The Danish Minister of Culture asked: which social values and traditions – that have shaped us – will you carry through to tomorrow’s society?
The Danish Cycling culture not only marks a part of our culture but constitute the spine of our identity
By Klaus Bondam, CEO, Danish Cyclists Federation
Ask any tourist: ”how are they, these Danes” and they will probably answer with an enthusiastic smile: “the Danes, they ride their bikes!”. Biking is for Denmark what the bowler hat is for England, the samba is for Brazil and the Kalinka is for Russia, – a unique trademark. But it is also much more. The Danish cycling culture forms a collective coherence and is a unique part of our shared identity.
Denmark is one of the nations in the world with most cyclists, and we have a unique cycling culture, – quite exceptional in the world, to say the least. And it is something that characterizes us and makes us different from most. Few other nations have what we have. The cycling culture is so deep rooted in the Danish population as if it is part of our genetic makeup. Even on a bitterly cold winter’s day you will see the brave Vikings defying snow and lazy winds steering their bicycles to wherever they are headed. It is all implanted in the cultural DNA of the Danes.
Our cycling culture is more than 100 years old and is not to be seen as only a matter of transport. It portrays both who we are and where we come from and also how we have established our present day society. Our social welfare society is based on a certain mentality, and in order to fully understand this mentality, one has to look at the cycling culture as one of the narratives, that tell us why and how the welfare society was made possible.
The cycling culture reflects our democracy and equality
The cycling culture is an imprint of our democracy, equality and solidarity. It ties our life together from early life to old age and is one of the few things we carry with us all the way, – alone and together. As children we ride the bike on our way to school, as a bit older to university or training places, later on as grown-ups to work and sports activities. As elderly we use the bike going shopping, going to the library and just to keep us fit. The bicycle ties the local community together and is in all ages an important part of our everyday life.
We all learn to bike from an early age, – get bicycling in with our mother’s milk, so to speak. The general manager, the nurse, the pupils and the elderly all cycle alongside to their daily tasks in the morning and back again in the afternoon. We bike alone and we bike together with our families, friends and colleagues. In Denmark everybody rides a bicycle, from all layers of society and all age groups. Cycling is something quite natural; state secretaries, members of parliament, mayors and even the crown prince ride his bike taking his children to school. Bicycling equals freedom to move regardless of social status. That is why the bicycle can be seen as a democratic devise which creates equality because the bike is for everybody. Furthermore the bicycle is recognized as a mean of transportation on equal terms with public transport and motoring and thus taken into account in the development of city infrastructure.
Strengthen through the oil crisis
Denmark has a long tradition for riding the bike, and the Danish cycling culture is well known and increasingly in demand and envied in many parts of the world. During the first half of the 20th century the bicycle was the preferred and most available means of transportation in the cities as well as in the country side. Only the few could afford a car. Not until after WW II – after the Marshall Plan got the economy kick-started and the American culture going in many European cities, – did the motoring take off seriously. But when the oil crisis hit the world in the 1970’es the people of Denmark – as well as the people of the Netherlands – dusted off their old bikes …….. and they haven’t stopped cycling ever since. 99 % of the population learns to ride the bike before the age of 10, and 96 % is of the opinion that children must be able to cycle safely to school. More than half the population rides their bicycle several times a week.
The cycling culture is our answer to future challenges
We are grateful for our Danish cycling culture that reaches far into the future. It carries one of the vital elements in relation to create the sustainable development that many Western countries – and not the least the cities – are thriving to achieve, which will be only more important in the future.
It holds a key position in modern city planning where streets and squares are made to create quality for the inhabitants in opposition to former day’s necessity for plain roads for transport. The focus is now far more on people, bicycle lanes and pedestrianized street, making the environment and city life a democratic factor where spaces and places become the public and mutual areas where you meet each other.
Apart from the entire above mentioned one must not forget the enormous positive impact cycling has on the general public health. This aspect will gain even more importance in the near future as physical inactivity – apart from being one of the biggest killers – will become an enormously expensive to society.
Our good luck is that the Danish cycling culture gives us a head start in the most difficult challenge of them all: namely changing the attitude, mentality and behaviorism in people towards keeping physical healthy. We already have what is needed.
Our Cycling culture gives us an exceptional opportunity in relation to the rest of the world. There is no doubt that the future demands new ways of thinking, new ways of city planning, infrastructure, town centers and city life. In this respect we are ahead thanks to our unique cycling culture.
The young generation shows the way forward even broader than earlier. We can therefore see that we are an integral part of an educational history, which will provide us with the next important steps into the future – in relation to modern urban development and improvement of the public health in a dynamic and sustainable coordination between cycling culture, collective transport and car traffic.
Without a cycling culture that is a century old, we would be many decades behind – not to mention generations. Our cycling culture is therefore not only a part of our identity. It is also a gift that we should be enthusiastic and thankful for.