Lessons from cycling in Denmark

My favorite transportation in Copenhagen one of the bikes I can rent all over town. I’d say the traffic here is split pretty 50/50 between cars and bikes. Any area built after the invention of the automobile has 2 lanes for car traffic, flanked on either side with a bike lane going the same direction, and then on either side of that, there’s a large sidewalk. The older sections all of have marked bike lanes or bike pathways. And everywhere there is a traffic light, there’s a separate light for the bike lane, and sometimes for the walkers as well. The only other city I’ve seen with more bikes, and that’s more bike-friendly, is Amsterdam.

What’s so amazing is how unfailing polite the people here are, and how completely they follow the traffic rules. I’ve relearned all the hand signals for turning and stopping. I’ve noticed that people simply don’t ride their bike in the crosswalks or on any pedestrian street.  They simply hop off their bike if they need to and then hop back on again without hesitation or seeming to begrudge it for an instant. Pedestrians cross at the crosswalks and everyone obeys the traffic signals.

Now, I’m clearly a tourist.  I’m riding a rented bike, pretty slowly, and gawking all around. I often have to make a left-hand turn from a right-hand bike lane and I had to walk my way around the intersection till I watched and learned the polite way to cross and merge into the other bike lane. Lots of people, young and old, men and women, ride way faster than me. An occasional tinkle of a bell lets me know they are coming up behind me. But no one has every raced past me in a way that was startling or scary, no one has continuously klingled in some rude way,  shouted words at me, or even seemed to mutter under their breath while they had to wait to pass me. When we come to a stoplight there’s no jocking for position or trying to squeeze to the head of the line.

Oh, and let’s talk about the drivers. Clearly, the order of who gets to go first is – pedestrians, then bikes, then cars. And no one seems to be in a hurry. I’ve heard a few horns in downtown but always a short “Hey, I’m here, please see me” rather than the long or loud “get out of my way you stupid idiot” kind of honking.

How different this is from home. How different this is from our road rage and everyone zipping around always trying to get ahead of everyone else.  What does it say about our cultures and the way we engage in our lives I wonder? Not only are the riders and drivers unfailingly polite, but the people are friendly and helpful. Everyone I’ve asked for help or directions has gone out of their way and assured me it was “no problem!” I’ve had a stranger let me use his phone to make sure I could get into my place and another let me tether my phone to his because I desperately needed the internet to return my bike. And when we discovered we needed to walk a block to where my bike belonged, once again, it was ‘no problem!”  People have spontaneously helped on the trains and with the coins which I’m having trouble reading, and even the locksmith who had to fix my door wanted to do more than necessary because it was simply “no problem.”

How often to we feel put-upon or interfered with? How often do we feel like we don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to go that little extra bit to make someone’s day? Sometimes I feel rushed and too stressed, and sometimes simply too self-absorbed, to see what someone else might need.  What does this say about our cultures I wonder?

It’s a bit annoying, but I’ve also noticed that most stores are closed by 5 or 6 pm 3-4 days a week, only the restaurants are open late into the evening. When you ride the streets after 7 they are pretty empty except in the more touristy sections. Everyone seems to have decided to go home to their families and their non-work lives.  As I was walking through the park yesterday, there were at least 50 people on a little round amphitheater type stage, all there to learn a Danish folklore dance, kind of like an old-fashioned square dance. And there were probably another 50 sitting around watching.  All just for fun and something to do on a summer Sunday evening.

So here’s the question – what does the way you drive say about you and how you are engaged in your life? That’s the question I’ll be asking myself when I get back to the States, but you can start asking it now.  Let me know what you discover!