Dodging cyclists in Denmark

COPENHAGEN

Rush hour sounds different here–instead of the usual chorus of car horns and idling engines, the whir and rattle of bicycle chains take precedence. And I’ve felt like I need to take just as much care to avoid getting bumped by a bike as by a car, although the consequences of a mistake with the former would be much gentler.

Cyclists pedal past the train station and Tivoli Gardens in downtown Copenhagen on a cloudy Friday morning.

I’d read about the cyclist-friendliness of Copenhagen enough times and heard about it from my brother, who went here twice for work and then brought his family here for vacation because he liked the city that much. But seeing and hearing how many people get around by bike–37% report doing so on a typical day, according to a 2020 survey by the European Union that put Copenhagen second only to Amsterdam among major EU cities–is something else.

And the Danes seem to have done this without building a lot of complicated infrastructure. The typical accomodation here is a flat lane of pavement, elevated above the street and next to the sidewalk, where you might find on-street parking in the U.S. There are also a few cyclist-and-pedestrian bridges spanning the canals that split the city; seeing them made me look forward to the bike/pedestrian bridge due to be built across the Potomac as part of the Long Bridge project to add a second rail span.

The bikes aren’t too fancy either, almost all sturdy two-wheelers with fenders and cargo racks–except for the tricycles with the parallel wheels up front to accommodate a cargo compartment big enough for groceries, a kid, or a dog. Almost everybody wears street clothes, and most don’t bother with helmets.

A red regional-rail train's bicycle-stowage carriage blurs as the train pulls out of Copenhagen Central Station at night.

(It has to help that Copenhagen is a compact and flat city with short travel distances.)

Bike parking consists of not individual racks but entire arrays of them, some covered. Bike locks didn’t seem terribly strong, and I’m not sure how big of a problem bike theft is or if that’s the reason why so many Copenhagen bikes are on the plainer side.

The trains also welcome cyclists, with regional-rail cars setting aside plenty of space for bike storage. And the stairs leading in and out of stations each have runnels to let you wheel a bike in and out of them instead of having to lug it up and down.

It’s all a delight to see, but further investigation is required after my brief, four-day stay this week. For one thing, I didn’t get on a bike myself despite having bikeshare services as an option, and I feel bad about that.

What part of “Share the Road” can’t some drivers understand?

My wife has an mercifully short commute to work, which most days she speeds up by biking there. Friday morning, that route led to a detour through an X-ray machine and a CT scanner.

The fault: an idiot driver who attempted to make a left turn from a center, no-turn lane by signaling late and then turning into my wife’s path. She braked hard, fell off the bike and landed on her shoulder. The resulting damage: a fractured clavicle bone and some scrapes, plus a few weeks of having to get through everyday chores with her left arm in a sling.

The driver, meanwhile, continued on. It’s unclear whether passerby will be able to identify this menace.

At one level, I’m angry to see this reckless disregard for any human beyond one’s own windshield, much less my spouse. A driver like that could also threaten me when I’m walking around the neighborhood, or my neighbors, or any of our kids.

At another level, I don’t know why this happened to my wife and not me. She is an exceptionally careful cyclist–she was wearing a reflective vest Friday, just in case–while I have been much more foolish, especially in my younger days. (If I blew by you going the opposite way on the W&OD Trail¬†or the Cap Crescent 15 or 20 years ago, I’m sorry; I was a jackass.) And I’ve clocked several thousand more miles on two wheels. By that statistic alone, I should have taken this hit, not her.

What I do know: If you can’t share the road, do the rest of us a favor and get off the road until you can strap yourself into a self-driving car that, unlike you, will at least be programmed to obey the laws of the U.S. and the laws of physics.