It took us a while to hop on the bike culture here in Copenhagen, which made us stand out like a sore thumb as a whopping nine out of ten Danes own a bike. Because we didn’t know how long our Danish adventure was going to last, we couldn’t afford to invest in bikes straight away, which adds up when you have a little one. But when we came back from our summer break in England, with Richie’s full-time job about to start and having sold my car in England, bikes were the first thing we bought. And it has made a huge difference to experiencing life in Copenhagen. I now understand why 62 % of Copenhageners choose to cycle to their place of work or study. We are now part of that crowd!
So, what bikes do people cycle on in Copenhagen? A lot of people ride fairly cheap, basic and practical city bikes. You don’t need much more for Copenhagen commuting. You are fine with three gears as there aren’t many hills in the city and a basket is handy for putting your bag or shopping in. I love the vintage-looking basket bikes like these ones, which I can’t help but photograph when I see them.
We went for the no frills approach to suit our budget but with a nice backdrop it doesn’t look too shabby:
Bike theft is sadly rife in Copenhagen so there’s no need to go overboard on a purchase and investing in a lock is just as important. We found our second-hand Mustang bike on Facebook Marketplace for 1200 kroner which is £145. We added an extra lock and have bought new lights and had to repair the brake but the owner of the bike shop said it was still a good deal, despite me telling Rich he’d bought a duff one! It’s worth getting your bike checked out by a bike repair shop if you’ve bought it second hand. Your bike needs to have functioning brakes on both wheels – either two handbrakes or one handbrake and one back pedal brake, which ours has, and has taken a bit of getting used to! You need to have a white front light and red back light, fixed at all times. They should be visible from the side as well as 300m away. And you need a working bell.
DBA.dk is like Gumtree in the U.K. and great for second hand things like bikes. There’s also a place in Copenhagen called Buddah Bikes. Here they repair old bikes to a high standard and sell them on fairly cheaply. We went to have a look but they didn’t have anything suitable at the time and unfortunately the person explaining the bikes to us was fairly unhelpful but I’ve heard good things from other people. When buying all second hand bikes, be sure to ask for the serial number (stelnummer) before handing over any money to make sure it’s not stolen. You can do this easily on a police app called Politi, and then you know it’s legit and you’re safe to insure it.
For the child seat, lots of people recommended the brand Yepp. To buy new, these seats cost almost 1000 kroner (£120). We got a great second hand one on the website DBA.dk for 550 kroner and we got the owner to show us how to install it.
And then there are the (drum roll)…cargo bikes.
These are the investment pieces and what much of my car money went on. We actually bought this one first and shared it between us for a couple of months. Cargo bikes have boxes on the front so your little one is fully protected from the elements in their little pod, and you have plenty of space to add a friend/sibling/parent (it was a bit of a squeeze but I did fit in!) or shopping/large household items. If you don’t have a car in Copenhagen, it’s a very useful mode of transport. Our friends recommended getting a second-hand Nihola and let us test theirs out. We loved it and started scouting DBA and we got this beast/beauty for 7500 kroner. Our friends suggested getting a model with 7 gears because it’s pretty heavy to cycle up even small hills and against Danish winds and we’ve found this useful. From new, Niholas cost 12500 kroner and that’s without the a cover (1190 kr), children’s bench (950 kr), seatbelt (250kr) and all the other extras you may or may not want to get. So they are expensive pieces of equipment and investing in a good lock is pretty vital. I reluctantly handed over nearly £100 for a bike chain (we got the A-bus heavy duty long chain lock) but this is recommended for a bike of that size and value, and you need the length to tie it easily around the bike stands/trees/benches/wherever you can find a bike parking space.
Parking a bike in Copenhagen, I’ve discovered, can be harder than finding a car parking space on sales days in Meadowhall. You’ll often find me on my hands and knees, trying to lock the bike around something that won’t be pulled out of the ground, while scrambling with the key, gloves in mouth, helmet falling off and trying to get Lydia to stay in one place and not knock over any one else’s bike. Slick Danish mummy I am not…yet.
