November 2nd, 2009 | by BRETT CAMPBELL News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Bikes: Viagra for the Urban Landscape

Mikael Colville Andersen

If our city planners have their way, Copenhagen will be the model for Portland's urban transportation network. Mayor Adams has said he wants us to achieve the Danish city's world leading levels of bicycle use but we have a long way to go: bikes account for 55% of all trips there, and 37% of commutes; surprisingly, according to the Department of Transportation's Cheryl Kuck, Portland doesn't count the percentage of all trips and its comparable commuting number — near tops among large US cities and soaring in recent years — is a comparatively scanty 8%. And yet, Denmark's best known advocate for Copenhagen biking and lifestyle claimed Thursday night that “Copenhagen has no cyclists.” Say what?

Speaking, along with Adams, at last Thursday's reception for Oregon Manifest's Dreams on Wheels exhibit (up through Nov. 8 at 10th and Hoyt), Mikael Colville-Andersen said that rather than the self-identified cyclists we see in the US (further subdivided into tribes like racers, mountain bikers, and hipsters), Copenhagen has people who just happen to ride bikes to get where they need to go. “They don't understand the fuss” over specialized bike clothes or accessories, he said. To Danes, and many Europeans in general, a bike is merely an appliance, like a vacuum cleaner, rather than the fetish object so worshiped, or vilified, here. Americans need to see bicycling as mainstream and normal rather than a subculture phenomenon, he said.

Changing that perception of biking as specialty to biking as normal means of mobility is one of the steps Portland, and America in general, needs to take to get more people on bikes and out of cars, with the consequent immense savings in costs and improvement in health and the environment, Colville explained. In part, this is a marketing challenge — in fact, his presentation, complete with alluring photos of Danish women on chic city bikes — was called Marketing Bicycle Culture: Five Goal to Promote Urban Bicycling. (The Danish government has engaged him to accompany the city's biking exhibit on its trip around the world; Portland was its first U.S. stop.) Accordingly, most of his talk focused on how to sell bicycling using positive images rather than scary mandatory helmet campaigns or ads that show biking as about sweaty athleticism or noble motives rather than practicality.

Mikael Colville Andersen & Sam Adams

That's the lesson of Copenhagen, where more than half of cycli— er, people who bike list their main reason for riding as simple convenience; other motives such as environmentalism or exercise or health score in single digits. Colville-Andersen's conclusion (and that of Copenhagen and Portland) is what he calls “A2Bism”: make biking more convenient, via separated bikeways that take people quickly and easily where they actually want to go (as distinct from where planners sometimes want to direct them), and people will ride bikes.

That means that Copenhagen puts separated bikeways along major traffic routes, unlike Portland's characteristically penny pinching though pretty successful strategy of painting white stripes and images of bike riders on low auto-traffic streets adjacent to major thoroughfares like Hawthorne. (The new bike lanes on Broadway represent an experimental exception to this policy.) When cities approach the bikey numbers of Copenhagen or other bikevanas like Amsterdam, it transforms them into much more livable places, and even (he winked) improve the gene pool, hence Colville Andersen's slogan: Bicycles are a multi-vitamin Viagra pill for the urban landscape.

By contrast, he said, public officials need to combat the car advertisers' sexing up of driving and show how dangerous it really is — head injury risk and breathing in pollutants are worse for drivers than people who bike. Safety conscious bike advocates here tend to emphasize protecting the china in the shop, he said, rather than focusing on the bull that's breaking it. To general titters among the hundred or so bike friendly types in the crowd, he showed slides depicting cars with cigarette pack style warning labels. In a way, he demonstrated with old posters and photos depicting glamorous images of normal (well, abnormally attractive) people biking around town, this would be going back to the future, back before subsidized car culture distorted so many American urban environments into auto-centric dead zones. As more people get around by bike, Colville Andersen said, both they and drivers learn to watch out for each other and coexist peacefully.

Of course, Colville -Andersen, a film director who runs several utopian blogs (Copenhagen Cycle Chic, Copenhagenize, Slow Bicycle Movement) and runs a bike marketing consulting business, was preaching to the choir here, and he heaped praise on Portland's comparatively progressive pro-bike policies. Adams soaked it up, but his response to questions was curiously low key, avoiding opportunities to toot the Portland's horn, though admirably honest in its refusal to give false encouragement to changing things like Tri Met policies. He and Colville -Andersen agreed that building on Copenhagen's lessons of the last 30 years, Portland could approximate that city's levels of bikeyness in a decade or so.

Maybe, but Copenhagen and Europe apply sticks (like imposing high taxes that approximate the actual social and environmental costs of cars, rather than lavishing hidden and other subsidies — cash for clunkers, anyone? — that make the cost of driving artificially low) as well as carrots like separated bike infrastructure. Few politicians, even in Portland, have the courage to tell car-acculturated Americans that they may actually have to pay the real costs of their car habit. So in that respect, Portland and other American cities like New York can't imitate the Copenhagen model. Paradoxically, we'll know if Portland's pro-livability planning is successful in achieving great Dane results when America's bike capital becomes less enamored of its own bikeyness — a city, like Copenhagen, whose roads teem with bikes, yet where there are no cyclists.

Images of Mikael Colville-Andersen (top) and Sam Adams with Colville Andersen (middle) courtesy of Brett Campbell.
 
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