Transportation is a major environmental issue that impacts individuals on a daily basis. Pursuing green alternatives to driving can seem daunting, but normalizing green transportation, specifically biking, can be beneficial not only for individuals, but for the environment as a whole. While bike-friendly infrastructure and policies are pivotal for the success of cycling culture, they are not sufficient to drive the bicycling revolution in the United States.
This post will highlight the role of education and culture in pursuing a cycling culture in the US. I will highlight Denmark’s views on cycling to illustrate how its history and culture impact its people’s support for cycling as an alternative form of transportation. I will also share personal experiences from my college town of Davis, California to provide further insight on cycling culture and to offer hope for developing one in the US. Ultimately, I will highlight environmental education as a key factor in fostering a culture that supports cycling.
Denmark’s positive perspective on cycling has allowed the culture to persist and thrive throughout the country’s history. It is one of the most active cycling communities on the planet, in part because cycling is so deeply ingrained in Danish culture.
When bicycles were first brought to Denmark in the latter half of the 19th century, they were awkward to ride. As technology improved, bicycles became popular amongst young men in high society as a fashionable accessory. As cities became more congested, bicycles became increasingly popularized as a mode of transportation because they provided relatively cheap and easy access out of the city and into the suburbs for fresh air.
They also provided Danes with freedom of movement. In fact, to this day, bicycles are viewed as a symbol of freedom in Denmark. Because bicycles were relatively affordable, they soon became a major form of transportation for all social classes. Bicycles were so popular amongst the Danes that they were often incorporated into visual arts, poetry, and music.
However, as the standard of living rose in the 1960s, cars became more abundant in Denmark. Not only were cars becoming more affordable, but they were also a symbol of prosperity as they indicated the end of the Depression. But the increase in cars brought more pollution, congestion, and traffic incidents. In the 1970s, the environmental movement and the quadrupling of gas prices due to the oil crisis in the Middle East further fueled the need for the Danes to stand up for cycling. As the Danish people became aware of these shifting patterns, they acted swiftly through popular protests to combat policy and city-planning decisions that prioritized automobiles over bicycles in order to preserve their beloved cycling culture.
Denmark’s government responded to the cries of its people and began to institute infrastructure that was appropriate for bicyclists. Bicycles have continued to be a cornerstone of Danish culture, as they are pivotal for public health, climate change, and cultural values such as freedom. The Danish government continues to support cycling culture through education, policy initiatives, and marketing. This reinforcement of cycling culture by the government and its people is critical for the continuing success of cycling culture in Denmark.
Davis, a city just west of California’s capital of Sacramento, is the self-proclaimed bicycling capital of the United States. It boasts a ratio of 2.1 bikes per person and the modal share of cycling rivals Amsterdam at 20%. It offers a flat landscape and expansive bike paths that make it conducive to riding bicycles. Beyond infrastructure, the University of California, Davis and its surrounding town also developed policies that work to foster a safe cycling environment and educate the public on bike safety and best practices in order to cultivate a community in cycling culture.While Denmark has been able to build on the momentum of its people to construct a thriving cycling culture, within the US, cycling culture is not widespread. However, there are communities that support a cycling culture, from which we can draw lessons.
My own introduction to UC Davis cycling culture began at orientation, when my orientation leader dedicated a number of PowerPoint slides to educating incoming freshman about bicycle culture and safety. She demonstrated the appropriate hand signals, taught us how to navigate bike circles, and warned us not to lock our bikes to a tree. While I had biked on trails before, this knowledge was pivotal for me to better grasp how to bike through campus and in a city. It helped me feel more comfortable and confident while biking in a city and sharing the road with cars.
Our orientation leader also warned us that at UC Davis, nearly everyone had a bike, and that it would be a shame to have to pass on dinner plans because you did not have a convenient method of transportation to get downtown. This was likely motivated in part by UC Davis’ policy that first year students cannot have cars on campus.
Between the policy restrictions and educational insight, bicycle culture blooms at UC Davis. I fondly recall Friday evenings when my friends and I would leave our dorm rooms behind to bike downtown for dinner after a long week of classes. While I was initially drawn to cycling due to its environmental benefits, I would argue that many of my friends prescribed to cycling culture because of the community. Campus policy and infrastructure were pivotal to get the pedals moving, but education and community were the wheels that moved cycling culture forward for all of us.
The revolution in green transportation is multifaceted. To develop a cycling culture, bike-friendly policies and infrastructure are not sufficient. In order for a cycling culture to thrive, we must educate the people and build a sense of community. We can look to examples in progressive bicycling communities like Denmark and Davis in order to guide infrastructure, policy, and development for a more bike-friendly environment.
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