Mikael Colville-Andersen with his kids Felix and Lulu-Sophia.
[This article originally ran in Urban Velo magazine.]
As “The Pope of Urban Cycling,” Mikael Colville-Andersen is one of today’s leading bicycle advocates, but also one of the most controversial. He’s known as the kingpin of the stylish cycling movement via his award-winning photo blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic. The site mostly features candid photographs of attractive, well-dressed women on wheels, for a largely female readership. For his day job as CEO of Copenhagenize, a nine-person transportation consulting firm, he travels to cities around the world, advising politicians, planners and advocates on ways to emulate the success of the bike-friendly Danish capital.
Mikael’s blogs have a global following—Cycle Chic has inspired some 150 spin-offs in other cities. He’s also a sought-after public speaker who gave the keynote address at this year’s Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference in Long Beach, California. But he’s not without his critics. His outspoken opposition to helmet promotion troubles many North American advocates. And at least two female bike bloggers have critiqued his Cycle Chic aesthetic and rhetoric as being sexist, elitist and counterproductive for encouraging regular folks to ride.
In July I visited Copenhagen for the first time and, as advertised, it’s a biker’s paradise with mellow traffic, grade-separated bike lanes on all major streets and good-looking, stylish people on classy Dutch cycles everywhere you turn. I met up with Mikael, a bright-eyed, energetic man, at his flat in Frederiksberg, a town completely surrounded by Copenhagen. We sipped cans of Carlsberg as his young kids Felix and Lulu-Sophia practiced soccer and picked flowers in their lush back yard. Mikael and I discussed his views on helmets, the differences between Copenhagen and Amsterdam, why he’s underwhelmed by Portland, and why bikes should be marketed more like vacuum cleaners.
Nørrebrogade, the western world’s busiest bicycle street.
I saw you recently ran a letter on the Copenhagenize blog from a doctor arguing against passing a law requiring helmets here. He said science shows that there’s X amount of health benefits from cycling and studies have proved helmet laws cause Y reduction in cycling, and therefore there’d be a net loss in health.
The difference in Europe is we want to get more people onto bikes. You really sense that in America the general focus is getting people into helmets. We want to reap the public health benefits of when people ride bikes.
I think we both agree that in a town like Copenhagen you really don’t need to wear a helmet to be safe on a bike. But in a less bike-friendly place like Chicago, where I live, maybe it makes sense to wear one?
That’s possible, but promoting helmet use also tends to scare people off of bikes. Right now you’re sitting in the only city in the western world where cycling levels have fallen in the past five years. We compared it with the Netherlands – you can’t compare Copenhagen with anything else – and their levels were rising or stable, and here we went from 37 percent bike mode share in 2008 down to 35 percent, and the only thing that’s changed is the city started promoting helmets. [A report by the city government blames the drop on recent harsh winters.]
Copenhagen bicycle crosswalk.
I have seen more people wearing helmets here then I thought I would.
Three years ago there were none.
Which is interesting because it does give you the impression like, “Huh, should I be wearing a helmet – is this safe?”
That’s it, for every helmet you see here you’re scaring somebody off a bike, potentially. And after the helmet law proposal we sent the letter to all the members of parliament and to all the newspapers. Last Sunday I was dancing because one of the national newspapers ran the headline, “Bicycle Experts in Collective Front Against Helmet Laws.” It was brilliant.
When it comes to cycling it seems like you favor things being very simple and intuitive. You advocate for riding in everyday clothes and you’ve written, “If anyone tells you you need anything other than a bicycle, they probably want to make money off you.”
Well, what you’re seeing here in Copenhagen is not bicycle culture, it’s vacuum cleaner culture. Everybody has a vacuum, everybody uses it. We don’t give them names. We don’t wear vacuum cleaning clothes. We can’t repair our own vacuum cleaners. If you want the mainstream to ride like they did from 1885 until the 1950s, in cities around the world, a little subcultural group doing the talking is not going to get us there. It’s all about selling cycling like we sell every other product on the planet.
I also use the bowling metaphor. We don’t want to make a whole nation of bowlers or synchronized swimmers. We want people to use a bike like they don’t give a s— about it. I mean, we have nice bikes here in Denmark but they have rusty chains, they’re squeaky. That’s ‘cause a bike is just a tool, man.
So Cycle Chic is bicycle advocacy 2.0. In 2006 the bicycle didn’t exist in the public consciousness anywhere in the world. There was a slight rise in cycling levels in cities. Then I took that one photo that started that. Some journalist called it “The photo that launched a million bicycles.”
I’ve probably seen it. What is that photo?
Oh, it’s a crappy photo. I was on my way to work. I wasn’t taking a photo of a girl on a bike, I was just taking a picture of my morning urban scene. And I ended up starting the blog and some journalist researched, “Why is the whole planet talking bikes now?” and she went all the way back to that photo, and I knew that. And then Copenhagenize helped push it. There were no blogs on the planet for “citizen cyclists,” as I call them, when I started Copenhagenize. Now it’s everywhere.
“The photo that launched a million bicycles.” Image by Mikael Coleville-Andersen.
By any chance have you stumbled upon Chicago’s bike style blogs? There’s a photo blog called Bike Fancy by Martha Williams and Lets Go Ride A Bike by Dottie Brackett and Trisha Ping – that’s a couple of women writing about their daily bicycle adventures.
