Copenhagen – City of Cyclists from Colville Andersen on Vimeo.

Bicycle culture and the bicycle are two sides of the same coin. During my travels, I have come to realize that one of the best indications of how a culture views bicycling is through bicycles themselves. In places with a strong bicycle culture, the bicycle becomes ubiquitous, cheap and utilitarian. Bicycles in these cultures can be characterized as single, three or eight speed bicycles, with baskets, heavy duty rear racks (think bikepooling), child seats, fenders, front and back lights (sans battery), large profile tires, an upright riding posture, etc. All these things are a physical manifestation of how people view and use bicycles. Fewer gears show they ride slower and shorter distances. Baskets and racks show they carry everyday things. Mud flaps show they ride in the rain or snow. Front and back lights, well duh. Same goes for child seats. Bicycles are as much a part of their daily life as cars are here, and are designed accordingly.

Here our bicycle culture is distinctly different and our bicycles show it. Bicycling here has been heavily influenced by sport riding, mostly in the form of road cycling but also mountain biking. Compared to most other cultures we own the equivalent of a two seat roadster or SUV. However, over the past few years this has started to change. Hybrids, which by their very name shows the assumptions of our bicycle culture, have become more popular especially for commuters. Also many of the above mentioned accessories and bicycle design are starting to work their way into our bicycling culture. For example bicycle lights are becoming more and more common and I’m not the only one to notice this. Montlake Bicycle Shop has started selling cheap city bikes and the Dutch Bike Company has started importing beautiful city bikes from Holland.

A few weeks ago I spotted a man dressed in a suit riding into downtown. This is normal in Copenhagen. I wonder how long until it is normal here?

An interview of Tom Miller, chief-of-staff for Portland, on bicycle culture in both cities. H/T Erik Griswold

35 Replies to “Bicycle Culture”

  1. As my cycling friend Derek puts it, “You have to be a bad-a** to bike in Seattle.”

    Bike to Work day makes the ordinary cyclist realize how poorly our city cycling infrastructure is; if this many people cycled all the time, things would be crazy.

    1. Seems to me experience elsewhere shows that if a lot of people cycle every day, things are a lot less crazy…

      I think your friend Derek is wrong; I ride a lot, and while I may have a slightly higher-than-average tolerance for dampness, I don’t think I’m a “bad-a**”.

  2. Wow those dutch bikes are expensive.
    To me that seems like rip-off but I have no idea how much importing costs and such are.

    1. Yeah they are expensive but they very high quality and are fully loaded. They have internal brakes, generators and gears, lights, you name it they have it. Some of them even comes with pumps I think. These bikes will last a lifetime.

      1. Also, no one should blow thousands on their first bike. Try your existing bike or get something off craigslist or used at a shop to commute for the summer. If you really get into it you can think about the investment on something you’ll appreciate.

    2. Considering the components included those Dutch bikes aren’t particularly expensive. Gear hubs, hub generators, drum brakes, fenders, racks, chainguards, lights, and a decent saddle all add up. Also lugged frames tend to be a bit on the pricy side these days due to the amount of labor involved in building them.

      The only quibble I have with the Dutch bikes is the use of hi-tensile steel instead of cro-molly, which makes the frames a bit heavier than they really need to be. Though the aluminum versions of some of their frames appear to only be a kilogram or so lighter so perhaps it really isn’t that important.

  3. Many “bike friendly” European cities have few if any hills; based on the medieval legacy of commerce centers near rivers or shorelines. The Seattle metro area has so many hills that many of the “comfort” bikes would require more advanced planning and longer routes to avoid some of the “steeper” hills which typically are the shortest point to point routes. I personally got a less expensive road bike for when i bike or bus/bike to work. While I use only 8 out of the 24 gears regularly, the bike is light enough that I don’t get to work sweating and smelling (which my co-workers appreciate)

    1. Yeah I agree. I’m not an expert but I think that an 8 speed and 21 speed will probably have similar gear ratios on the low end, so the major difference is the gear ratio on the high end and the difference between gear ratios. I too only use 8 of my gears 95% of the time.

      1. If the right 8 speed gear hub is chosen with the right chainring and sprocket you can have pretty much the same low and midrange gear ratios as a 21 or 27 speed rider. The steps between gears tend to be a bit bigger but it isn’t a real problem, especially since all of your gears are evenly spaced with a gear hub.

