COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – Two weeks in Scandinavia, for a vacation and the baptism of grand-daughter Ellen Vestergaard Trujillo, mark our third trip here. We just returned from a side trip to Stockholm, Sweden, the farthest east we’ve ever been, and though we have a better feel of the turf both in Stockholm and Copenhagen, we have much to learn.
Let me explain:
When our son Stan moved here three years ago and said he took the subway and train each day to work, we envied him: What a stress-free way to read the morning paper. The other option was by bike. He could join literally a million other bicyclists who pedal to work.
The sight is amazing. There are traffic lights strictly for bikes; laws that pertain only to bikes, and certain protocols only pedalers must follow. Thousands of traffic lights count down the seconds remaining for bikers to cross the street, and a no-nonsense, bike-riding policeman will ticket you for any violation.
The world’s biggest, and perhaps only, double-decker bike parking lot resides at the Norreport bicycle, subway and train junction. If your bike gets stolen because some jerk pried off your non-Denmark-approved lock, that’s not even worth a police report. If the official bike lock gets jimmied, that’s serious business. If your bicycle lacks a functional headlight – not to help you see, but to be seen – you get a ticket.
So why don’t more people drive? “When you buy a new car in Denmark, you’re actually buying two more for the government. A $40,000 car will cost you $120,000, with two-thirds going to the government,” Stan said. For many things, taxes seem exorbitant, as do prices, but the results seem to justify the high rates.
My first glimpse into how seriously Danes take the bicycle came in 2006, when I noticed people older than I biking to work. Mothers haul their infants on eggshell carriers hooked to the bikes, and old-timers, their Bluetooth headsets surgically implanted to their ears, keep in touch with the office and family as they truck – er – bike along to work.
The main difference between what they do and we (sometimes) do in the states, is the intensity. I thought of joining Stan on bike rides to his work the first time I visited. That feeling changed immediately when I saw how lean, in-shape and dedicated bike commuters are. Biking here isn’t for fun and pleasure, but for transportation.
So great is the Danish reliance on bicycles that other cities are attempting to emulate the practice. A Copenhagen daily newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, mentions that Syndey and New York City, among others, are hoping to become “Copenhagenized” by making their downtown area more bicycle-friendly.
Yesterday, our son, who just recently moved five miles from downtown Copenhagen, asked Bonnie and me if we’d help deliver three bikes from his old downtown apartment to his new place.
We walked the three bikes to the metro, where each car has ample space for bikes, wheelchairs and strollers. The short bike ride from the dropoff point to the apartment was a piece of cake.
But later, wanting to continue his exercise regimen, Stan invited all of us, including his wife Lisbeth, for a ride in the country. Another sweet confection, I thought, as I imagined a slow bike stroll on suburban trails meant exclusively for bikers, runners and pedestrians.
That would have been ideal, but lacking eyes on the back of our heads, we came close to becoming ground splatter, as perhaps 50 serious bikers whizzed past us at various intervals and speeds. One biker, a man about my age, rode a bike with narrow handlebars, Lance Armstrong style. I was behind Lisbeth, who was leisurely pedaling on the left side of the lane, pulling their 3-month-old, Ellen.
Lisbeth needed to pull aside quickly, as the biker, possibly traveling 35 mph, had no intentions of slowing down. We had other close calls until our path took us way farther than most riders go, and we had the road to ourselves.
Well, except for soreness, we realized the dream of a hard, challenging bike ride in Copenhagen. Granted, for the inattentive and out-of-shape rider there’s a risk of an accident, but the odds of crashing with a car are virtually nil. It’s other bikers we fear.
And does our Copenhagen experience translate to a burning desire to crank up the old bicycle when we return to Las Vegas? I doubt it. Here’s why: With its 16,621 square miles of area and 5.5 million inhabitants, for a population density of 331, Denmark is far more congested than San Miguel County. With 4,735 square miles and 30,000 residents, this county has slightly more than six souls per square mile.
Well, Denmark has 180 times San Miguel’s population, but the proportion of auto owners is minuscule. And the few times I’ve planned to take my bike in Camp Luna for a spin, it seems every gas-spewing car and SUV in the county shows up.
In a previous column I covered the risks of riding bikes in Las Vegas and even suggested a radical move of allowing bikers to ride on the left side of the road, facing traffic, and even on sidewalks.
On my return to Las Vegas, maybe I’ll just rent a bike rack, place it on top of my car and have someone drive my PT Cruiser with me astride the bike on top, spinning my wheels in relative safety.