Promoting cycling culture: An interview with Mikael Colville-Andersen

Audio (mp3: 10.1MB, 42:05)

Published: 1 July 2010

Promoting cycling culture. Mikael Colville-Andersen says that what Copenhagen can do, you can, too!

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

Regular listeners will know that we’ve veered into transport and urban design on more than one occasion in the past. I’m very pleased to have as a guest today a filmmaker and photographer based in Denmark.

He runs two very popular blogs – Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize. He’s CEO of Copenhagenize Consulting, an organization dedicated to “building better bicycle cultures”, and of late he’s been travelling the world advising cities on how to promote cycling and make it a mainstream transportation option.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Mikael Colville-Andersen:

Thanks very much, Gerry.


Tell me, first of all, how did you end up becoming Denmark’s unofficial cycling ambassador? Or is it still unofficial?


Well, the Queen hasn’t made it official yet. [Laughs.] I have no idea! It’s been a gradual, organic process, really, over the past three years, starting with the blogs, and starting travelling about, speaking about our bicycle culture, how to build one, and how we did it, and how other cities can be inspired by it. And then at some point somebody started calling me that, and that seems to have stuck, really.


You’ve just exploded on the scene, haven’t you, because I first contacted you, you probably don’t recall this, but I first contacted you back in early ’08. I was looking for a photograph for UX magazine when we did an issue on transportation and usability, and you castigated me for looking for a photograph. But you did provide one – in the end.


[Laughs.] Did I? Sorry! I get a lot of requests for photos from all over the world, and I think I’ve softened up a bit now, so sorry about that.


That’s quite all right. [Laughs.] I got the rough end of the stick, that’s fine.

Nowadays most cities, and even ones that I guess are rather surprising, New York comes to mind, are actively promoting cycling. Why is that happening?


Well, it really is… You said I exploded onto the scene, [but] for me in my little life here it’s been a gradual process over the past three, three-and-a-half years.

What we’ve seen over that time is the bicycle returning to the streets, returning to the consciousness as transport. At the beginning it was slow. 2008 they called it the summer of the bicycle back then, and there is no end in sight to the rise, or the re-rise of the bicycle. More and more cities are starting to recognize that the bicycle solves a lot of problems on the urban landscape, and that’s the most amazing thing about this whole boom. You know, a boom is a sudden thing, but this is a sort of long gradual boom that really has not peaked and is nowhere near peaking.

It’s gone from being a trend, a fashion trend, which we can see on Copenhagen Cycle Chic and all the blogs that have been launched from that movement. And now we’re starting to see politicians taking it seriously all round the world.

That’s a good indication that it’s being cemented, the bicycle again. But I call it bicycle culture 2.0 because we’ve all been here before. I’ve seen pictures of Australian cities in the 1950′s and 1930′s, and all over the world the bicycle was a main feature on the urban landscape, as transport for the better part of 50, 60 years. So we’re just returning to something that worked really well.


In a way that’s got a negative connotation, because you could say, well, we used to ride bicycles and then we became wealthy and affluent and our lifestyles improved and we moved to a car. And that getting back on a bike is in a way an acknowledgement that our affluence is in some way flawed or temporary or not working.


Well, I think it’s true. Perhaps car culture is necessary, I think in modern society absolutely, but dependency on the car is a negative thing and returning to the bicycle is a positive thing, and it’s something people are taking seriously now.

I think we have become lazy in western society, and here at the Velo-City conference which has just been held in Copenhagen there was a Chinese professor. China of course, one of the great cycling nations, and now they’re all buying cars like madmen, and bicycles are disappearing form the streets.

But he points to Copenhagen and Denmark as a prime example. It’s one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and yet people still ride bicycles. I’m looking out my window as I’m speaking to you, there’s women in heels, there’s men in suits, people on cargo bikes. The bicycle is appropriate for wealthy society, as we see here in Europe.


You’ve compared bicycles in the past to, I think it was vacuum cleaners was the example you used, which contrasts rather sharply with the photographs on Copenhagen Cycle Chic of these very attractive women riding around in heels, as you just mentioned.