    2. Modern European city/comfort bikes aren’t particularly heavy. They aren’t featherweight like a carbon fiber racing bike but they aren’t super heavy like some of the cheap 3 speeds of old either. Besides generally the differences in bike weight are only a few pounds either way.

  4. Copenhagen has the most impressive bike infrastructure of anywhere I’ve been. It even blows Amsterdam away by a good long way. There’s a bike lane on basically every street, even in the suburbs, and there are tons of bike lockers and bike racks and train stations and at public plazas. The traffic signals have bike periods, along with pedestrian and car periods. It’s amazing.

  5. Bicycling here has been heavily influenced by sport riding, mostly in the form of road cycling but also mountain biking.

    It’s a common stereotype but simply not true. Mountain bike sales have been far ahead of all other types in the US for decades. Sport road bike sales are a niche part of the market.

    Specialty Bicycle Sales By Year, Units, 2006-2008

    Category 2006 Unit % 2007 Unit % 2008 Unit %
    Mountain 28.5 28.0 28.5
    Comfort 14.0 15.0 12.0
    Hybrid/Cross 15.0 16.5 19.0
    Cruiser 6.0 6.5 4.0
    Road/700C 17.0 15.0 13.0
    Youth 16.5 16.5 21.5
    Other 3.0 2.5 2.0

    Source: U.S. Commerce Department statistics, Gluskin Townley Group estimates.

    Here’s some interesting stats by country, city, etc.

    Bicycle Statistics: Usage, Production, Sales, Import, Export

    1. Hmm interesting. Maybe they are just the most visible riders. I know a lot of people that have mountain bikes but they only use them a few times a year. Also I would be interested in historical trends. A lot of people that ride bicycles every day buy used bikes and from my experience they are usual road bikes.

      1. Roadies are going to be the most visible in and around the city (other than the hipsters). There’s a hard core group of a few hundred racers that account for a lot of that. Go to the UW or any college campus and look at the bikes that are chained up to the racks. Very few will be high zoot road bikes. Watch the bikes in the winter and all the teams will have full fenders and flaps installed for training. The year round commuters will be running, fenders, heavier tires, lights and either a panier or backpack.

        I’d bet college kids account for the vast majority of trips by bicycle in Washington but you won’t see it if you’re not on or near campus. The people who spent real money on mtn bikes ride them off road. Go out to Tolt McDonald, South Seatac, Pilchuck Victoria Track or any of the other numerous trail systems around Seattle and rain or shine there will be mtn bikers out there on the trails. Watch the car racks on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Mostly it will be high end road bikes with race number on the frame or high end mountain bikes headed for the backcountry.

        Sunny weekends are when all the hybrids and comfort bikes come out and clog the Burke Gilman, Samammish River Trail, Interurban, etc. Be afraid, be very afraid :=

      2. Yeah I see all the bike every day. I’m a grad student at UW. There is a good mix of bicycle types and they are mostly cheap second hand bikes.

      3. college students may indeed account for a large portion of bicycle commute trips in Washington state, but since casual observation of racks is your methodology take note:

        Every morning by 8:30 am at Seattle Municipal Tower (work place for about a third of the city’s 10,000 employees) all three bike rack areas are jammed full year round. Everything from hipster fixies, recumbents, mtn. bike clunkers and $1,200 custom frames…

      4. I do indeed think that bike racks are the best way to count commute trips. That’s a pretty decent collection of bikes downtown. I work in a office complex next to Nintendo and Microsoft. Of three buildings (~200 employees each 2/3rds Microsoft) we have one bike rack in the covered parking area. I’m the only regular commuter dispite the fact we have showers, lockers and even towel service! There’s 2-3 others that bike once in a great while and a couple guys that drive in and ride at lunch occasionally. Next door however is DigiPen and their bike rack is full every day (20 bikes?) and from the collection you’d think it was a college campus. The 520 bike trail (direct connection with Sammamish River Trail and Burke Gilman) runs smack through the middle of the Microsoft Campus (some 40,000 people) and it’s almost empty on a rainy day and not that well used the rest of the time. Maybe that will improve when they extend it from I405 to across the Lake but I’m not holding my breath.

        I think any of the these three State schools would equal downtown commuting by bike; UW, Central or Western. That’s not touching all the private schools, community colleges, etc.

  6. Between the hills and ZERO bike lanes in DT Bellevue you do have to be pretty tough to ride around here.

    I was really hopeful that the BNSF track on the eastside could be quickly converted to a bike trail, but now that dream is dead.

    I almost moved to Portland for the bike / transit culture that eludes us up here.