The Christiania bike is the most traditional cargo. Created in 1984, it paved the way for all other models. They are also the most heavy to ride and have a bar for steering, which takes a bit of getting used to. But they are so well made and authentically Danish. There were lots parked around my family’s Christianshavn apartment. You can get a new one from the shop that makes them in Freetown Christiania, the place they were first designed.
Other variations of the cargo include the Winther Bike, TrioBike and BellaBike, or you can invest in a trailer which you attach to the back of your bike. We hired one of these when cycling one summer on Rømø, but I find I’m a bit too nervous to ride it around traffic in case I do a dodgy right turn and it veers off.
So it was September and we finally got the Nihola bike we had been pining over. We could start living out the Danish dream of cycling around the streets of Copenhagen. Except it rained. In fact it pelted it down, every time we seemed to be on the bike. As the downpours relentlessly battered my every pedal, I started to learn how heavy a Nihola bike is to move. I would get to my destination soaked through, exhausted and in serious need of a pastry. Luckily I have now got fitter and used to cycling a heavy bike and there have been better weather days than those first few downpours. When the sun is shining on you, there is no better feeling, or way to wake up in the morning. There is also no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes on the cargo, 30 minutes back and then repeat for pick up.
And then there’s my passenger, Lydia. When you picture Copenhagen parents cycling with their children, it is probably one of calm serenity, the heathy, happy lifestyle. And that is what I’ve witnessed here. For Lyds, like me, it’s taken a while to get there. Definitely not something inherited in our Danish genes. Five minutes after setting off, she would scream, wriggle, kick her legs out and basically give the impression to every passer by that her mummy was torturing her. Our commute to nursery would involve at least five stops as I bribed her with food/drink/music/toys/any sort of encouragement that we were nearly there – sort of.
Other new-found experiences included emergency stopping in the cycle lane as I tried to retrieve toys/beakers/shoes thrown out on the street. One time her favourite talking toy went into a main road. Cue a sprint, drop and grab, any PE teacher would be proud of. ‘Miss Norah’ and her annoying voice live on to fight another bike ride. A few weeks in, Lydia started to understand, there was no getting out of this and began, miraculously to entertain herself on the journeys. But it does involve a little encouragement from me. You know when you talk nonsense and sing badly and loudly in the car to entertain your child, or just yourself. Well, I now have to do that in the open air; my English tones ringing through every passer by’s ears. Sometimes I have to do it while stationary at traffic lights.
After about a month, we bought a standard bike, to make journeys sans Lydia a little quicker and so we didn’t have to share one bike. When I first used this standard bike, I actually went into a bike repair shop to check something wasn’t lose with the steering. No Emma, you have just been used to cycling with the stabilisers of the cargo and now wobble around like someone who has never ridden before. So that was embarrassing. After getting used to cycling again, (a.k.a. like a normal person on a normal bike), I was ready to try Lydia on the back. I was initially nervous. What if she falls out? What if I lose my balance? How do I check she’s still in there?! But she was not only absolutely fine, she went ‘weeeee’ and loved it. And still does. As I’m getting more confident, I am also enjoying it more and more. The bike is a lot lighter than the cargo so journey times don’t take so long. I’m also able to chat more easily and – my favourite – more subtly to Lydia rather than bellowing through the cargo cover. I’m still aware I am carrying very precious cargo behind me and I get a little nervous on wet ground, bumps and when the bike lanes merge with the road. Oh and when Lydia decides to do a little jig on the back, shaking my balance all over the place. And that’s why overall, especially in winter and on long journeys, I feel safer on the Nihola. I can’t slip on the roads when it’s wet, icy or snowy and Lydia is protected from the elements in her little pod. So having both bikes works perfectly for us.
We bought Airbus and Lazer helmets for all of us. Wearing a helmet is not part of the law in Denmark and one of the first things I noticed when we moved here was how many people cycle without one. Having done many stories on cycle safety for BBC Breakfast, I tutted to Rich, how very dare they…what about the head injuries?! The Cycling Embassy of Denmark says that 35% of Danes wear a helmet. And The Danish Road Safety Council – Rådet for Sikker Trafik – says that in 2016, 33% of Danes wore a helmet in urban traffic and 68% in school traffic.
