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Bike-friendly Copenhagen faces cyclist backlash
Agence France Presse
File - A pregnant woman looking for a place for her bicycle in downtown Copenhagen, December 13, 2009. (AFP PHOTO/ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
File - A pregnant woman looking for a place for her bicycle in downtown Copenhagen, December 13, 2009. (AFP PHOTO/ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
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COPENHAGEN: In one of the world’s best cities for bicycles, Copenhagen cyclists are earning a reputation for recklessness and arrogance, prompting calls for politicians to backpedal on plans to further boost bike traffic.

Long considered one of Europe’s two “bicycle capitals” along with Amsterdam, Copenhagen counts more bicycles than people, and 36 percent of those who work or study in the Danish city use a bike for their daily commute.

But as cycling has increased, so has the number of cyclists barreling down the city’s pavements, car-free streets and even train platforms, to the dismay of spooked pedestrians.

“The cyclists aren’t very good at sticking to the rules. They typically go into pedestrian areas,” said Mogens Knudsen, operations leader of the Copenhagen police’s traffic unit.

“If you walk down pedestrian shopping street Stroeget, you will see cyclists zigzagging between the people, and they do so at a high speed.”

For years city officials have prided themselves on Copenhagen’s many cyclists, receiving politicians and journalists from around the world to study the city’s infrastructure and its plans for an even more ambitious network of “cycle superhighways.”

The current goal is to increase the number of work- and study-related trips taken by bike to more than 50 percent of all journeys by 2015.

While a growing awareness of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions has made it unpopular to criticize the ever-growing number of bicycles on the roads, some are beginning to speak out.

The backlash has been fueled by a sharp rise in deadly cycling accidents this year, following a decline over several years.

“I think cyclists believe they are above general traffic rules,” said Kjeld Koplev, a journalist and author whose ankle and shinbone were crushed in a cycling accident with a car 11 years ago. “I think you are more careful in a car, because you know you are the stronger party.”

Others put it more bluntly. Tom Joergensen, an art critic, irked Danish cycling enthusiasts last year when he claimed they were “Copenhagen’s No. 1 traffic problem.”

In an op-ed, Joergensen claimed that people who cycle tend to vote for leftist parties, but once they get on their bikes, they become raging individualists, caring little about fellow road users.

“It’s nearing anarchy,” Joergensen told AFP.

“We pedestrians have completely disappeared from public debate on the issue. You talk about cyclists and you talk about motorists, but nobody is interested in those of us who walk on the streets,” he said. “If you ask elderly people, I’m sure they will agree with what I say: That the biggest problem in Copenhagen isn’t the drivers, it’s the cyclists, who are extremely aggressive.”

Mikael le Dous, chairman of the Danish Pedestrian Association, said “bully cyclists” had created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for people on foot.

“Nine out of 10 of those who contact us do so because of frustration and fear over these ‘bully cyclists.’ They feel scared, and there are some areas they avoid because of this,” he said.

But pedestrians aren’t the only ones complaining. Car owners too have begun to push back against what they see as policies that discriminate against them in favor of cyclists.

Ahead of November’s local election in Copenhagen, the center-right Liberal Alliance Party campaigned under the slogan: “A city for all – motorists too.”

The left-wing Red-Green Alliance responded with posters displaying the back of a bus and: “Cars to the back.”

The party’s top candidate, Morten Kabell, won the powerful position of “mayor for technical and environmental affairs” – putting him in charge of traffic and urban planning.

Although something of an anti-car crusader, Kabell admitted that some cyclists needed to change their ways.

“It’s true that many cyclists forget their manners, and that’s a cultural problem,” he said.

“I think a lot of it comes down to there not being enough room in traffic for the number of cyclists there should be. If we get more and wider cycling lanes, we can also solve this problem with ruthlessness.”

It’s a policy that’s unlikely to win him any friends at the Danish association of car owners, FDM.

“Politicians have a clear goal to make it less attractive to be a car driver in Copenhagen,” said Torben Lund Kudsk, a spokesman for the group.

They had done so by “widening cycling lanes, narrowing car lanes, introducing special bus lanes, closing streets to traffic and removing parking spaces,” he noted.

Kudsk said cars would continue to compete with cyclists for space until there was a viable alternative for commuters driving into the capital.

Journalist Koplev, who has not been able to cycle since his accident, suggested a more radical solution.

“If you took the cars out of the city, you could cycle all you want.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 04, 2013, on page 13.
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