    1. I have ridden in Bellevue for years and I really don’t consider myself “pretty tough”. If you choose your routes wisely, ride predictably, and make yourself visible, you get along pretty well. I also switch to the sidewalk occasionally to let cars pass me (for example, when riding uphill, or in really heavy traffic). It’s not as safe but it keeps the catcalls to a minimum. (And yes, it’s legal in Bellevue – provided you ride with due care and yield to pedestrians. Pedestrian are shocked when I yield, but yield I do ;)

      Hills a problem? Just get an electric-assist bike. They make those hills go away – well mostly. (No, they’re not legal on the sidewalks but so far Bellevue PD doesn’t seem to care as long as I ride as I would on a “normal” bike)

    1. how much does that weigh? i’d rather have a light roadbike to make it all that much easier to get up hills or carry it up stairs.

      1. I’m curious myself. It weighs about as much as any other hybrid bike. It’s much lighter than my last bike–a mountain bike that felt like it was 70 lbs.

  7. I am a daily bike commuter and think the “higher” grades are due to the better and more prolific infrastructure that’s located in the north part of the city. That’s also where the large amount of bike commuters live (and good infrastructure draws more cyclists not vice versa usually). I would rate the southern portion of the city C’s and D’s.

    Seattle is only perceived as dangerous because comparatively (against Portland, OR for instance) we have a real lack of not only bicycle infrastructure but rider and DRIVER education about the “rules of the road.” And yes, we do get tough. I no longer flich or yell at every motorist that endangers me. Gotta let it roll off your back. Got to learn to take the weather and the hills. I don’t see Seattle being a huge cycle center like Portland, or Davis, CA or Copenhagen precisely because of the hills and the weather. Sure, some people could ride to work in a suit but riding in a suit from Ballard or West Seattle guarantees hills, sweat, dirt, mud, grime, etc.

    1. Hills/weather: I don’t buy it. Stockholm is as hilly as Seattle, far darker and colder in the winter, and still has something like a 10% bike mode share.

      It’s all about the culture and the amenities — if we want more cyclists, all we need to do is make more people feel safe on a bike. Making people feel safe may mean cycletracks, or it may mean bike boxes, or it may mean actually ticketing people who drive unsafely around bikes.

      But it’s not an issue of the environment. It’s an issue of culture (and infrastructure, which is driven by culture).

      1. I think that bicycle facilities are very important but one again I have to say that land use patters are the most important factors. People ride bicycles in Copenhagen and Amsterdam for very rational reason. Although it is cheaper the biggest thing it that it is simply is faster. When everything you need is within a ten minute bicycle ride it becomes faster to do that, even over a car.

  8. Helmets? Helmets! We don’t need no f#¢&ing helmets!

    Noticed the lack of helmets in Copenhagen worn (or rather not worn) by the bicyclists.

  9. As a daily bike commuter on Sounder, I have been amazed and amused by the amount of attention my Bianchi Milano gets from non-cyclists. It’s a non-threatening bike, it’s a somewhat retro-looking bike, it has fairly clean lines, not too many components hanging off of it. And it does have a cool celeste-green and red color scheme with matching fenders. (You can see it here if you’re interested.)

    Whatever the reason, it’s a bike that makes little old ladies smile and middle-aged men talk to strangers about the bikes they rode as kids.

    It also happens to have a wide-range 8-speed internal hub with brake, full fenders with mud flaps, and a chain guard, making it a nearly-zero-maintenance commuter bike that’s easily able to climb Seattle hills. Bike people notice that stuff. Non-bike people just think it looks like a bike ordinary people could ride.

  10. I have a high tolerance for dampness but not pouring rain and cold. So sometime in November I bag the bike ride for the winter. I have ridden all winter some years when it’s been dryer than normal but lately it’s royally sucked.

    On lights, the brighter the better. Cheap LED’s are barely worth it, if you are going that route, you better invest in a traffic worthy reflective vest. In a couple of years the now adequate LED lights will be reasonable. But for serious winter commuting expect to pay the big bucks, either for decent lights or down at the Emergency room.

    My current favorite uber bright tail light.


    1. I’ve got a fairly bright LED headlight I paid around $40 for. It isn’t bright enough for night trail riding but I don’t need that, just something bright enough to see on an unlit street and so other people can see me.

  11. Portland sure was a great city to bike commute in…the dean of my law school was known for biking downtown to meetings with alumni and donors, suit and all. :)

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