Alderman Dowell goes to Denmark


Alderman Dowell with 3rd Ward bike campers.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell wasn’t always a bicycle-friendly politician. But she says a recent visit to bike-crazy northern Europe opened her eyes to the potential benefits of cycling for her South Side constituents.

Dowell’s Near South district includes parts of Bronzeville, Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas, and the South Loop. Last February, as part of Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build one hundred miles of car-protected bike lanes within his first term, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) proposed installing protected lanes along Martin Luther King Drive in her ward. But local church leaders opposed the lanes because they feared they would impact Sunday parking and because they felt the white posts used to delineate the lanes would detract from the aesthetics of the historic boulevard, says CDOT project manager Mike Amsden. As a result, the project stalled.

Fortunately Bikes Belong, a nationwide advocacy group funded by the cycling industry, has a strategy to turn on U.S. politicians to the power of the bicycle. Last year the organization paid to send Northwest Side aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno, Rey Colón and Ariel Reboyras to the Velo-city bike conference in Seville, Spain, and funded a trip to the Netherlands for Near South alderman Danny Solis. In both cases the council members came home eager to bring Euro-style facilities like protected lanes and automated bike rental kiosks to Chicago.


Dowell in Denmark with CDOT bicycle coordinator Ben Gomberg and CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly. Photo courtesy of Bikes Belong.

Last June Bikes Belong sent Dowell to Denmark along with bike-friendly North Side aldermen Ameya Pawar and Harry Osterman. Dowell seems to have returned from the Scandinavian cycling Mecca with the zeal of a convert. With her help CDOT reached a compromise with the clergy: King Drive will get “buffered” bike lanes with extra dead space striped on either side of the lanes but no posts, and protected lanes will be built on nearby State Street.

Last week Dowell, Pawar, Osterman and Solis announced four new bike safety camps for children in their wards, saying they got the idea from programs they observed in Europe. Instructors from the city’s Bicycling Ambassadors crew will teach the kids bike handling, map reading and route selection and lead them on neighborhood rides, and Bikes Belong is donating a new Schwinn to each camper.

After the press conference in the Fuller Park fieldhouse, 331 W. 45th, I sat down with Dowell to discuss her newfound interest in cycling, while kids from the 3rd Ward bike camp competed in a “slow race,” trying to pedal as slowly as possible without falling over.


It sounds like you had a great experience in Denmark. You said it was the first time you’d ridden a bike in 17 or 18 years.

Yes, riding a bike was a requirement of the trip. We went everywhere by bike. Coming back to the United States I was sore from all the riding that I did.

How did it feel to ride a bike in Copenhagen – did you feel safe or was it scary?

I wasn’t scared at all. Copenhagen has a great network of cycle tracks. These are bike lanes that are separated by grade from motor vehicle traffic and pedestrian traffic, so you know that when you’re in a bike lane it’s only for bicycles. It’s a way of separating the different modes of transportation, which is great.

Do you think that might work in Chicago?

Yes. People here need some encouragement to be able to get on a bike and travel throughout the city. A couple months ago I bought a new bike, a Linus Dutchi three-speed from Rapid Transit Cycleshop on Halsted Street. I’ve found that it’s not always easy maneuvering on Chicago streets. Separated bicycle lanes would provide some protection for people who might be nervous about riding on a busy street. I know Copenhagen-style [grade-separated] bike lanes would be very expensive to install here, but even if you have [at-grade] protected bike lanes with green paint, that will help.

What was the most interesting thing you experienced on a bike in Denmark?

The thing that really impressed me is the way you can use bicycling to create community and interaction between people who don’t know each other. For example, in Copenhagen I was on a bike waiting for a red light to change and the lady next to me was on her way to work and we had a small conversation. That’s a good thing.


Cycling on Nørrebrogade Street in Copenhagen, supposedly the busiest bicycle street in the world. Notice the extra wide cycle track: there are two lanes, with the lane closer to the roadway narrower, to be used for passing slower cyclists. 

Did you see any other cool bike stuff in Denmark?

They have free air pumps for cyclists, and I saw garbage cans that are on an angle so that as you ride by can throw your trash in the garbage can. Another thing I liked is at some intersections there are foot stands so you can relax a little bit while you’re waiting for the light to change. I also thought the bike counter in Copenhagen was interesting. It’s a machine that measures the number of people who pass a certain area on bikes every day. It’s a way of letting the population know that people are riding their bikes. That would work here too.

Did it surprise you how well people are dressed in Copenhagen while they ride bikes?

Yes. And I came back understanding that you don’t have to put on running pants or a tracksuit to ride a bike. Now when I bike from my home to the office I wear my work clothes.


Cycling in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy of Bikes Belong.

Obviously Denmark is a very different environment from the South Side. How is what you learned there is going to be relevant to your constituents?

I think you see it here today. It’s loud in here. The kids are enjoying each other’s company, and they’re learning how to properly ride and maintain a bike. And that’s going to translate to them riding outside down Princeton Avenue or 43rd Street. So hopefully this is just the beginning.

How can adults benefit from better conditions for biking in your ward?

It’s great to encourage people to get out of their cars and get on a bike. There are benefits for seniors who might need a way to move around the community and exercise a little bit at the same time. It’s wonderful for families to be able to bike to the lakefront on a Saturday or Sunday morning. And those people who are a bit more daring can try riding all the way downtown.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

26 thoughts on “Alderman Dowell goes to Denmark”

  1. I don’t know Ms Dowell, but I did see a similar change with Alderman Osterman. In his first year in office, I never got the sense that he cared much for transportation issues beyond CTA stations. But on a recent bike ride through his ward that he organized, he impressed me with his ideas about how to improve bicycling (and walking) in the neighborhood. I guess these trips do provide value and aren’t just vacations paid for by lobbyists.

