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©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013As cycling advocates we spend significant time for the purpose of realizing significant growth of cycling traffic in our cities, provinces, and country.  As advocates, significant growth will only come from focusing on enticing car drivers to give cycling a chance as an alternate transportation mode or in combination with transit or car trips.  We can see the success of many cities in gaining significant cycling traffic growth within a short time frame from a couple of years to five years.  Usually this was achieved through upgrading the cycling networks, upgrading the cycling infrastructure design toolkits, or through marketing.  Usually Copenhagen is used as an example, a city that has achieved a 4% growth within two years.  More…..

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Copenhagen cycling chic. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Copenhagen cycling chic mixing with pedestrians and cafe vibe. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

 No one prepared me for this:  I would lose my cycling identity in Copenhagen, that badge of irritating marginality to drivers.  It was akin to dropping my self-consciousness of growing up Asian-Canadian, a visible minority in small German-based  Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario during the 1960-1970’s.  When I moved to Toronto and now, Vancouver, I merged anonymously with masses of other Asian faces.  In Copenhagen, a cyclist was swallowed up in a forest of fellow spinners.

Copenhagen's emblem.

Copenhagen's emblem. Photo by J. Chong

No Longer a Cycling Rebel
On bike in Copenhagen, you really aren’t noticed as an exception nor a rebel. Over 36% of people in Copenhagen, cycle to work or school for transportation. Overall, 60% of Copenhageners use their bike daily (2009). At home, 3.8% of Vancouverites cycle for transportation (2008) which is better than most Canadian cities.

I thanked myself for bringing my lycra black skort, a skirt-short combo. I wore the skort more often than expected, in other European cycling-dominant cities before we reached Copenhagen during our trip:  Freiburg and Karlsruhe in Germany as well as in Strasbourg, France.  I wanted to blend in seamlessly with many other cyclists whirring along in streaming cotton jackets, slacks, skirts and walking shorts.

Typical Copenhagen commuter cycling traffic. June 2010.  Photo by HJEH Becker

Typical Copenhagen commuter cycling traffic. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Contrary to many European female cyclists,  and contrary to a growing trend in some North American cities for cycling in streetwear, I still wore my cycling jerseys, sans team logos, and other cycling apparel for comfort. 

Ironically for the first ten years after I returned to cycling mid-life, I wore T-shirts while cycling everywhere.  A garment that dismayed lycra –clad cyclists who avoided the drag of any loose apparel flapping in the wind. But I had memory of smelly polyester tops as a 1970’s teenager. I also did not want to be mistaken for a cycling fitness poseur,  for doing anything remotely athletic.  Odd since I was becoming more fit from cycling than ever before in my life.

A North American cycling alien in Copenhagen, with helmet and high visibility jacket. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

A North American cycling alien in Copenhagen, with helmet and high visibility jacket. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

But now, I wanted to protect my carefully chosen business wardrobe from cycling stains and early tear.  I had spent precious dollars and shopping hours  tracking down clothing to fit. 

Still A Tad Alien-Cyclist
Nevertheless, I still appeared as a North American hyper-cyclist with a helmet poking out  among Copenhagen cycling masses.  I wore my helmet because  I learned my lesson after falling off my bike on black ice twice during winter. I also learned my lesson when I worked for three years at a rehabilitation hospital for spinal cord injured adults in Toronto. A few kilometers away, there was an acute care hospital with a trauma unit. They treated head injuries.    

Cycling couple-- nonchalant and unaffected in Copenhagen. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Cycling couple holding hands. Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker. Common in cycling-intensive European cities.

It is not all bad to lose a lot of North American frenetic cycling identity. When you shed it, you may drop hyper-focused  athleticism  that can look fit, but intimidating to emulate by the easy-going couch surfers. 

While in Prague, I saw our own North American cyclist as near-alien creature, reflected back on us by watching the odd Prague cyclist zipping here and there on bike. The cyclists in downtown Prague were rare and nearly inconsequential.  When we were in Prague a few days before Copenhagen, we noticed the paucity of cyclists. With a local cycling mode share of optimistically up to only 2%, Prague is like many North American cities: lacking extensive cycling infrastructure and much lower cycling rates for transportation.

Copenhagen side street for cycling, walking, bike parking and sitting streetside.

Copenhagen side street for cycling, walking, bike parking and sitting streetside. June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Such a contrast to even Freiburg, Germany a city 25% smaller than Prague, with also a cobblestoned core like Prague.  By contrast, Freiburg was thronging with cyclists in streetwear.

Cycling during the first two hours or so in Copenhagen, was liberating and fun with many cyclists around.  However the elation of cycling in a flowing crowd, became muted. I had to focus.   Even though cycling in Copenhagen is on flat terrain in separated bike lanes, I had to adjust my riding style. I had to merge with many 

Ready to cycle after shopping. Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Ready to cycle after shopping. Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

 more cyclists nearby, passing either on my left or right — the latter, I have always found irritating.   Very few Copenhageners used their bike bells. They didn’t bother to say anything as a warning, if they wanted to pass you on a crowded or narrow path. 

