It took us a while to hop on the bike culture here in Copenhagen, which made us stand out like a sore thumb, as a whopping nine out of ten Danes own a bike.
But once we committed to this mode of travel, it made a huge difference to experiencing life in Copenhagen. It hasn’t been a straight forward ride and as always, throwing a toddler into the mix makes it that little bit more interesting/fun/hard work.
Firstly, there are the options of bikes, bike seats and cargos. Cargos are the investment pieces. From new, they cost up to 16,800 kroner (£2,000). Second hand you’re still looking at parting with nearly half of that. But they act as a car – sort of. In the standard cargo, you can fit two children, or an adult (yes I’ve tried), transport your groceries/Ikea shelves, they are covered to protect your little one from the elements and they have four wheels, so it’s like riding with stabilisers.
So it was September and we finally got the cargo bike we had been pining over. We could start living out the Danish dream of cycling around the streets of Copenhagen. Except it rained. In fact it pelted it down, every time we seemed to be on the bike. As the downpours relentlessly battered my every pedal, I started to learn how heavy a cargo bike is to move. I would get to my destination soaked through, exhausted and in serious need of a pastry. Luckily, I have now got fitter and used to cycling a heavy bike and there have been better weather days than those first few downpours. When the sun is shining on you, there is no better feeling, or way to wake up in the morning. There is also no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes on the cargo, 30 minutes back and then repeat for pick up.
And then there’s my passenger, Lydia. When you picture Copenhagen parents cycling with their children, it is probably one of calm serenity, the healthy, happy lifestyle. And that is what I’ve witnessed here. For Lydia, like me, it’s taken a while to get there. Definitely not something inherited in our Danish genes. Five minutes after setting off, she would scream, wriggle, kick her legs out and basically give the impression to every passer-by that her mummy was torturing her. Our commute to nursery would involve at least five stops as I bribed her with food, drink, music, toys or any sort of encouragement that we were nearly there – sort of.
Cycling in the rain — a common Danish scenario. Photo: Rasmus Flindt Pedersen/Polfoto/Ritzau
Other new-found experiences included emergency stopping in the cycle lane as I tried to retrieve toys, beakers or shoes thrown out on the street. One time her favourite talking toy went into a main road. Cue a sprint, drop and grab that any PE teacher would be proud of. ‘Miss Norah’ and her annoying voice live on to fight another bike ride. A few weeks in, Lydia started to understand there was no getting out of this and began, miraculously, to entertain herself on the journeys. But it does involve a little encouragement from me. You know when you talk nonsense and sing badly and loudly in the car to entertain your child, or just yourself. Well, I now have to do that in the open air; my English tones ringing through every passer-by’s ears. Sometimes I have to do it while stationary at traffic lights.
After about a month, we bought a standard bike, to make journeys sans Lydia a little quicker and so we didn’t have to share one bike. When I first used this standard bike, I actually went into a bike repair shop to check something wasn’t lose with the steering. No Emma, you have just been used to cycling with the stabilisers of the cargo and now wobble around like someone who has never ridden before. So that was embarrassing. After getting used to cycling again, (a.k.a. like a normal person on a normal bike), I was ready to try Lydia on the back.
I was initially nervous. What if she falls out? What if I lose my balance? How do I check she’s still in there?! But she was not only absolutely fine, she went ‘weeeee’ and loved it. And still does. As I’m getting more confident, I am also enjoying it more and more. The bike is a lot lighter than the cargo so journey times don’t take so long. I’m also able to chat more easily and – my favourite – more subtly to Lydia rather than bellowing through the cargo cover.
I’m still aware I am carrying very precious cargo behind me and I get a little nervous on wet ground, bumps and when the bike lanes merge with the road. Oh, and when Lydia decides to do a little jig on the back, shaking my balance all over the place. And that’s why overall, especially in winter and on long journeys, I feel safer on the cargo bike. I can’t slip on the roads when it’s wet, icy or snowy and Lydia is protected from the elements in her little pod.
But many Danes with one child just wrap up their offspring and pop them on the back of the bike and power cycle ahead. And what has struck me most is not only the ease at which they do this, but the fact many cyclists, including some parents, don’t wear a helmet. Wearing a helmet is not part of the law in Denmark and The Cycling Embassy of Denmark says that just 35 percent of Danes wear one. The cycling infrastructure and bike lanes are so superb in Denmark, I can see why this is the case.
Over the last 15 years, there has been huge investment (around one bilion kroner or £115 million) in Copenhagen to make people cycle more than drive. Last year, bike sensors recorded that there were, for the first time, more bikes on the road than cars. Imagine that in the London – more bikes than cars.
Add to the fact that, according to the Danish Road Safety Commission (Rådet for Sikker Trafik) during 2010-11, 16 percent of people killed on the roads were pedestrians and 12 percent were cyclists – you can start to understand why helmet wearing is not considered a priority in Denmark.
That all said, I can’t shake off the British genes in me and all my family wear helmets. We are also novice road cyclists and haven’t been cycling every day on the roads since childhood. Does it make me feel less Danish? Sometimes – but the fact my little family can cycle around a capital city, without needing any other mode of transport, and now without the need for toddler bribes, is enough of a Scandi winner for me.
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Emma Firth is a former BBC journalist and TV producer who freelances in Copenhagen. She moved from the UK to Denmark in February 2017 with her husband and one year-old daughter. Emma is half Danish and documents her experience of moving to Copenhagen in her blog Living The Danish Gene.