  2. Okay this might be a ridiculous question, but the well-dressed thing — does this mean that people in Denmark are okay with sweating in their work clothes, or do they not sweat much for some reason? This has always been a big deterrent for me. But I’m the kind of person who showers four times a day in the summer.

    1. It’s probably not a coincidence that cycling is most popular in *northern* Europe where summer temperatures are moderate (although winters are challenging). But also, Americans are uniquely obsessed with sweat, which is probably a result of too much exposure to deodorant ads. That said, I shower a lot during the summer too and do find it challenging to bike places in long pants on hot days without getting too sweaty (even though I cruise at only 10 MPH and don’t have much hair on my head). So when I traveled in northern Europe recently, it was a bit of a mystery how guys were biking fairly fast in sports coats and slacks on moderately hot days and looking totally calm, cool and collected. Anyone have any insight into this question?

      1. In DC you see people in full suits, and work clothes regularly. I think it’s a mixture of taking it slow and also having a plan for when you get to work a tad too sweaty. I keep baby wipes and deodorant at the office.

        1. i know this is an old thread, but most people I see who ride in suits (no blazer) or even regular street clothes in the summer do not sweat! WTF!! They’re not going that much slower than I am. Meanwhile, I look like someone threw a glass of water on my head. Even worse are hipsters wearing skinny jeans going crazy fast AND still don’t sweat. As much as I hate sweating (unladylike), I wouldn’t want to give up speed just so I can wear regular clothes. I’d rather lug around a change of clothes.

          1. Great question! I lived in Denmark & Germany for over 10 years & have a lot of experiences with going back & forth from here at different times of the year, too. Weather here is certainly more extreme, but absolutely biggest difference I see here is that bodies can’t adapt naturally to the weather because we are constantly overheated indoors in winter and especially way too cooled in hot weather. Just spent my first whole summer here in years & definitely advocate not using air conditioning if you can without risking your health (humidity is more a concern there). Helped me a ton.

            Examples of different attitudes in much of Europe towards the outdoors: In Denmark babies are put outside to nap until temps reach about freezing, so start adapting quite early in life. In Germany & Scandinavia outdoor kindergartens are popular. People in the north sit out for hours in what we would consider cold weather because they are desperate to get daylight (Chicago’s on a latitude like Rome & Barcelona). If it’s hot, people usually decrease activity. Most German & Scandinavians I know think it’s absolutely nuts to do things like running on the lakefront like here in the summer mid-day, also because of all the carbon monoxide coming off the Drive.
            Other factors are looser clothing made of natural fabrics & slower riding. Things here go way faster as a rule, for better & worse. Smiled at ridonrides’ mention that this thread is old after only 8 days … the clock’s different in Europe.

          2. I knew something was different about how those cultures responded to weather. I went swimming several times in Copenhagen; the warmest water was 22°C, or about 72°F. It was colder than that for several days. Children would go swimming at the “snail” (sea bath) before and after school, or just hang out at the beach before and after school. And of course they biked there.
            Most restaurants with sidewalk cafés come with blankets – I used them as weather is kind of like San Francisco: it may be warm in the day, but the temperature will drop!
            Aside: It’s kind of awesome that the Copenhagen harbor is clean enough to swim in.

          3. A big difference for the Chicago biking community is that in Denmark some years it barely freezes it’s sort of a continual SF summer with socks (Germany can have much snowier conditions … few years ago Berlin had more snow than in decades).

            Another impressive thing about that part of the world is the night time darkness. Chicago could (& should) learn so much about lighting from Denmark. Streetlights are often beautiful, clever, and very well situated. In Germany freestanding solar streetlights are sometimes used to spare Euro on difficult wiring.

            England also has some interesting solutions:

      2. As you point out, it is a few things combined: Distance. Cities are much more compact, and therefore riding distances tend to be less. Weather. Average in July in Chicago is 83 degrees. In Amsterdam that is 71 degrees. Speed. Dutch people tend to ride slower than bicyclists over here. An yes, the sweat factor. Americans are particularly averse to anything resembling sweat.

        Taken together, I think that explains the difference

      3. Thanks for the discussion. I read somewhere (maybe here?) that people are more likely to bike to work when a shower is available. I could see that routine being reasonable (although of course workplace showers are uncommon).

        1. Maybe you just don’t notice them sweating. I mentioned this issue to a friend and she said that when she sees me at meetings in the summer I always look dry and collected, even if I don’t feel that way!

    2. They have very low humidity – maybe that’s it. I was just there, for 7 days, and didn’t sweat at all. This morning, I forgot all about Chicago’s humidity (I got back Sunday) and biked to Navy Pier for a radio interview, arriving soaked. Ugh.

      1. That sounds like an important difference – the humidity here is awful. Even when it’s not that hot, even when I’m just walking somewhere slowly, I end up sweaty and needing a shower

      2. I lived in both Denmark & the Netherlands for several years. I assure you it does get hot there in the summer (especially the Netherlands).

        The slower, safer pace of cycling in Europe helps out. I was usually just coasting with an occasional pedal on the especially hot days to avoid getting too sweaty in my suit on the way to work. Conversely in Chicago, we have to zip along at maximum speed or a car driver will honk, scream, or kill us.

        But at the end of the day, which is worse for a society: a little sweat or a lot of obesity?

        By the way, I shower four times a days, too. Luckily I have a shower at my office in the Loop.

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