Hopenhagen or Carbonhagen, We’ll Still be Cycling Regardless
I caught Mikael Colville-Andersen's inspiring talk on urban cycling from the Copenhagen context at San Francisco's SPUR on the last Friday of October. I suggested we could do an interview when I came to Copenhagen in December and he graciously agreed, stepping outside into the drizzling snow at a December 10 awards ceremony he was hosting. (The title of this post is a quote from him when he was on stage at the ceremony, and is a new tag line on his blog too.) They were handing out prizes for the best new designs for the next generation of Copenhagen's bikeshare program. He is well known for his blogging at Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycling Chic. The photos throughout were taken by me in Copenhagen during the last couple of weeks there.
Chris Carlsson: What was your experience in San Francisco? Did you have a good time there?
Mikael Colville-Andersen: I had a brilliant time. I just blogged a film with three of my friends, about Critical Mass.
C: Did you get in to the Halloween Critical Mass?
M: Oh yeah, all the way!
C: I saw you wrote some vaguely critical comments about Critical Mass in general.
M: I have done… it’s just that marketing thing. You’re not selling it if you’re pissing people off. Riding around… I didn’t see any bad behavior. There were so many people at that Critical Mass that it was more tame?
M: I know, riding around, there’s families, you have kids, it’s quite cool, it’s big at Critical Mass, so I think that helped a lot. And then you turn the corner and there’s this lady getting out of her car saying “Stay the fuck away from me... get away from meeee!” and people honking, and I think “aw, this is bad, this is bad,” but then all of a sudden you’re sucked into the good again, the whole spirit of it. There were conflicting emotions to be honest.
C: I think there’s something interesting that goes on there, where people solve problems in the heat of the moment, which often people do very well. No one has ever been killed. It goes on month after month for 17 years. If you think about it on a planetary-wide scale, it’s like “my god, every month there’re thousands of people who are pissed off because there’s all these bikes in their way, and things get solved, people work it out.” That’s actually good practice, depending on how you want to look at how to go forward in the world.
M: I compared it directly to the Budapest Critical Mass that I was in last month, or in September. 20,000 people, completely peaceful, everyone stops at red lights, completely different mood and much more of a festive atmosphere. But I think San Francisco is a different case compared to other North American cities. It started there, and it’s just so relaxed. The whole bicycle culture is relaxed, it’s not all the sports geeks, it’s just regular people.
C: A lot more regular people cycle in San Francisco than in other U.S. cities.
C: Well, they’re still holding that up … but it’ll slowly get done I’m sure…. So what was your take on the SF Bike Coalition and their approach to things? Did you have any exposure to the Valencia Great Streets plan, the rebuilding of the street? They’re not putting in Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which I’ve been clamoring for for 20 fucking years! They’re going back to the same old painted stripes on the streets, though with wide sidewalks and bulb-outs.
M: Where’s the lane? By the sidewalk? Or on the outside of the cars?
C: No, it’s on the traffic side of the cars, in the door zone, as usual.
M: I rode one in San Francisco, it wasn’t separated, but it was proper, which was quite cool. There weren’t any parked cars on that stretch.
C: It must’ve been Market Street, there is a part where it’s more separated now than ever. There is a beautiful stretch through the Panhandle, where it’s separated in a park-like experience… I’ve been advocating since 1987 for a “City of Panhandles,” with green corridors running through the city: open the creeks, and put bikeways along them, the animals will run by and it’ll be cool for everyone, but it’s politically rather hard to do…
M: The coolest thing, you know you hear about the hills of San Francisco, the hilly city. But my friends have been riding with heavy Dutch bikes, and they say, “oh no, we do the wiggle.” So I wonder who are these people who whine? You even have a word for it, wiggling. It’s great.
C: In terms of the politics of bicycling, I love your presentation, it’s just great... this notion of subcultures and bicycles: you’re kind of on a rampage about that, it seems, to try to mainstream bicycling. What’s the turning point? Because Copenhagen didn’t have a bike culture all along right? There’s a point where, it happened maybe when you were quite young, suddenly a municipal administration decided to put in the infrastructure?
M: It was there before. You see archive footage, archive photos. We’ve always had masses of people, far more in the 1940s and 50s. And then it started dying off, we started killing it off by expanding roads and taking away separated infrastructure, which we used to have back 100 years ago. So we had to reinvent it. That’s when I was young (I’m 41) in the 1970s with the oil crisis. We had a popular uprising, people in the City Hall square, 20,000 cyclists. These were just regular people on bikes, saying we want better security on the streets, we want separate infrastructure again. And that’s where it all sort of started again. We were killing it off and we resuscitated it. That’s the angle here.
C: They’re often the only people bicycling in North America.
M: Well that’s changing now.
C: It’s finally becoming more mainstream. The other issue is getting people who are in political power to listen. A lot of activists in the bike culture in North America shared the idea that we’re never going to be listened to by those people. I can say this because I’m one of the people who helped start Critical Mass. Forget them, they’ll never listen, so don’t even talk to them. Just start doing it. Fill the streets with bikes and maybe they’ll notice. It seems to have sort of worked. The Bike Coalition, I don’t know if they told you this, but it was practically nonexistent when we started Critical Mass. They had no paid members and no paid staff back then, they were meeting once a month in the back of a Chinese restaurant. Now it has 11,000 dues-paying members, a paid staff and a big budget and a penthouse office!
