Saturday, 16 July 2011

Danish life: Is this why cycling works?

It was during the London tube strikes a couple of years ago that my husband first started cycling to work. We lived in Swiss Cottage and he worked at Canary Wharf so it was quite an effort to add the 35 minutes of hard pedalling (70 mins for a return journey!) to his weekly workout schedule. Then he gave up his annual tube pass and cycling became his preferred means of commuting. I was already a cyclist but this was how we became a biking family. When we moved to Copenhagen, maintaining our cycling lifestyle was effortless but we upgraded our wheels with two major purchases: first we invested in a cargo bike, which is used for school runs and whenever we need to transport both the children, and then my husband bought a very stylish road bike (see pics). If you also take into account our little boy's first bike with stabilisers, we're now a 13-wheel family!

Cycling here in Copenhagen is so easy. Looking back, the London commute was a death wish. Here there are cycle lanes on most roads and at junctions there are usually separate traffic signals for cyclists. There are different rules from London too: for example, you signal to slow down and when you want to turn across traffic you have to cross with pedestrians not the cars (ie you continue across a junction and then wait for the signal to change and cross again). But it isn't just the cycling rules and etiquette that makes it a very agreeable way to travel, there is a different attitude between the road users of Denmark and their English counterparts. It is an attitude of mutual respect. I have encountered only one incident of 'cycle rage' and that was a woman who swore at me when I was cycling along and eating ice cream with a fellow mum-friend in slow moving mid-afternoon traffic. She stood out like a sore thumb from the otherwise very pleasant biking masses.
I'm not alone in my awe for the Copenhagen cycling culture, it is renowned across the world and the Danes should be proud that in their capital city 55% of inhabitants commute by bike every day. This statistical tidbit comes from the Monocle's 'Quality of Life' survey that places Copenhagen at No 3 amongst the world's most liveable cities. An article discussing what liveability means to urban planners quotes one architect as saying that liveability means 'joy, leisure, health, communication and interaction, and not just fulfilling basic needs'. So far as urban transportation is concerned, this must mean that a city should provide not just a means of getting people to work but it must be an enjoyable and healthy experience. Ask anyone who has ever travelled on the Northern Line in London between 7 and 9 am and I would hazard a guess that being pressed up against the arm pit of a stranger does not fit the bill and neither does cycling to work when it means sharing a traffic lane with anything from a milk float to a concrete mixer.
It is no secret that owning a car in Denmark is expensive; the sales tax on a car is 180% and so this might explain one of the incentives for sticking to two wheels. However, this week I learned of another very important reason why the bike is a safe as well as a cheaper option. When my husband set off for his 30 km commute from Copenhagen to Hillerød on Wednesday morning on the beautiful road bike with vintage parts that I have been known to refer to as 'the other woman' in his life, he was hit by a car that came out of a side road and didn't stop. When he walked through the door as I was having breakfast with the children, carrying his beloved white beauty over his shoulder with its crumpled Campagnola back wheel, of course I was relieved that he was safe, that he had been wearing his helmet and that his injuries were only superficial. Obviously the damage to the impossible-to-source Campagnola bits and the inconvenience of this happening in July - the month when the city has shut up shop and retreated to the summer houses - was nagging but the personal injury lawyer in me couldn't help but wonder who was to blame.
Then I learned about the hierarchy of road users that protects the most vulnerable. Apparently, the road traffic law of Denmark provides that when a car hits a bike, the most vulnerable road user is protected and there is a presumption that the motorist is to blame. Likewise, if a cyclist hits a pedestrian, there is a presumption that the cyclist is to blame. Compared to the position in England where the Highway Code applies equally to all road users, the Danish approach has a ring of common sense to it. It might also explain why cyclists stop to allow pedestrians to board or alight from buses and why I can still not come to terms with the fact that I can be a couple of bike lengths away from a junction and with the lights green a car in the lane next to me will wait for me to pass before turning right.
I read a debate in the English press recently about whether or not it should be a legal requirement to wear cycle helmets. Naturally, if you're in an accident, wearing a cycle helmet might reduce the extent of the injury but I can't help wondering if it would be better to legislate to reduce the likelihood of road traffic accidents occurring. Do you think the motorists of London would drive differently if, in the event that they hit a cyclist, there was a presumption that they were to blame? Its just a thought.