Some argue its less than this, such as this copenhagenize survey. I would say in Copenhagen, on an average day, I see less than 50% of people wearing a helmet. But most parents and children do wear them. I have to admit, now that I am on the bike nearly every day, I can now see why it’s not the norm to wear a helmet in Denmark. Now I am in no way advocating not wearing a helmet and I always will wear one and teach Lydia to, but you can’t compare the cycling conditions to the U.K. Not only are there designated cycle lanes everywhere, bar a few metres of road here and there, the bike lanes are also really wide. Over the last 15 years there has been huge investment (around £115m) in Copenhagen to make people cycle more than drive. Last year, bike sensors recorded that there were, for the first time, more bikes on the road than cars. And you do actually feel that when cycling. In each lane you can fit two cargo bikes going the same way, so you never feel too close to cars and it’s safe to overtake another cyclist. And when you are actually riding a cargo bike, it’s like having stabilisers because you have four wheels. So there’s no way you’re falling off one of those things, unless someone pushes you or a car veers off the road, which is no more risk than crossing the road with a pram. According to the Danish Road Safety Commission – Færdelssikkerheds Kommissionen – during 2010-2011, 16% of people killed on the roads were pedestrians and 12% were cyclists. Of those seriously injured, 13% were pedestrians and 21% were cyclists. And out of the people who suffered minor injuries from road traffic accidents, 7% were pedestrians and 16% were cyclists. Interesting figures I thought. It is of course important to always have your wits about you when cycling, especially in rush hour (yes there is cycling rush hour). You can get shoved around a bit or find it hard to break away to turn left or right when there are so many cyclists, so it’s important to know the rules of the road.
Rules of the road
What struck me when I first ventured out onto the cycle lanes, was how was I going to find my way without sat nav? Well, even for me, someone with a reputation for getting lost at any available opportunity, could work out how to get around the capital city. Because every sign, every junction, it’s all geared up for bikes. But there are a couple of things to be aware of:
There are cycle lanes on both sides of the road so you have to use the one that follows the direction of the traffic. So basically the right hand side of the road. Only the bike-only cycle lanes will have people cycling both ways but you still keep to the right hand side.
Turning right in Denmark is a funny thing. I’m not sure if these following diagrams are a help or hindrance, but here you go anyway!
When you’re a pedestrian waiting to cross a road and the man turns green, you’d think that was your road only to walk across. But actually cars and bikes turning right can cross it too, if there aren’t any people walking. It means you’re often walking across the road and it feels like a car is about to turn into you as they start the turning manoeuvre from the main road. As a cyclist crossing that road, it’s the same. You can cycle ahead when the light turns green but you’ve got those vehicles edging towards you with their right turns. What makes it more tricky is when there aren’t any pedestrians and you’re cycling up to the green light and cars are already making their turn. There’s been a recent campaign on right turns because it is where accidents have happened.
Turning left is a different technique. When you want to turn left at a crossroad, wait until it’s green, then keep in the right hand side of the lane and cross the road. As you’re crossing, raise your hand and stop at the corner of the street you want to join and wait with the traffic on the right-hand side for the green light to go in your new direction. It sounds more complicated than it is and as there are always cyclists about, you should be able to follow the crowd the first time you do it and then learn by watching.
When people come off the bus, they have to walk into the bike lane, to get onto the walkway. So you have to signal a stop with your hand and stop whenever a bus pulls up and opens its door. You can cycle again when the doors close.
So many cyclists don’t stop at zebra crossings when no one is walking across, despite there being a red light. You are actually meant to stop here and you can get fined if caught.
An obvious one but you can get fined for using your mobile phone while cycling and I’ve seen this happen.
And finally, one I’ve learnt from bad experience….when the green light is about to turn red and you think you can just make it across that junction. You can’t. The lights change quickly. Your legs won’t suddenly become Laura Trott’s. And Copenhagen cyclists have little patience for lingerers, when they are ready to cross the road you’re panting across it.
So there you have it!
My comprehensive guide to cycling in Copenhagen. As someone who only previously cycled for fun and on holidays, it is a new world that has opened up to me. And I like it.
I wrote a version of this blog post for The Local, Denmark, which you can read by clicking here.