Copenhagen, Denmark – Transportation IV: Having Children? Minivan? Hatchback? Try a Bicycle

October 2015 – While many believe having children means trading in two wheels for four wheels, two pedals for four cylinders, the Danish opt to remain seated over two spoked wheels and a handle bar. Three wheels is the luxury option.

Copenhagen is famous among European cities for its unwavering commitment to the bicycle. The Danish cultural enthusiasm for the bicycle is equally matched by the city´s pledge to invest in biking infrastructure. As a result, one third of all commutes in Copenhagen are made by bicycle and a quarter of all two-child families own a three-wheeled cargo bike1. The children are the cargo.

Like others around the world, the Danish associated the bicycle with a sense of personal freedom and mobility from the moment it first became available as a mass market product in the late 1800s2. Copenhagen and other cities quickly embraced the bicycle as a fundamental part of urban life. Just a few decades later, the private automobile would eclipse the bicycle as the principle symbol of personal liberation. As the 20th century unfolded, industrialized nations, including Denmark, paved their streets, filling their cities with the petrol-burning automobile, which quickly became a staple part of ordinary life in developed western nations.

A rise in motorist deaths and a spike in oil prices, along with unnecessary pollution, pushed Denmark to question the merits of its increasingly automobile-centric cities2. Many Danes felt their identities as cosmopolitan cyclists had been hijacked by the country´s growing reliance on the automobile2. A tipping point was reached in the 1970s when urban lakes that link Copenhagen´s downtown with surrounding neighborhoods were threatened by a cross-town highway2. Protests began, hearts were won and political attention turned to bringing the bike back to the streets 2. Copenhagen now touts 215 miles of segregated bike lanes and has become a global symbol for successful bikeway planning.

Both Danish culture and the country´s social system focus on bringing equality to everyday life. The bicycle is a reflection of this social ideal. Everyone rides bicycles and everyone commutes to work on the same bike lanes, regardless of their profession. University campuses are cluttered with parked bikes and fashionable blonde students wearing white canvas shoes for easy riding. Canvas shoes, construction boots and leather loafers all ride together. The Danish are so completely committed to equality that every Danish citizen is given the right to a tuition-free university education and a monthly stipend of nearly $1,000 to cover housing, books, and, of course, a bicycle3.

A key element to Copenhagen´s cycling success is the delineation of transit space. Personal vehicles, public transit, bicycles and pedestrians all have their separate spaces along the roads and sidewalks. There is no ambiguous ideal of sharing space; everyone knows where they belong and can be confident that others will respect those boundaries. The bike lane is separate from the street space allotted to cars and public transit. In fact, there is usually a barrier of parked cars buffering cyclists from vehicular traffic. In other cases, the bike lane appears to be part of the sidewalk, although the color of the pavement clearly indicates who belongs where. Cyclists in Copenhagen even have their own stop lights which signal instructions from flashing bicycle icons.

The success of Copenhagen´s bicycle system illuminates the flaws in the ¨share the road¨ transit fantasy many cities wrongly embrace. It is hopelessly optimistic for city planners to think that one open space can be shared fairly and safely by cyclists and motorists. It´s difficult to share anything in this world, particularly space on the road during the morning commute. Painting bike lanes on a road does little to protect anyone if the street is still designed to be shared by cars, trucks, buses and bicycles. Worse yet, bicycle lanes are often squeezed between moving traffic and parked cars which sharply increases the risk of being ¨doored¨ – the collision that occurs when someone gets out of a car, striking a cyclist with the open door.

Delineation of space is a proven solution. Commuters in Copenhagen know their role and their rights when they enter a transit space designed for one particular form of transportation. The subtle resentment that builds over time between different types of commuters forced to share a space suddenly disappears. More importantly, the streets are safer for cyclists, which encourages more ridership. In fact, the safety and convenience of the segregated bike lanes in Copenhagen are so popular that one must check several times before entering a lane and merging with the sea of other cyclists.

Cycling safety is a top priority in Copenhagen. The evidence is in plain sight with the large number of parents willing to transport their children on bicycles. All sorts of creative infant bike seats and attachments can be found along the bike lanes of Copenhagen. The most luxurious of the options are fully covered cargo trikes that can seat two or three children at a time. To outsiders, the clever designs of these family cargo bikes are as visually interesting as the ingenious family motorbikes of Southeast Asia that manage to transport a family of five on a vehicle built for two. One thing is clear, Copenhagen has set the standards for what a bicycle city should look like in the 21st century.


  1. How Copenhagen Passed Its Cycling Proficiency Test And What The Danes Can Teach Us. Kaya Burgess. The Times. November 5th, 2012.

  1. How Denmark Became a Cycling Nation. Lotte Ruby. Demark DK.

  1. Why Danish Students Are Paid to Go to College. Rick Noack. The Washington Post. February 4th, 2015.

Photo Credits

  1. Title Image: How Copenhagen Passed Its Cycling Proficiency Test And What The Danes Can Teach Us. Kaya Burgess. The Times. November 5th, 2012.

  1. Historic Bike Lanes: Vehicular Cyclists – Cycling´s Secret Sect. Copenhagenize

  1. Contemporary Bike Lanes: 6 Most Bicycle Friendly Cities in the World. Enkivillage

  1. Danish Cargo Bike­: Cool Bikes. Pinnterest.

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