Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Wonder-struck newscasters marvel at the city's throngs of riders and "special cyclist roads."
Copenhagen's fame as a bike-friendly city is old news. It's at least 82-years-old in fact, judging by a recently unearthed 1932 newsreel. The short film, entitled "The Wheeled City – With Eve in Copenhagen" is one of over 80,000 old clips from the British Pathé newsreel archive uploaded to Youtube this month. It records the wild popularity of cycling among 1930s Copenhageners, and reveals its British filmmakers in dizzy "What will they think of next?" mode.
"Cyclists in hundreds – thousands, (millions it seems to our cameraman!) throng the city of Copenhagen," shouts the newsreel intertitle, as footage rolls of morning streets packed with bikes outnumbering cars and trams by 15 to one, also showing that interwar Danes clearly thought nothing of dangling a heavy briefcase over their handlebars.
The two-wheeled lunacy doesn't stop there. The film then reveals that the Danes love cycling so much that they've created an extreme, unlikely to be imitated scheme to indulge their obsession. "They even have special cyclist roads (not forgetting the white line down the center)" marvels the film, before showing footage of a still impressive set of broad, well-segregated bike paths. It all seems too much for the filmmakers, who comment that: "A few days of Copenhagen reduces the pedestrian to a kind of 'whirly-wheel' state." They end up losing themselves in an expressionist wig-out of spinning wheels, double exposures and sped-up footage. How dull our news is by comparison.
Reaching back further into the archive, there is some even earlier evidence of Copenhagen's cycle friendliness. Another clip entitled Cycle Town from 1922 shows Copenhagen no less busy with bikes, though the main attraction here is footage of everyday cyclists. These include some heart-meltingly cute child cyclists (could there be the vaguest chance that some of these kids are still alive?) and an old man who proves that vast, pulpit-thumping, two-pronged Victorian beards survived well into the 1920s. Together, both clips suggest why Danish city cycling recovered so well from attacks from the car-loving depreciation of postwar planners orthodoxy. Riders fought back so effectively because Copenhagen's bike culture was already especially widespread and deep-rooted beforehand, so much so that it was striking even to European neighbors.
Both films come courtesy of a wonderful playlist compiled by Youtube user laxbikeguy, which also contains a clip - this time from Amsterdam - showing that, even in bike friendly cities, the problems remain the same. The 1958 clip “Bike Parks Are Dutch Headache” explores the difficulties Amsterdam faced in finding enough spaces to stow bikes (you’ll need to click past footage of Japanese imperial tennis). The 1950s answer to illegal parking the film shows seem a little chaotic – the police simply round up endless illegally parked bikes and then leave their owners the almost impossible task of identifying them.
Who couldn’t feel nostalgia to think that within living memory it didn’t occur to most Amsterdammers to use a bike lock? Bike parking remains a perennial problem in the city, which is investing €90 million in 40,000 new spaces this year, the high price due to the fact that, with the streets full, actual buildings have to be built for them. This makes finding bike space expensive – but which city wouldn't be envious to have that as a key problem?