For Rene Hougaard, bicycles are the most inspiring urban objects: “I am so happy with my bike” was a favorite kindergarten song in the 70s and 80s in Denmark while I was growing up. Now somewhat older, I realize that this could not have been a hit song among children in London, Tokyo or any other big city at that time. While I was used to biking to and from school, friends’ houses and sports practice, in big cities bicycles were rare, strange objects—only driven by radical green activists or sports fanatics who took their bikes out of the city on Sundays to race on the countryside roads.
Growing number of bikes in cities
It is fascinating for a Dane, whose main mean of transportation since the age of two has been a bike, to discover and explore how bikes have become—and are becoming—one of the most significant objects of urban life over the last 20 years. The end of the Cold War in the 90s allowed for a flood of expensive, strong and super lightweight materials, which the bicycling industry took advantage of. The fascination with hi-tech materials turned bicycles into aspirational objects. We all wanted a Centurion or an Avenue because they were sleek, modern, high-performance and something new.
Since then, our city roads have become tired with heavy traffic, and urban residents have been realizing that the short distances they travel can be covered easily on two wheels. Additionally, political decisions have been reflecting the wish for a better and more environmentally friendly transportation system. Bikes have entered the cities big time, and will continue to do so.
Bikes in the city
On a busy spring morning in Copenhagen, take a seat close to one of the bigger intersections in the city center and enjoy the wonderful variety of bikes. Check out the girl in the flower dress on her bike, painted and decorated with flowers and stickers, or watch the guy in his thirties riding the popular cargo tricycle.
On his way to work, he drops off his comfortably seated three-year-old at kindergarten. A few tourists are up this morning as well, and although looking a bit overwhelmed by the traffic on the biking path, they are happy to take advantage of the bike-sharing system that the city offers for free. Altogether, these various people compose a beautiful and colorful image of a city and its inhabitants on wheels.
Bike as personal expression
With so many people in town owning bikes, it is not only a means of inexpensive and easy transport; the bike also becomes an object of individual expression. To a large extent the look of the bikes we see in the city follows fashion trends, so when fashion dictates retro we see lots of bikes with an old-fashioned, romantic look. You might ask yourself what are the trendiest bikes right now? They are quite individual and unique—built from re-used and new parts, but still with a clean look. Performance is not of great importance. They are just single-speed versions, which can bring you to your favorite hotspot café.
And as the popularity of the bike increases, the status of the bike as part of modern urban life also grows. It is cool to have a bike. Enjoy an evening in Amsterdam and you will be amazed to see the number of bikes parked in front of the most popular bars and cafés.
Bikes shaping the future urban environment
Besides being an inspiration to urban life, the increasing number of bikes in the city also shapes the city itself. We see an increasing number of municipalities building biking paths, developing parking possibilities for them as well as offering special bikes for everybody to share within the city boundaries. And those with a bike-friendly, and thereby environmentally, conscious attitude will attract new inhabitants as well as tourists.
This is very visible in places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Montreal and is a growing trend in many others, like San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. As a Dane with a strong history of riding bikes, I welcome this idea and look forward to utilizing the bike-sharing concept in some of the many cities I visit in the future.
I encourage you to take time ‘bike watching’ in some of the most bike-friendly cities, and you will be greatly inspired by the world of urban mobility. While doing so, you’re also likely to spot the budding trend and technological fascination surrounding the e-bike.