What’s with the vacuum cleaner analogy?


Well I think it’s the best way of describing our relationship here in Denmark, and I would even put the Dutch into the same box. Our relationship with the bicycle is the same as it is to our vacuum cleaners. We all have one, we’ve all learned how to use them and we just all use them. We don’t go around thinking about them in the course of a day. We don’t have five or 10 vacuum cleaners that we keep polished and oiled. We don’t give our vacuum cleaners names.

It’s merely a tool that makes our everyday life more convenient and more effective, and this is just like the bicycle. We use it to get around.

If you ask Copenhageners, and the city of Copenhagen does every two years, what their main reason for riding a bicycle is, the majority say it’s fast and easy… That was 56%. 19% say it’s good exercise, I get my 30 minutes a day. 6% say they ride because it’s inexpensive and only 1% do it because of environmental reasons.

So the bicycle here really is just a vacuum cleaner. And it’s also in other countries… All around the world, the bicycle had disappeared as transport in many places, and the marketing of the past 30, 40 years has been primarily for the bicycle as sport or recreation, and not much else, maybe kids riding around in a driveway.

This whole marketing aspect over the past three or four decades has made the bicycle a fetish object, made it something that you spend a lot of money on to ride a couple of hours on a Saturday. Whereas here it’s something that everybody has, everybody uses and, you know, we don’t fuss about it.


But how do you attract people onto bicycles. I mean, the weather in Copenhagen is not exactly conducive, during the winter, to getting out the door and hopping on a bicycle. Surely it would be easier for people to get in the car.


The Copenhagen experience is that in the 50′s and 60′s our urban planning started to revolve around the car for the first time ever, and the number of cyclists plummeted.

And it really took the oil crisis in the 1970′s and well into the 1980′s to encourage the city and people to start looking at the bicycle again, and creating the infrastructure, bicycle lanes – cycle tracks I think you call them.

Getting people to ride is not easy, but really the first step is making the bicycle the fastest to get through a city. If you do that, everybody and their dog will get on board.

You know, we’re homo sapiens, we always want to get there quick, whether we’re on foot or in a car or on a bicycle or on a train. We just want to get there quick. If you do that with the bicycle, people will ride.

And that’s what we’ve seen here. So in Greater Copenhagen and the environs there’s 500,000 people who ride bicycles every day. And they do that because it’s the quickest way to get around.

So this is really the key for any city, is creating the necessary infrastructure, and you will see that people will start riding. This is the first goal. This is what I’ll be speaking about in Melbourne at the State of Design festival.

The second goal is really marketing, turning around 30, 40 years of marketing the bicycle as only sport or recreation, and starting to sell it to the masses, to the mainstream. This is the next big challenge.

And marketing, fortunately, we have a lot of experience with it as people. Everything we buy or sell we do it positively, you know, we highlight all the positive aspects of thee products, and bicycle culture is no different.

We should be focusing on the positive.


You will be talking at the State of Design festival in Melbourne, and I think the topic is “Four goals for promoting urban cycling”. Can you give us a bit of a preview of what you’ll be talking about?


I kind of just gave you two teasers there. The four goals are really what I call “A to B -ism”, which is making the bicycle the fastest way to get around the city, creating the infrastructure. If you build it they will come, people just want to get there quick.

Number two is marketing, applying basic marketing techniques to urban cycling, which is not something we are seeing at the moment. A lot of bicycle advocacy reminds me of the greatest flop in the history of marketing and that is environmentalism. Forty years of activism and awareness, and in Western societies we do very, very little for the environment, even though we’re all quite aware of the problem.

There is a sort of finger-wagging advocacy, you know, guilt-trips and what-not. This is a lot of the marketing of urban cycling. And we need to change that, we have to start applying basic techniques to marketing urban cycling.

Number 3 is very simple. I’ve compared the way we deal with cars in Western society to ignoring the bull in the china shop. There is a bull in the china shop, and the bull’s not going anywhere, you know, the car is here to stay of course, but we don’t need as many of them in our city centres as there are now.

