DING! DING! Biking Etiquette in Copenhagen

Cultural Assimilation in the Bike Lane


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 Portland, Oregon.)

There are more bikes than locals in Copenhagen. Many people don’t even own a car. Oh yeah, that’s us. But in Denmark, we ride bikes. (Or busses and trains – but today I’m talking about life on two wheels.)

The Danish capital has roads for bikes. Its top status as most bike culture-fied city is usually running neck and neck with the Dutch capital Amsterdam. And while Copenhagen is home to those iconic Christiania cargo bikes, in The Netherlands, they have “bakfiets,” which are really quite similarly huge and seemingly unwieldy. We didn’t invest in one of those. And what an investment it is. But I digress.

Ding! Ding! To exist on the bike lanes of Copenhagen’s streets there are certain rules of engagement that one must follow to survive. Survive, you say? That sounds a bit 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 kind of have to know what you are doing on those bike paths. Maybe it’s not truly a matter of life or death – but sometimes the stress is real.

First off, you have to know the proper hand signals. And they aren’t the same hand signals that 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. “Brækkede du 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 notifications for 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 sway right (unless you are in the UK or Australia and then I don’t know which side you bike on).

If you are in a hurry or if you are seriously 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 come 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 trainers. I bike in my new Swedish clogs. (They are so, 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 I can hear ask? What hand signal would you use for that? I present to you – the bell. Oh, I had a cute little bell on my bike when I was wee you might be thinking. Me? 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, I know. Oh well.

What is important here is that you need a BELL on your bike in Copenhagen. It might even be required. And you ding that bell to pass people on the left. ONLY ON THE LEFT. 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 me on the right.

Ok. So. You have your bell. You are carefully approaching a biker who is presenting a determinedly slower current pace than yours. What do you do? You lightly flick your bell and effect a pleasant “ding” sound to nicely notify the person ahead of you that you will be passing them. 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. Even in a busy commuting bike lane.

While maybe, just 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 and shocking; 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 more than once. In fact – multiple times. In quick and 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 such a lovely part of this life lived abroad” reverie – 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!!!

Life with Baby Kicks

10 thoughts on “DING! DING! Biking Etiquette in Copenhagen

  1. Thanks for that! When we visited Amsterdam I was too intimidated by the amount of people/not knowing bike rules to attempt the bike lane, but with this in mind maybe I can try it in Copenhagen!

    1. Don’t be scared! It really is very easy and the best way to see more than just Copenhagen harbor. Be like a local and don’t be offended if you get told that you made a mistake! Just keep biking – just keep biking!

  2. Yep, there’s aggressive dingers all over the world. Where we live, (UK seaside town) the council put up bike lanes on the pedestrians lane on the seafront and then it seemed to give uber cyclists (those in serious Lycra and with bikes worth thousands) the right to shame anyone going at a leisurely pace or children just learning to cycle, weaving about a bit. Lots of ringing bells,swearing and British huffing at innocent cyclists went on from the uber cyclists. So much so that they just got rid of the painted lane and made it a free for all for pedestrians and cyclist to all just get along – and it works!
    I’m just browsing your blog now, as on a personal note I’ve been trying to decide between Amsterdam and Copenhagen to take my husband away for his birthday for a few days – still can’t decide which place to pick – grateful for any help! #effitfriday

  3. Ah…the Autobahn of the Danish bike lanes. Don’t get me started. There is a theory that life is so good for the Danes they have little else to get mad about other than failure to signal in the bike lane–which is punishable by whatever the punishment right before death is. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed at myself trying to keep my kids (boys!!) to the right while shouting, “bike riding is not for fun in Denmark! Bikes are for getting places!”. I love my very pink bike, ride it everywhere, but it took a while to get used to!

  4. Anna

    I’ve encountered “rush hour” in Amsterdam and really should have filmed it! As a pedestrian I feel threatened to be honest! I realized that Copenhagen has so many bikes too when I visited 2 years ago! I was fascinated with the cargo ones honestly…I saw a pregnant lady on the bike and 3 kids on the cargo…I was in awe!!

  5. I enjoyed reading this, though I would certainly not bike in Copenhagen. We live north of the city, and the traffic frightens me…for that matter the other cyclists would frighten me more.

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