It has been a couple weeks since Regan and I began our journey from Denmark to the United States. Barring an issue with getting our bikes back on a flight with us, the final miles from Hamburg to Copenhagen rolled smoothly as we reflected on how far we have come.
Finally, back in the United States, a recent conversation with a friend inspired a question based on the classic dilemma of the chicken and the egg, and which came first. So, after riding through some of the best cycling cities in the world such as Amsterdam, Malmö, and now finally Copenhagen, the question has been laid out. Which came first: Did the cultural values of these cities influence better infrastructure to be built, or did the infrastructure inspire more people to ride their bikes? Well, the easy answer is both, but it’s complicated.
The question of the greater influencer between culture and infrastructure is relative to the place in my opinion, and strong cases can be made for both. In addition, historical development of European cities is also a spoiler in this dilemma that adds a layer of complexity to any answer. For example, I do feel that culture is typically the greater influencer, but the scale and density of European cities has also established that culture. On the contrary, some places in Germany with a similar development patterns to places in the Netherlands lack the same enthusiasm for riding, but they are also unpleasant to ride in compared to those cities.
As we began our ride from Hamburg towards the coastal port of Travemünde, we were able to see first hand how the scale of a city and the quality of the roads affected the amount of cyclist we saw. Typically, transitioning from the city, and into agricultural land would take less than an hour, but after 12 miles and nearly two hours, we had yet to clear the city of nearly 2 million people. We saw few cyclists as we navigated our way through the suburban fringes of the city, navigating rough sidewalk bike paths that crossed from one side of the road to the other. Finally, we arrived at the ferry port in Travemünde after nearly 60 miles, passing through the historic city of Lübeck along the way.
Following an overnight ferry ride to the port of Trelleborg, we had a short 20 mile ride across the southern tip of Sweden to Malmö, our track making only tiny scratch on a map of Sweden. As we approached the city it was refreshing to get back onto quality bike paths that brought us into the heart of the Malmö canals. Arriving to Malmo marked the end of Regan and I’s ride, but also the opportunity to study two of the world’s best cycling cities. Before jumping on a train to get over to the cycling mecca of Copenhagen, we explored Malmö in search of mid-century and contemporary architecture.
Leaving the new developments of Malmö, Regan and I arrived in the newest developments of in Copenhagen. Riding down Ørestad Boulevard resembled a utopian society, with layers of mobility options squeezed between contemporary housing developments. After passing the VM House by Bjarke Ingels, Regan and I arrived at his other project next door, The Mountain Dwellings, where we would be staying for the final days of the tour. Being able to stay in building as significant as the The Mountain was an absolute treat, but got even better after meeting our Danish hosts. As we shared stories about our homes, it became clear that Copenhagen fell into the culture category for inspiring its masses to choose cycling over driving.
Although the Danish are proud of their bike lanes and traffic engineering, its their upbringing as young people that helps to get so many to choose to ride a bike over driving. From an early age children are taught how to navigate traffic safely and get to school by bike, and will continue to ride to school throughout their youth. By the time young people graduate, the benefits of cycling are already clear, and culture drives the infrastructure.