Oh yeah, I know Dottie and Trisha. We had a Cycle Chic bloggers conference in Barcelona last year and we’re having another one in September in Budapest where all of the bloggers from around the planet meet up and we drink, basically, but we also talk about the movement. They were going to come to that but they couldn’t make it unfortunately. And the other one, Bike Fancy, isn’t a Cycle Chic blog simply because we have rules that if you want to start one we don’t want any helmets in the shots. So I said, “That’s fine, just call it something else.” So Martha said, “OK, I’ll call it Bike Fancy,” which is great.
Photo by Martha Williams from Bike Fancy.
I’m visiting Amsterdam next, which is the one city in the world that competes with Copenhagen in terms of being bike-friendly. What’s the difference between the two cities?
With Copenhagen and Amsterdam all the stats are identical. They’re the almost exactly the same population, with about the same amount of people biking, although we’re down to 35 percent mode share and they’re at 38. There’s the same amount of public transport use and the same amount of cars. They have the same harsh winters. It’s 55 percent women biking here, 45 percent men, just like in Amsterdam.
So it’s the “same same but different.” Actually maybe it’s the “same different different.” It’s simply a question of urban planning. There’s no city like Amsterdam in the world. You have Venice, which is a similar weird layout. But Amsterdam was planned in circles with all the canals like a hundred centuries ago. Riding a bike in Amsterdam, I find it to be a very human experience. I call Amsterdam Fantasyland and Copenhagen Tomorrowland.
You think Copenhagen is more applicable to other towns?
If you squint your eyes you’ll see your own city here because we have wide boulevards. Most of Copenhagen outside of the city center is a Twentieth Century invention. So there’s massive motorways leading in but they all have cycle tracks along both sides. We also have the narrower streets like some of the streets in Amsterdam, but in many ways Copenhagen is like a North American city. Amsterdam, you can’t replicate it.
Amsterdam cycle track.
In Amsterdam a lot of the cycle tracks are two-way, so you’re meeting people’s eyes all day long. You’re riding along and someone’s gotta go, is that you or me, and you’re looking and they smile. So you have this human experience. Here it’s an autobahn because of the layout of Copenhagen. It’s all radial, it’s all leading to the city center. So you don’t meet other people’s eyes, you just see their asses, basically, while you’re passing them or they’re passing you. “Ding! Get out of my way.” “OK, I’ll pull in.” Voom.
It’s all much more structured and kind of boring compared to Amsterdam, but it’s very efficient. If you see rush hour on Nørrebrogade, the western world’s busiest bicycle street [with an estimated 35,000-plus bikes each day], you’ll see everything you need to see. That’s where we have the “green wave” for cyclists, where we have the lights coordinated so that if you ride at twenty kilometers [12.4 miles] per hour you’ll hit every green.
In Chicago the city’s planning a 645-mile network of on-street bike routes, but because of things like business streets that can’t be improved without taking out car parking, a lot of the routes will be on side streets, which are already very pleasant places to ride. I tend to detour onto them anyway. But car drivers aren’t asked to take circuitous routes to get where they’re going. Chicago is a total grid where there’s always a straight street you can take, so I wish there were more direct, bike-friendly routes.
That’s human nature. It’s A2B-ism, as we call it here at Copenhagenize. It’s one of the keys for promoting urban cycling. You make the bicycle the quickest way from A to B in a city, any city on the planet, and people will do it. That’s all it takes. It’s basic anthropology.
So who’s doing that now? Barcelona is now pushing four percent mode share. Budapest is pushing four percent. Paris is at 2.5 percent but some neighborhoods look like here – there are bikes parked everywhere. It’s an amazingly bicycle-friendly city. Dublin, Seville.
The thing that all these cities have in common is, compared to the States [where most major cities have less than two percent bike mode share], there were no bicycles in these cities six years ago. In New York and Chicago you had your bike messengers. That’s where the subcultural thing started, which has given you the subcultural attitude towards cycling.
Why have all these European cities taken off where American cities are lagging behind so much it’s embarrassing? That’s because they didn’t have any subcultures. Paris – who started riding Vélib’ [the local bike-sharing system] when they put it in? The first 2.2 percent of mode share came from the Métro. Because [Vélib’] was the quickest way from A to B. It was the same in Barcelona.
Here in Copenhagen we spent 35 years becoming a bike-friendly city again but five-to-ten years is possible for any city with the vision to fire their traffic engineers and hire new ones who are little more on the ball about human cities as opposed to traffic flow and data, and to build the infrastructure, which is really inexpensive. It just requires politicians who have the cajónes to do this. So some cities are kicking ass and some cities aren’t, but there are really no excuses anymore.
Mural in Copenhagen.
Why do think a town a town like Portland, Oregon, which is the leading U.S. bike city, has only has about a six percent mode share after all these years of promoting cycling?
And they count that during their bike week in June. I was there in November going around with the head of the department of transportation and I’m going, “Where the f— are your bikes man?” Forget Portland. There’s a TV series about it, “Portlandia,” which is so appropriate. They’re all bike geeks in that city and eco hippies. And I’m making fun of them in a friendly way, but that’s the demographic there, right? But they still have a major problem with increasing the level of cycling. They do have great infrastructure and it’s a nice city to ride a bike in, but it’s not all that. I think Chicago and San Francisco will be the next great American bike cities, if all their plans become reality. But right now Montreal is the premier bike city in North America. Montreal has a bicycle rush hour like you see nowhere else. My god, it’s amazing.