Copenhagen Cycle Ambassador Says Bikes Are Hot

If you’ve been following bicycle blogs for any amount of time at all, you’ve probably stumbled upon Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the blogs Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. (We often feature his posts on the Streetsblog Network.) On Tuesday afternoon, he brought his inimitable style of bike advocacy (pretty spiffy, though low-key) to Columbia University.

DSC_0008_2_1.jpgMikael Colville-Andersen says biking should be marketed as "a multivitamin Viagra pill for the urban landscape." Photo: Sarah Goodyear

The title of his talk was "Marketing Bicycle Culture to Subconscious Environmentalists." Basically, Colville-Andersen’s message came down to this: We need to promote bicycles as the incredibly practical, fun, stylish, sexy and healthy items that they are. We also need to present them as being mainstream, not the province of a subculture (whether it be Lycra-wearing or fixie-riding).

In Copenhagen, bicycling is mainstream — 37 percent of commuters in the city use bikes, and 55 percent of trips overall are made on bikes. As Colville-Andersen pointed out, people on bikes in the Danish capital are not "cyclists" — they’re people. On bikes.

How did this state of affairs come about? According to Colville-Andersen, in the 1960s Danish cycle culture was "dying," as it was all over the world in the post-World War II era. Then, because of what he described as a combination of visionary urban planning and visionary political decision-making, the city embarked on a long-term program of creating consistent bicycle infrastructure that would make everyone feel safe on their bicycles.

And now, everyone does. Colville-Andersen said that people in his home city laugh at him when he says he’s going abroad to lecture on Copenhagen’s bicycle culture — because to them it has become invisible. A bicycle is simply a tool, like a vacuum cleaner. Most Copenhagenites surveyed say they choose to travel by bike because it is simply the easiest, fastest way to get from Point A to Point B.

The result is a measurable financial benefit to the state, because people who
cycle regularly are healthier and put less stress on the roads. And of
course, the benefit to the people and the city, whose citizenry is engaged with the life of its streets, is incalculable.

Colville-Andersen suggested that bicycling needs to be marketed — by government and cycle manufacturers — as glamorous, exciting and convenient. "We’re homo sapiens," he said. "We don’t respond well to finger-wagging. In order for someone to get us to do something, someone has to show us how easy it is."

To reach the "subconscious environmentalist," the everyday person, Colville-Andersen suggested bicycling should be sold as "a multivitamin Viagra pill for the urban landscape." It’s an assessment he says is not inaccurate.

While Colville-Andersen had plenty of fun and useful information for Americans who want to improve the cycling landscape, he was at a loss when confronted with the question, "Is there any way wearing a helmet can be sexy?" The Copenhagenite is well-known to be no great fan of bike helmets (he’d like you to know that motoring helmets are available and perhaps more advisable). He graciously allowed, however, that some in this country (and this city) might feel more comfortable wearing them.

But sexy helmets? He hemmed, hawed, and finally put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "No, they can’t be sexy," he said. "But just ride a bike. That’s what matters."

  • “And of course, the benefit to the people and the city, whose citizenry is engaged with the life of its streets, is incalculable.” At his talk the previous evening downton, Colville-Anderson quoted the statistic that non-bicyclists cost the state $X per year (I can’t recall the exact figure) in public health, traffic congestion and other related costs, while bicyclists save the state $0.25 per year. As Paul White commented, it would be sooo useful to have an economist calculate similar statistics for NYC. Any takers?

  • BicyclesOnly — I’ve taken a stab at the “similar statistics for NYC” that you and PSW seem to covet. It’s in the Cost-Benefit “tab” of the Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet, in the section, “H. Longevity Benefits of Increased Cycling and Walking” starting at Row 375, where I estimate the rise in cycling and walking that would result from a reduction in motor vehicle traffic, and then estimate the reduction in mortality due to the increase in physical activity.

    The BTA can be downloaded with this link. Why more NYC transpo wonks and even general S’blog readers haven’t taken it out for a spin is a mystery to me.

    Hmm, should I try to remedy that by staging a special BTA event? How about a weekend bike-tour/BTA-tour — bike ride over the GWB to the end of River Road and back, followed by a 2-hour spin through the BTA at my FiDi office? Who pays for lunch?

  • I’m with him on the sexy-helmet issue. I will wear a helmet, but please don’t make me pretend it’s sexy. There are reasons to do things that don’t involve attracting a mate.

  • Ed

    Thanks for coming Mikael! Wish I’d been able to see you.
    hope you enjoyed your stay.

  • BO, wasn’t it per mile? Either way, I remember 16 cents is what it cost the gvmt per unit, operating a motorized vehicle.
    That was a great talk at the City Bakery, glad I made it.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I recently “inherited” a sexy helmet. Never thought I would ever think I looked good in one, but this one I look a little alright.

  • Thanks for the reminder, Charles, and the correction, Moocow. I must confess I found the BTA a bit scary when you first rolled it out, but I looked at the portiion of the tab you mention and I see that that you caculate a $203 million annual savings due to increased longevity with an increase of 0.77% in non-walking modal share enjoyed by cycling. The basic appraoch, data and assumptions could be used to model the savings from reduction in traffic congestion and pollution for each MV VMT converted to a bicycle VMT. I tried to come up with a savings in time and other factors for each MV trip eliminated from the MVs tab in the BTA, and it seems like the necessary data and assumptions are there to do that, but it was beyond me.

  • s

    Not suffering from brain damage is sexy, from what the ladies tell me.

  • john

    Brain damage not sexy? Then American football is overrated, cycling should rule.

  • Charles, that spreadsheet is very dense as BO said, and considering Mikael’s talk was about the value of *great marketing*, what’s a good headline or Twitterable stat of the sort that Mikael gave about cost/savings per mile?

    We need a nugget to grab attention, that hits the econ gut of policy/gov people, that at the same time makes sense to your average citizen. Something pity, something simple. What would that 110 character one-liner be?

  • Oops, I meant to write: Something pithy, something simple.

  • danlatorre + BicyclesOnly —

    Thanks for peering into the BTA. It is dense. I’d love to talk off-line (I’m at kea@igc.org) about how to make it easier to follow — within the constraints of its being a powerful computational tool aimed largely at other purposes (traffic pricing, congestion costs, transit optimization).

    I think the idea of a Twitteresque encapsulation of the per-mile societal benefits from cycling is a bit of a chimera. I’ll try to write about that sometime. Stay tuned.

  • Paul B

    What’s the average bike commute distance in Copenhagen?

  • Sarah Goodyear

    Paul B,

    I’m not sure about the average, but I think somewhere in the neighborhood of five miles is common.

  • Paul B

    My daily bike commute here is 5.5 miles each way, which non-bike-users seem to consider kind of far. So I was wondering about a place where it’s a more established practice.

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