P.S. I can't imagine that anyone would use this blog as an advice on Danish road traffic law but, just in case, here is my disclaimer: this blog post is written for the purposes of comment and discussion only. It is not a statement of the law or how it might apply to any particular set of accident circumstances and should not be relied upon as such.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Sew addictive

This time last week I was bemoaning the fact that with the photo challenge over and me being on a summer break from my Danish language classes, life as a stay at home mum was becoming a bit intense. Looking after children over the summer holidays is definitely fun and there's lots of opportunity for creativity but I do like to have my own little project going on on the side - something I do just for me. Then I read a couple of blogs by talented mums who make children's clothes and suddenly I was inspired and off to the shops I went to buy a sewing machine...
Last week I was feeling an absence of sublimity, this week my children are wearing pants that I made for them!! Inspired by a blog called MADE and the cute 'pants' (or trousers if you're reading this in England!) pattern that I was assured would be an ideal beginner project, I picked up some fabrics (cherries on blue for my daughter and stripey denim for my son) and set to work.
I'm not a complete novice at handling a sewing machine as my mother made all of our clothes when we were growing up; I know how to make up a spool and thread a machine and I also have some experience of using the foot pedal. However, prior to this week I had never tried to do any of these things with an excited 3 (nearly 4) year old sitting on my knee and keen to be my 'assistant'.
However, it turns out that he was indeed a very helpful assistant and he patiently watched and waited for his turn in the star role as 'pusher of the reverse sewing button'!! We worked together to make his little sister's cherry pants and I had to try hard to suppress my proud smile as she tried them on.
When the novelty had worn off and both children were sleeping, I spent more time getting to know the nuances of my new machine and took the plunge and made some pants for my son with the added feature of...... pockets!!
It was great fun to see the pants taking shape as I sewed and very satisfying to try on the finished article this morning. The patterns from MADE worked perfectly and her tutorials were very clear and easy to follow. How my week turned around and now I'm thinking about what to make next and scouring the internet for more funky patterns.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Arne Jacobsen by the side of the road

The summer is here and what a beautiful summer it is turning out to be. Blue skies and sunshine are the order of the day but there is also the feeling that at any moment, the wind will pick up, the clouds gather and a spectacular thunderstorm will pass through the city. Maybe this is why the Danes make the most of every moment of sunny weather. From the minute spring arrived, the covers on the cargo bikes have been peeled back, skin is on show and the parks and beaches are now full. The school year is over and for many this marks the retreat from the city to the summer houses. Those of us remaining in Copenhagen are left with a seemingly endless choice of grassy and sandy picnic spots; indeed, we are spoilt by the number of beaches on our doorstep. Living in Østerbro, when the temperature rises, we jump on the bikes and head off for Klampenborg, Hellerup, Charlottenlund or Swanemøllen. It was on one of our rides up to Klampenborg that I met Arne Jacobsen by the side of the road.

I say 'met' but in truth it was his beautiful petrol station that caught my attention. I had read about it and its iconic mushroom shape but the bright white washed building glistening in the sunshine was something else in reality. Cycling along Strandvejen, the beachside architecture is a constant distraction and as the Klampenborg bay comes into view, there is a sense that one has cycled back in time and I always expect to find the beach awash with 1930s beauties in halter neck polka dot bikinis and sipping 'shakes' and 'sodas'. The whole beachfront vista has a pre-war retro feel to it with the white flat roofed single and two storey buildings that lead to the Bellevue Teatret (also Arne Jacobsen).
The petrol station is like a gateway to this retro world and thank goodness it is now a listed building protected from destruction and redevelopment. Of course, Danish design and architecture are renowned worldwide but it wasn't until I read a little more about Mr Jacobsen that I realised I had already (unknowingly) fallen in love with his work.
For a number of years I attended a law conference at St Catherine's College, Oxford. We stayed in the college accommodation and I always enjoyed the simplicity of the college building; two long rectangular  blocks of student rooms rising to only three storeys in height with two perpendicular blocks of functional rooms - including the JCR and SCR sitting rooms, the dining room, library and lecture hall. In the interior there is a reflection of the building's outer simple and clean form. The lines of the flat roofed box like buildings compliment rather than dominate the beautiful green surroundings. I always thought it must have been a wonderful setting for student life and it turns out that it too was the work of Arne Jacobsen back in 1964. In fact, he won the RIBA bronze medal for it!
As his biographer, Jørgen Kastholm, noted, it must have been a bold move for the master of St Catherine's College to choose a Danish architect and in 1968 he wrote of the college that 'the buildings will age with dignity and thereby create exactly the frame around youth and education which Arne Jacobsen planned'. As a visitor to the college some 40 years later I can say that for me, the college has aged with both dignity and grace. Well into the 'noughties', it appealed to me as a calm but inspirational environment for learning.
And the same can be said for the Skovshoved petrol station completed in the 1930s. Its clean lines and the unique shape of the canopy over the forecourt have made it an icon of the architectural era that it represents. It stands now as a shrine to Arne Jacobsen whose early works dominate the beachfront a little further up the coast. I am thrilled to have stumbled across these two fabulous examples of Danish architecture which appealed to me aesthetically in very distinct and unconnected circumstances. I wonder where I will next bump into Mr Jacobsen now that I'm here in his homeland and my appetite is whetted?