Perhaps with many cyclists, a ringing bike bell or more might confuse not just one, but several other cyclists around me: who was ringing that bell?

Letting Go of North American Cycling Exclusivity
To become a cycling city, means many North American regular cyclists must adopt a far more inclusive mindset  to embrace wobbly, slower cyclists, cyclists 

Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

who chat side by side in separated bike lanes and cyclists who are not model Copenhagen chic nor fitness oriented. Inclusion also meant a group of eight casually attired teenage girls chatting happily away with one another while they cycled slowly along.

One by one, each cycling girl peeled off from the cycling gaggle, on her bike with a wave and onward to her destination. I marvelled at this  ordinary Copenhagen social cycling activity. Not often does one see in many North American cities,   groups of casually dressed teenage girls  cycling  in the city for transportation and to socialize.  

It was striking  there was a critical mass of women cycling all the time in Copenhagen. Over 55% of cyclists there, were female. There were short time spurts, when I saw more women  cycling than men. Many of the cycling women I saw were cycling solo, strangers to one another and focused on getting to their destinations.

 Copenhagen by Bike Special Museum Exhibit
I wandered over to Copenhagen’s city museum to browse its special exhibit on its historic love affair with the bike, ‘Copenhagen by Bike”.  The exhibit was 

Temporary historic exhibit, 'Copenhagen by Bike' on its cycling history. Copenhagen City Museum Jun 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Temporary historic exhibit, 'Copenhagen by Bike' on its cycling history. Copenhagen City Museum, Denmark Jun 2010. Photo by J. Chong

timed deliberately to coincide with the flood of 1,000 international attendees for the Velo-city Global 2010 Conference on cycling infrastructure planning, programming and trends. Earlier this past spring, was the UN Summit on Climate Change which brought thousands of marchers into this city.

Historic celebration of a Copenhagen road and streetcar bridge --with cyclists.  Copenhagen City Museum June 2010. Photo by J.Chong

Historic celebration of a Copenhagen road and streetcar bridge --with cyclists. Copenhagen City Museum June 2010. Photo by J. Chong

When I arrived, I was advised by museum staff to start from the cycling exhibit and go ‘backwards’ in time to view the historic artifacts from bicycles to medieval. 

Bikes of various vintages were crammed  in the main chandeliered exhibit room, from floor to ceiling.  Next to  children’s bikes, there were adult tricycles with rear-end, hard case  storage case, military bike and bikes used in circuses and entertainment performances.  Wedged here and there, were photos, original paintings and other artifacts. Even during the World War II, the Danish royal family cycled abit as a solidarity gesture.  To me, the museum 

Cycling within a wheel (?). Copenhagen City Museum June 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Cycling within a wheel (?). Copenhagen City Museum June 2010. Photo by J. Chong. Surely, for circus performances.

exhibit was cleverly executed in tight space.  Different bike shapes overlapped one another and became hanging visual abstracts of bike lines and swirls. It was like a carefully designed bike garden that offered different views at every turn, every few steps ahead.

Outside the museum, a postman mounted his postal transport bike with his full mail panniers and basket after his delivery at the museum. Like several German cities we visited, Copenhagen postal workers also cycled around and delivered mail from door to door on yellow mail bikes. Such a sensible way to avoid back and shoulder pain for those heavy loads.

Going for a bike ride. Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

Going for a bike ride. Copenhagen, Denmark June 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

  What prevented me from losing my cycling identity in Copenhagen, was wearing  my bike helmet and my narrow mountain bike shoes for more pedal power leverage. Not that Copenhagen had hills like Vancouver.  It pains my feet just to pump flat pedals with thin  beach flip flops.  Nor do I wish to cycle and scuff up  dress shoes. Not in Copenhagen or even later back, in Vancouver. 

But I could gladly live  in Vancouver one day with:  daily streams of nonchalant cyclists in every age group, patient drivers that do not sit on the car horn at a red light,  shops that sell kiddie bikes with real bike racks and more healthier residents.

Interesting Reading:
Becker, HJEH. “Cycling in Prague”. Jun. 26, 2010. In Third Wave Cycling Blog.

City of Vancouver. Engineering Services. 2008 Annual Bicycle Plan Update. Administrative Report. Supports Item No.1. Presented to Standing Committee on Transportation and Traffic, Jul. 22, 2008. See pgs. 3-4 for update to 2006 Statistics Canada data on city’s cycling mode share.

Ekerson, Clarence. “Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes.” Includes video by Streetsfilm.  In Streetsblog, Jul. 15, 2010. 

Torslov, Niels. Bicycle City Copenhagen. Presented at National Cycling Congress, Berlin May 9, 2009. Published by: City of Copenhagen, The Technical and Environmental Administration. Copenhagen aims to reach 50% cycling mode share by 2015.

