picture to the one that the police (and media) like to paint. One that would give you the impression that cyclists are lawless rogues. I'll admit that it was a tough crowd for Mogens. A room filled with participants at the national cycling conference. But he took it with good humour. I argued that in order to understand cyclists, it's important to look at pedestrians and their behaviour. To understand the human desire to get from A to B on the route with least resistance. Like on busy pedestrian streets. I highlighted that if cyclists and pedestrians bend the rules it is probably because they are merely reacting to an environment that isn't designed properly for them or their needs. Mogens admitted that the Danish police never go on any study trips to other cities to speak with colleagues about their experience. They don't do any research and have little experience with keeping up to speed with traffic safety developments.

This entire discussion, I pointed out, was really a bit silly. It's a discussion that has taken place for 125 years. I drew their attention to the satirical piece written in 1934 by Robert Storm Petersen which mocks the perception of cyclists as lawless rogues and, ironically, mirrors the current climate if reading comments on newspaper articles is any indication.

Basically, if "clamping down on cyclists" hasn't worked for the past 125 years, it's quite silly to think that it's going to change. There was no knockout on Fight Night in Fredericia, but the discussion and many points made by the crowd were hopefully beneficial in changing if not police behaviour then police perceptions about cyclists. The Danish police are extraordinally influential regarding traffic laws. Even just lowering speed limits in cities is near impossible because the police will invariably reject most applications or proposals.

A more bicycle-friendly attitude from the Danish police would do wonders for improving the image of cycling and promoting the bicycle as transport.

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