Cultural Assimilation in the Bike Lane
LEARNING THE CYCLING RULES OF THE ROAD IN COPENHAGEN
Dear aggressive bell-dinger on the Copenhagen bike lane home from school today – please check yourself. Really. Good gravy. On the whole, life is pretty calm, cool and collected here in Copenhagen. But there is always one out there who isn’t. Isn’t there? And I’m not saying that it is never not me. But today, it was the aggressive bell-dinger. DING! DING! DING! DING! DING!!! Have you met her? Or him for that matter? Bell-dinger extraordinaire? Don’t you live in Copenhagen? Don’t know of what I speak? Please – let me enlighten you
You must all know that Copenhagen ranks amongst the top cities in the world for its bike-friendly infrastructure and bike integrated culture. And if you don’t – here are the facts: 50% of Copenhageners commute to work by bike. (Just for reference, in Portland, Oregon where I’m from – a place that likes to fashion itself as one of America’s most bike-friendly cities – only 6% commute to work. Yep. Not quite Copenhagen stats. It DOES help that it’s really REALLY flat here. Unlike Oregon.)
There are more bikes than Copenhageners here. Many people don’t even own a car. Oh yeah, that’s us. (No need to point out, those of you who know us, about the two vehicles we left out to pasture back in Oregon, that’s another story.) But in Copenhagen, we ride bikes. (Or busses and trains, but today I’m talking about bikes.)
Copenhagen has roads for bikes. It’s top status as most bike culture-fied city is usually neck and neck with the likes of Amsterdam. And while we are home to the iconic Christiania cargo bikes, they have those bakfiets, which you know are really quite similarly huge and seemingly unwieldy. But I digress.
Ding! Ding! Now. To exist on the bike roads of Copenhagen’s streets there are rules of engagement that one must follow to survive. Survive? That sounds a little intense, you might be thinking. But seriously on a nice day (or a rainy day or a snowy day for that matter) when it is rush hour in the city – you have to know what you are doing on those bike paths. I don’t think it’s a matter of life and death – but sometimes it feels like it!
First off, you have to know the proper hand signals. And they aren’t the same hand signals as I always forgot in the States. Basically – it’s just a hand up (90-degree angle) to signal you are stopping or a point in the direction you are wanting to turn. (See here for some good visuals.) If you forget and just turn – you will be viscerally notified that you forgot. “Har du brække din arm?!” Did you break your arm?! may echo from the car window behind you! Not that we’ve ever heard that. Or maybe we have and our Danish wasn’t good enough to know yet?! But, unless we are really processing something and truly not paying attention, we’ve all gotten pretty good at the essential notification of our bikerly directions.
Besides signaling, there are requisite courtesies of speed as well. If you are just out for a leisurely toodle – say towards your favorite øl bar to meet friends or to take the kids to get some ice cream (please go to Østerberg Ice Cream – it is amazing!) or just to enjoy the sunshine – then stay to the right please. Like lanes on the freeway, slower traffic on the bike lanes should stay to the right (unless you are in the UK or Australia and then I don’t know which side they bike on).
If you are in a hurry or if you are just speedy – like the peeps clicked into their fancy bikes wearing advert-covered, usually white spandex zip-up suits and sleek helmets (my brother would really love it here) then you should use the left side of the bike lane. But even those super fast bikers don’t bother me. I say good on you for getting your work out in and trying to PR your way to and fro work in your slick outfit. No seriously – I’m impressed.
But the majority of Copenhageners bike in normal street clothes. They bike in suits. Ready for work as soon as they park their ride. They bike in heels. They bike in furs in the winter. They bike in dresses. They bike in cute lacy shorts and sparkly tennis shoes. They bike in skinny jeans and black blazers with clunky bright white Adidas Originals. I bike in my new Swedish clogs. (They’re so cute!) But what you wear really doesn’t determine which side of the bike lane you should adhere to. Speed matters. Stay to the right unless you are trying to pass.
And how would one pass you might ask? What hand signal would you use for that? I present to you – the bell. I had a bell on my bike when I was little you might be thinking. I also had plastic streamers that attached to the handles – remember those? You may have also put a playing card between the spokes to effect a special clickety-clack sound as you cruised the neighborhood on your banana seat bike. Totally just dated myself there didn’t I? Oh well. What is important here is that you need a BELL on your bike in Copenhagen. And you ding that bell to pass people on the left. ONLY ON THE LEFT people. Don’t pass on the right – it’s confusing and might lead to more chastising. I’m just trying to protect you. And me to be honest. I’m just not expecting you on the right. Don’t pass on the right.
Ok. So you have your bell. You are approaching a biker who is presenting a determinedly slower pace than yours. What do you do? You lightly flick your bell and effect a pleasant “ding” sound and nicely notify the person ahead of you that you will be passing ON THEIR LEFT. I have spoken about the standard of Danish decorum before and in most cases, it creates a harmonious carriage of the day.
And maybe this woman we met on the bike lane today wasn’t Danish. It’s possible. But I think she knew what she was doing. And you know – every culture has bad eggs and even every good egg has an occasional bad day. But seriously – there are nice “dings” and there are aggressive DINGS. It was almost as if she was biking in ALL CAPS. Do you know what I mean? I may have to get my kids to demonstrate for a recording. But there is a clear distinction. One sound – quite charming and delightful. The other – jarring, shocking and downright pointed and mean. You should have seen the look on my daughter’s face. Did you hear that DING DING DING DING DING DING!!!!?!!
Yes. I heard it. She dinged multiple times. In quick aggressive succession. And no one was at fault. I watched the entire episode unfold from a cautionary distance behind my daughter and the pack she was flowing nicely along beside. We were all going the same direction. There were a lot of us. It was a nice day. We all took our bikes to work, to school, to the gym, to the store, to the library… who cares – wherever we were going – it felt good to be on a bike today. Seriously good. My foot feels amazing on a bike by the way. (Oh yeah – in case you didn’t hear – I wrote a bunch about it earlier and I’m kind of over it – but I dislocated my ankle, had three surgeries, removed my own stitches and am recovering fairly at this point.)
It is such freedom to jump on my bike. At first, I had to use my middle son’s bike as it was shorter and easier to get on and off. But I’ve graduated on to my own bike, which I hadn’t been able to ride – A) because it took four months to arrive via our very slow crate from Oregon and B) when it did arrive I was still on crutches. But now I’m not. And it’s great. It doesn’t creak and it doesn’t squeak and it has good breaks and it shifts nicely and it is lovely. Really, really lovely. Especially on a day like today. I biked the children to school and back. I biked to my husband’s office for lunch and back. I biked BACK to the children’s school AND back. Glorious.
So in the middle of my ahhhh, this is sooo lovely revery – watching and impressed by my daughter’s growing skills and confidence on the Copenhagen bikeways – did one aggressive bike-dinger come in and bust up the fun. Luckily there were just too many people moving in one direction to put our hand up and safely stop to answer my daughter’s questioning glances and we proceeded home well behind ALL CAPS BIKER LADY. And while I hope that her take away food made it home hot and safe, I too hope that her day gets better. Or that tomorrow is another day for her. I will forgive her this afternoon as she provided good fodder for writing and I will try to remember to always ding politely. Breathe. In. Out. Repeat. Cheers from Denmark. DING!!!