My husband and I and our 1-year old daughter visited Copenhagen for two weeks while he worked from his company’s office. We tried to imagine ourselves living here in this happiest of cities. We studied the faces of residents, peered through windows of coffee shops and bakeries, borrowed bikes and joined the masses in bike lanes, rushed outside when the sun was shining and stayed outside, layered in blankets and jackets, when the fog and rain rolled back in. We sized up their biking habits and wondered if Houston, an equally flat city, could embrace some of this culture.
After two weeks of poking and prodding, scoping and scrutinizing, I came up with an unscientific analysis of three steps toward embracing biking in our city.
Safe access to everywhere
There has been a massive investment in biking infrastructure in Copenhagen. This infrastructure includes protected bike lanes with a curb, similar to a sidewalk. It includes painted bike lanes that cross every intersection. It includes miniature traffic lights, timed separately from car and pedestrian crossings, just for bikes. All this infrastructure makes it safe enough that most people don’t wear helmets when they bike.
Plus, the bike lanes are ubiquitous. You can get anywhere you want to go by bike. Copenhagen is compact, 34 square miles to Houston’s 627, and it has almost 250 miles of bike lanes. By comparison, Houston’s Bayou Greenways will introduce 150 miles of hike and bike trails when complete. If Houston wants to become a biking city, we need to invest in a lot more infrastructure. Houston has developed some token infrastructure that can serve as examples to learn from and replicate, including the Lamar Cycle Track and the hike-and-bike trails along the bayous. Both of these examples are dedicated bike lanes that are protected from cars. But contrast the 0.75 miles of cycle track in Houston with the 250 miles of protected lanes in Copenhagen, and you begin to see a significant opportunity for improvement. We need to design the city so that people can get where they need to go by bike safely.
Incentives not to drive
As with any compact and populous city (Copenhagen is 18 times smaller than Houston, but it has more than a quarter of the population), parking is hard to come by. One morning, we spent 45 minutes circling the city trying to find a spot before settling for a garage a 20-minute walk from where we wanted to be. Parking a bike is possible on every block. Also, buying a car in Denmark is very expensive, because the government imposes taxes, so there are financial incentives to use other methods of transportation. In Houston, parking is easy to come by and often free. Traffic does not appear to be an incentive to seek alternative forms of transportation, especially with the regional policy of continually expanding roads and freeways. The lesson is clear: the harder and more expensive you make it to use cars, the more likely people are to seek other forms of transportation.
Embrace the outdoors
The populace in Denmark, aside from having extremely good aesthetic taste (I am convinced design is taught starting in kindergarten), has an enlightened conscientiousness about the environment. Part of the appeal of biking is its low carbon footprint. It also provides exercise, and is fun – think of the joy, the freedom, the exhilaration we all felt when we learned to ride a bike. One evening we headed down to a park near the water for a picnic and observed no less than eight sports — swimming, rowing, paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, running, biking. Another evening we headed to a large park for a relay race that drew 20,000 runners each night for a week. The whole city feels like it is in motion.
Biking feels like an extension of this drive to be outside, to exercise, to have fun. It is easy to point to the weather in Houston as a deterrent to biking, but the weather in Copenhagen has its own extremes of rain, wind, and cold, which have proved not to be obstacles. At the train station, rows of bikes piled in organized chaos waited patiently for workers to return from the office. Their seats capped with plastic bag bonnets, they anticipated the inevitable rain.
We try for an evening to be like the Danes. We bike down to the harbor, my husband riding on a “family” bike with a child seat in the back and a large trough at the front for additional children, or groceries — yes, it feels like you are pushing a small house around town. We don’t let a light drizzle deter us from taking an open-air boat around the city for a tour of the canals. Even as the drizzle turns to a steadier rain, we forge ahead. We come upon a concert on the steps leading down to the harbor, where hundreds of attendees, a few with umbrellas, many with raincoats, a few without, are gathered to listen.
I think about all the factors that have to come together — from urban design to political will to the change in daily habits — to create a cultural shift in something as fundamental as transportation. I am not sure that it is possible in Houston, but as I look at the clear water surrounding our boat, at the silhouettes of bicycles crossing the bridge above us, at the healthy, happy people inhabiting this city, it seems worth trying.