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Bike design- Copenhagen bike share system 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike design- Copenhagen bike share system 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

I avoid fixed stationary exercise bikes –and we have them in our home building’s fitness centre. I avoid them at most hotels where I have stayed even if they have adjustable saddle height. Still this feature did not improve the fit.  After grinding painfully twice, each time on a different model in a different facility, I gave up after 10 minutes. After one experience, my arms ached for the next 2 hours.  I was already a regular cyclist on my bike outside several times per week for a few years and familiar with good bike fit.

What is thought to be ‘average’ bike geometry is a bike design where often the top centre tube is too long for short limbed folks and there is no provision to shorten handlebar set distance closer to the saddle. I am 5’1” (155 cm) .

Bike design- Velib bike share. Paris, France 2008. Photo by J.Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike design- Velib bike share. Paris, France 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

However there are many people who have similar problems even if they are several inches taller. Since their arm length is short, they are overstretched when seated on a regular sized bike.  Many women observe this problem when hunting for their first or next bike.

It is with tempered enthusiasm, I eyed the bike design submissions for City of Copenhagen’s 2009 competition for their next bike share system to be installed in 

Bike design- Velo'v bike share. Lyon, France 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike design- Velo'v bike share. Lyon, France bike 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

 2013 after they announced the winning design  in Dec. 2009.   Some designs were cool bike ‘eye candy’. Yet one wondered about the practicality and cycling comfort for many designs.  Aesthetic fit to the city’s  milieu was one of Copenhagen’s  bike design competition criteria.

Over the years when I rent a bike, adequate bike fit is helpful.  After renting different bikes for a day ride or so in Portland, Seattle, Calgary, Montreal, Hawaii, Nantucket Island and Vermont, I have experienced various bikes.  Sometimes there was no choice at the rental shop. Good bike fit will make any bike ride more enjoyable and liberating, no matter how unfamiliar your surroundings may be in whatever weather conditions.  Good bike fit avoids much pain in the knees, back, hands, arms and legs.  Good bike fit reduces the effort of cycling.  Good bike fit will not cause people to say they will not cycle again because of  pain and effort.  Good bike fit enables the rider to forget bike fit. It needs to be quickly forgettable in order for the rider to focus instead, on performance of their body, the traffic and surroundings around them. 

Bike design- Bicing bike share. Barcelona, Spain 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike design- Bicing bike share. Barcelona, Spain 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike ‘fit’ is a relative word in current bike share systems. Existing city public bike share designs worldwide, integrate design features with built-in payment, time-tracking and locking mechanisms. Present bike share systems offer a set free time period, often within the first half an hour. This amount of time is deemed adequate for short trips in urban core areas before paid time period is activated. Depending on the cyclist’s capability, trip route configuration and traffic volume, trip distance would be approximately 7-10 kms. during the free half hour. In the City of Vancouver, the average commuting one-way trip is 5-10 kms. within its city boundaries. (City of Vancouver, Engineering Services). 

Perhaps it is the short bike trip rationale that drives bike designers to create a one size bike design with very little or no bike component adjustments for public bike share systems.  The bike designs submitted for the latest Copenhagen competition, seem to support a perceived lesser need for a  flexible bike fit compared to cost-oriented factors of bike durability and security to control damage and loss.

In May 2009, I tried the demonstration Bixi bike design from Montreal that was temporarily installed for a few weeks in Vancouver.  Though the fit was awkward for me, more importantly the heavy bike frame made me wonder if I was less physically fit, how one would cope with grinding up a gentle hill in

Bike design- OyBike share. London, UK 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

Bike design- OyBike share. London, UK 2008. Photo by Jack Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group.

downtown Vancouver.  After all, the target market for bike share systems includes a broad range of users who may not be frequent cyclists or indeed, engaged in regular exercise.  If a bike share system is to encourage redirecting urban car use to cleaner transportation  and reduce road congestion, then bike share makes a lot of sense.  Bike share systems should inspire more people to embrace cycling by acquiring their own bike later.  However the limited fit of current bike designs for  bike share systems may only appeal and convert some  people to regular cyclists later.

For practical reasons, in addition to flexible bike fit, these additional features are of value for a bike share model and foster greater use by more people:

  • multiple gearing up to 8 speeds-  useful for weak or unfit cyclists
  • reasonable light bike weight-  lighter bike compensates abit for other bike fit problems.
  • front basket-  just a map holder is inadequate. Not everyone thinks of wearing a knapsack. Not all people like strapping on a shoulder bag across their back or front.  A weighted shoulder bag shifts across the body while on bike and gets in the way.

Take a look at the 2009 Copenhagen bike share design ideas. We have included bikes that J. Becker and R. Campbell of  Third Wave Cycling Group, saw during their 2008 visit to the captioned cities with bike share systems.  There are some intriguing bikes but for a more satisfying ride, an adjustable bike design, will surely draw more converts to cycling as a sensible transportation vehicle for urban trips to stores, cafes, services and nearby parks.

Interesting Reading:

CPH Bike Share Competition: All Entries. City of Copenhagen. Dec. 2009.  See under ‘Original site’ to view competition goals and evaluation criteria.

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