The Life-Sized City Blog: Bikes, Copenhagen and Disneyland: what we have in common

I'm heading to Los Angeles this week and I just remembered an article I wrote for the L.A. Times' Bottleneck section. It seems to have disappeared from their online version, but why not just chuck it up here. It's four years old, but hey. If you're following the latest series of articles here on the blog, you can see that The New Copenhagen only vaguely resembles the Copenhagen we thought we knew.

Bikes, Copenhagen and Disneyland: what we have in common
Los Angeles Times
August 08, 2008

A warm hello from me in Copenhagen -– the World's Cycling Capital. The sun is shining here in Copenhagen and the weather begs for a trip to the beach. It's a great city for cycling and on days like this you'll see over 50% of our population riding their bikes to work, school, the supermarket, the cafes and the beach.

While thinking about this article for the L.A. Times I found a reference to cycling in Los Angeles the other day: " There is no part of the world where cycling is in greater favor than in Southern California, and nowhere on the American continent are conditions so favorable the year round for wheeling. "

It's from a 1897 newspaper article, back during Bicycle Culture 1.0 and back when 20% of all trips were made by bike in Los Angeles. Impressive stats and an impressive cycling history in L.A.. We all know what happened later on, but it's cool to think that we used to have the bicycle in common instead of just Lego.

It's a funny old world. Despite healthy doses of globalization and an internet that makes ideas travel across borders quicker than you can Google "Paris Hilton naked," there are some areas where huge gaps are found. The Bicycle as a Feasible Transport Form is one of them.

While in America an effort is being made to reintroduce the bicycle to a nation that only has 1% of all trips made by bicycle, the goal in Copenhagen, Denmark, is to increase the percentage of daily cyclists from 36% at present to 50% in 2015. Here in the self-proclaimed World's Cycling Capital, modern Copenhageners have chosen to cycle in great numbers for the better part of four decades.

By all accounts we are on the cusp of Bicycle Culture 2.0 (Beta), what with oil prices skyrocketing, focus on the environment, peak oil and global warming. Back in Bicycle Culture 1.0, the gap between citizens of western nations was marginal.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the bicycle reigned supreme. When the safety bicycle -– the design we still use to this day -- was invented and all but eliminated the goofy penny-farthing (high-wheel) bikes from the scene, the world embraced it. It was a liberation for many groups in society.

The working classes could afford one and they were the first wave of cyclists on the street. Next came women and the first real women's liberation movement in history. The bicycle removed existing frontiers in cities, enabling people to travel farther and faster than ever before. It is even said that the bicycle improved the gene pool, allowing isolated farm workers or villagers to increase their mobility radius in the search of partners.

The scene was the same in America and Europe, as well as Asia. Hundreds of thousands of cyclists on the roads. Ironically, the world's most impressive separated bike path was built to connect Pasadena to Los Angeles in 1900. At that time 20% of all trips where made by bicycle in the Los Angeles region so the construction of the eight-mile Arroyo Seco Cycleway -- an elevated, multilane, wooden bike path, complete with streetlights and gazebo turnouts -– was a given.

The advent of the automobile age put the bicycle out to pasture. In America, the bicycle went from pleasant and feasible urban transport vehicle in the early days to child's plaything in the prosperous postwar years. Then the sports industry got a hold of it and spent decades selling cycling as a sport or recreation. Where it remains today, sadly and wrongly branded as a sweaty, dangerous and equipment-dependent activity and not much else.

While many people conjure up pleasant images of European cyclists bumbling happily over worn cobblestones in ancient city centers when they think about "cycling in Europe," it hasn't always been the case. The automobile had the same effect on us as well. Copenhagen was a congested, polluted city in the 1960s and more and more cars were being bought.

This is where our paths part. It took some radical political willpower in the Danish capital to start reversing the tide. We started pedestrianizing our city center and creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure. There were protests, sure, but the cries died out as soon as people realized that commerce increased and that the city was a lovelier place to be.

Now, 40-odd years on, a progressive network of separated bicycle lanes blankets the city. Doctors, students, parents with kids in a cargo bike, lawyers and shop assistants are all apart of a pleasingly aesthetic flow of human-powered goodness. Fifty-six percent of Copenhageners say that they ride their bikes because it's easy and fast. Only 1% ride for environmental reasons.

Bicycles are normalized transport vehicles and they are the lifeblood of the city, not the domain of impenetrable subcultures with political leanings. With my Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog I try to show how my fellow citizens ride each day. In style, with ease and every day of the week. When I coined the phrase Cycle Chic I had no idea how it would expand and spread across seas and continents. I figure that we all have Bicycle Culture 1.0 in our DNA. It's a part of our common history. Once you remove the geeky sport/recreation angle from cycling it's easy to remember that your family members, only a few generations ago, rode their bike each day in their normal clothes.

It makes the jump back onto the bicycle so much easier. We just have to do what we used to do so well. What's more, we have the opportunity to do it so much better.

One of your boys, Walt Disney, made a trip to Copenhagen back in the day and visited our Tivoli Gardens –- the 165 year-old amusement park in the heart of the city. He was promptly inspired to build Disneyland in an orange grove in Anaheim. Tivoli's founder, Georg Carstensen, said in 1844 that " Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished. " Walt echoed his words just over a century later by saying, " Disneyland will never be finished as long as there is imagination left in the world " and that Disneyland should try to emulate Tivoli's "happy and unbuttoned air of relaxed fun."

These sentiments can be just as well applied to Bicycle Culture and the Bicycle as a Feasible Transport Form. Imagination is required, as well as public and political will, but two out of three are an excellent start.

So here's me wondering ... who's the next Walt Disney "over there" who can see bicycle culture for what it is and what it can be and implement an upgraded version in the City of Angels?

Take back the bike culture. 


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