So we have to stop ignoring the bull, and running around bubble-wrapping pedestrians and cyclists, and instead look at the problem. Lower speed limits, higher taxes on cars, like we have here in Denmark. There’s a whole list of ways to restrict the destructive capacity of automobiles in our cities.

And number 4 really is the re-democratisation of the bicycle, re-humanising urban cycling, making it something for everyone, making it mainstream again as it was all over the world just a few decades ago.

Now I don’t need to come to Melbourne, I just told you everything.


[Laughs.] That’s right. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll still pay for the trip…

Copenhagen is too cold, Sydney is too hilly, and Melbourne is too sprawling. Are these really impediments?


Anywhere I’ve been, and many readers on my blogs… I’ve heard all the excuses now. Oh, we can’t do it here because, yeah, it’s hilly, or it’s cold or it’s this and that.

But these are kind of lame excuses now, because, first of all, we all used to do it, when the bicycle was first invented 125 years ago, and it took the world by storm, transforming societies all over the planet. You know, people rode bicycles up hills and My God those were heavy bicycles back then. So that doesn’t work. We’ve done it before.

There are many cities now which serve as inspiration. Copenhagen is a flat city but it’s incredibly windy. I’m still looking for some guy to figure out wind speed compared to hills, because I tell you the wind here is amazing. And it is very cold in the wintertime as well. But people ride anyway, because it is the quickest way to get around. There are as many excuses…

Denmark on the other hand is not that flat. In our national anthem we sing the praises of our hills and valleys, and we have cities that rival Sydney for hills as well, but still have 25%, 30% modal share for bikes.

There are cities in northern Sweden and Finland with 25%, 30% modal share for bikes, so there goes the whole snow thing. Cities in Switzerland as well. All over Europe. There’s really no excuses because you can always point at some city and say, yeah, but they’re doing it so why can’t you?

It’s attitude, it’s behaviour, it’s taking away the whole bad branding of cycling as only being a sport or recreation. You know, people can’t imagine that you can ride bikes up hills now, but their ancestors – ancestors maybe is the wrong word – their family only a few generations ago did.

I rode around San Francisco with three girls on Dutch bikes, three friends of mine. I was on a single-speed. Not a “fixie” but a single-speed and we went up and down these legendary hills that are a major hindrance to cycling and it was really hot that day, and we managed fine.

So I don’t buy the excuses. I think we should just start building the infrastructure and then watch what happens.


What’s your personal motivation for all this, Mikael. I mean, you do talk about it becoming normal and becoming non-fetishised, but in a way you’re obviously very, very much wrapped up in the whole advocacy thing. What’s drives you?


Man, that was a good question…


Sorry, is that a bit unfair? [Laughs.]


No… I mean, for me all this happened by accident. I took one photo one day which became popular on Flickr and then it just sort of exploded from there. So, what drives me? I think it’s really… Before I took that photo, you know, I was a Copenhagener, I didn’t notice the bicycle/slash/vacuum cleaner. But I started to realize. Wow! What we do here is really quite impressive. The way all these hundreds of thousands of people are not aware that they are legends, you know, in their own time.

They just ride their bikes to work and school. So, what I think is… You know, I’m a motorist as well, but I just think that seeing this whole…

I think I’m drawn by the whole poetic aesthetic of people riding bicycles… Standing at a red light at rush hour here in Copenhagen, on the world’s busiest bicycle street, with 100, 150 other cyclists in the early morning. I think I’m really fascinated by the whole societal structure of a city that has a strong bicycle culture. What does this give to our society? It’s anthropology really, and sociology. You know, if everybody’s sitting in their car they’re isolated. If you’re leaning up against the light-post and you’re looking around at all your fellow citizens, elbow-to-elbow with them, I just think that this is really what cities used to be and what they should be again.

And the bicycle really is the most perfect tool for reaching that very noble of creating or re-creating livable cities.


…Mikael Colville-Andersen, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.


My pleasure. I’m looking forward to coming to Australia.

Published: July 2010