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.


  1. The Northern Line morning rush! Yuck. Cycling is much better but I don't think I would ever do it in London.

    They did a study and found that women were more likely to die cycling in London than men... because women are more likely to follow the rules and men are more likely break them for safety. Instead of the news saying "blimey! The rules are wrong then, let's change them!" they just went "Buh! Women!"

    I feel a lot safer cycling around, I am usually not even sharing the road with cars and when I do, other traffic do not seem to mind that I keep a car-door distance away from parked cars.

  2. Adventuresandjapes - I read about that study too. Women cyclists are most likely to suffer serious (and even fatal) head injuries when they wait at traffic lights next to trucks and vans. The lights turn green and the wing mirrors hit the unseen cyclists. Its much safer to do what my husband used to do and run a red light when you can see that it is clear. My own method worked pretty well too - I used to always make sure that at lights I was in the middle of the traffic lane - so that the driver had no excuse for not seeing me!!! Cycling in London certainly wasn't relaxing.

  3. Thank goodness he was OK, even if his "other woman" had a bit of a bashing... I imagine cycling here is a breeze in comparison to London though, I saw quite a few accidents in my time working in the city... I couldn't bear to get the tube, but wasn't brave enough to cycle so I would walk half an hour each way from Waterloo, I miss it now!

  4. Emma - I used to walk from Waterloo sometimes too - the views across the bridge always took my breath away.

  5. Yes, I especially loved the view on the way home!! :)