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Copenhagen Cycle Ambassador Says Bikes Are Hot

1:00 PM EDT on September 30, 2009

If you've been following bicycle blogs for any amount of time at all, you've probably stumbled upon Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the blogs Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. (We often feature his posts on the Streetsblog Network.) On Tuesday afternoon, he brought his inimitable style of bike advocacy (pretty spiffy, though low-key) to Columbia University in New York.

DSC_0008_2_1.jpgMikael Colville-Andersen says biking should be marketed as "a multivitamin Viagra pill for the urban landscape." Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

The title of his talk was "Marketing Bicycle Culture to Subconscious Environmentalists." Basically, Colville-Andersen's message came down to this: We need to promote bicycles as the incredibly practical, fun, stylish, sexy and healthy items that they are. We also need to present them as being mainstream, not the province of a subculture (whether it be Lycra-wearing or fixie-riding).

In Copenhagen, bicycling is mainstream -- 37 percent of commuters in the city use bikes, and 55 percent of trips overall are made on bikes. As Colville-Andersen pointed out, people on bikes in the Danish capital are not "cyclists" -- they're people. On bikes.

How did this state of affairs come about? According to Colville-Andersen, in the 1960s Danish cycle culture was "dying," as it was all over the world in the post-World War II era. Then, because of what he described as a combination of visionary urban planning and visionary political decision-making, the city embarked on a long-term program of creating consistent bicycle infrastructure that would make everyone feel safe on their bicycles.

And now, everyone does. Colville-Andersen said that people in his home city laugh at him when he says he's going abroad to lecture on Copenhagen's bicycle culture -- because to them it has become invisible. A bicycle is simply a tool, like a vacuum cleaner. Most Copenhagenites surveyed say they choose to travel by bike because it is simply the easiest, fastest way to get from Point A to Point B.

The result is a measurable financial benefit to the state, because people who
cycle regularly are healthier and put less stress on the roads. And of
course, the benefit to the people and the city, whose citizenry is engaged with the life of its streets, is incalculable.

Colville-Andersen suggested that bicycling needs to be marketed -- by government and cycle manufacturers -- as glamorous, exciting and convenient. "We're homo sapiens," he said. "We don't respond well to finger-wagging. In order for someone to get us to do something, someone has to show us how easy it is."

To reach the "subconscious environmentalist," the everyday person, Colville-Andersen suggested bicycling should be sold as "a multivitamin Viagra pill for the urban landscape." It's an assessment he says is not inaccurate.

While Colville-Andersen had plenty of fun and useful information for Americans who want to improve the cycling landscape, he was at a loss when confronted with the question, "Is there any way wearing a helmet can be sexy?" The Copenhagenite is well-known to be no great fan of bike helmets (he'd like you to know that motoring helmets are available and perhaps more advisable). He graciously allowed, however, that some in this country (and this city) might feel more comfortable wearing them.

But sexy helmets? He hemmed, hawed, and finally put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "No, they can't be sexy," he said. "But just ride a bike. That's what matters."

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