M: The mainstreaming of cycling that we’re seeing even in America is certainly going to help. It’ll start watering down the subcultures. There’s nothing wrong with subcultures, we have them here too. But the voice that represents cycling, it needs to be more mainstream. Subcultures represents the diversity of cycling which is brilliant, but who is doing the speaking? I compare it to speed walkers, race walkers. If these are the people who are advocating pedestrianism, nobody would walk! I can’t walk like that, I’d look like an idiot. With all the clothes and everything. These people shouldn’t be advocating pedestrianism. It’s like sports cyclists and subcultures shouldn’t be the main voice advocating cycling. It should be mothers with their children, it should be grandmothers, it should be everybody on crappy old bikes, who just want to ride to the shop. That helps now that it is being mainstreamed in a lot of American cities.
M: Flash card advocacy! You see it when you’re here, eh?
C: My mother is from Copenhagen. I probably got inspired by this when I came here in 1977, realizing that bicycling could be an everyday activity. It’s not really a strange thing. There’s these loops in history. We often don’t notice all the antecedents for things we're involved with. But I’m completely Danish-influenced, from long long ago. You could say Critical Mass was born from that influence, me and a bunch of friends were in the conversation for a long time.
C: So in terms of your broader experience in North America, did you feel like there’s a turning point going on there, or was it more like, “when are these people going to get it together?”
M: It’s happening, you can see it happening. You can see it just with all the cycle chic blogs showing up. They have something to take photos of, which they didn’t just two years ago. So you can see the niche happening, the fashion angle which helps anything really… Just this last week I’ve gotten emails, there’s Poznan Poland Cycle Chic, Munich Cycle Chic, St. Andrews Scotland Cycle Chic—"hi, we have a new cycle chic blog"… It’s mad, it’s wonderful..
C: It’s one of those memes taking off, huh?
M: Yeah, totally, that is what it is. We don’t mention advocacy on the Cycle Chic blog, we just show it. And just write poetically about it.
C: It’s looping back to the basic marketing role that you spoke eloquently about at SPUR. If you just make it look really sexy and lovely a lot of people are going to get in to it.
M: You’ll buy it, anyone would buy it. Even if you’ll never look like the most elegant fashionista here in Copenhagen on a bike, it’s still an inspiration. I can just wear my clothes. Open my closet, it’s filled with cycling clothes. It’s definitely happening in North America, in the big cities: New York, Washington, I’ve got loads of photos of regular people. Helmetless as well. The sight of helmetless cyclists is a good sign too no? Forget about the helmet issue, it’s a sign that you’re doing something right. People are feeling safe, safe enough to make their own decision. You see that and you’re on your way. There’s not that many helmets in San Francisco is there?...
C: No, I’m a big anti-helmet guy in San Francisco. People ride up to me and tell me to get a helmet, or yell out of their car “get a helmet!” This whole mentality is born of this basic idea that you as an individual have to be a good consumer and buy a product to solve the social problem of bad engineering. That’s fucked up! Who thought of that? Because no Americans think critically about the commodification of life. I will never wear a helmet so I can always have this argument.
M: I’m also very stubborn about this.
C: You don’t really need one here. There’s such a lot of courtesy. I haven’t seen any bike-on-bike crashes here. In SF now we have the problem of us long-term wreckless riders whizzing through intersections and having near misses with each other! I’ve had about 5 really close near-misses in the recent past.
M: I’ve been staring at this thing we call bike culture for the past 3 years every single day and I’ve seen 3 or 4 accidents total. There was a bike messenger on the busiest bicycling street in the western world. I didn’t’ see it, I had my back turned. He went over the hood, landed on his shoulder and up again, really aggressive, and the lady was on her way out of the car to check if he was ok, but WHOA she stayed in her car because here he was coming at her with all this aggression and adrenaline. Obviously, he’d just been hit by a car! What happens in the meantime is that 3 or 4 cyclists had rolled up to the stoplight, and one of the girls says to the messenger “you ran the red light!” and another girl said “I saw it too!” and they were defending the motorist. The messenger just shrunk, and the lady was so relieved in the car, and they pulled off and exchanged details. She’s at fault since she’s in a car, but there’s no way you’d have that in your country, where cyclists would be defending the motorist… In three years I saw a few people falling off their bikes on to their bums… you never see bike-to-bike crashes, we don’t go fast enough for that shit.
C: How is it that they sent you as a diplomat? Did you pitch them to hire you?
M: No, they pitched me because of my blogs. Because of the global interest in our bicycle culture, and the City of Copenhagen is a cycling capital. This is all spawned because of my blogs. The whole global fashion bicycle movement is because I took a picture one day and put it on the fucking internet! It’s wild. And Copenhagenize advocacy and a lot of opinions on it and well they came to me.
C: I was so happy when I found your voice of reason here in Denmark. The bike culture here benefits from these things that are reasonable within the context of living in a culture that’s fundamentally Social Democratic. There’s this notion of public goods and public space, and taking care of each other, and kind of being knit together in a slightly tighter way. You’ve seen how we are in the U.S.: We’re completely atomized from each other. Everything is dog-eat-dog, I’m in it for myself, get out of my way, it’s my road, I’m not paying taxes for anything. I think the bike culture has embedded in it the possibility of a more convivial, sharing culture at the heart of it. But you can’t even make that argument overtly in the U.S. without running into weird political problems.
And now, thanks to Elizabeth Press and our sister site Streetfilms.org, a lovely video featuring Mikael Colville-Andersen!