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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bikes, Bikes, and CitiBikes. From NYC to København: a city's unique cultural element that affects our social, physical, and mental health

Almost everyone is talking about CitiBikeNYC’s Bike Share program these days. There is probably no point in even writing about it since all sorts of debates and discussions are floating around town.

However, I would like to just point out:For the longest time, many of us dear New Yorkers have been complaining for not having a bike-share program in  NYC, a city with the country’s most robust (and at times, disappointing) public transportation system. Now, after a few years of research, discussions, and approvals, DOT has finally launched the program, implementing an effective public biking system to its best expertise, only for the public criticism to continue. To the extent that it’s been referred to as “NYC’s bike invasion”. Seems like the talk of town is pivoting more around the fact that Citi Bank as the primary sponsor of the city’s bike share program, has “splashed” their name/logo across the entire city giving NYC the utmost "corporate image", "more than it already had".

At this point, corporate or not, it doesn't matter. After all the efforts and time and funds that were spent for the bike program, what actually has an effective impact is the actual bikes. Does it contribute to Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s efforts for further encouraging physical activity, targeting obesity and asthma rates? I would say, in conjunction with all other current and upcoming initiatives, yes. Initiatives such as the Active Design Guidelines, etc.

But lets keep the focus on a city's health and culture.

What is our city’s most unique cultural element that directly contributes to our social, physical, and mental health?

I recently visited København (Copenhagen), Denmark for the first time. Just like almost every major city in the world, København consists of a core center within the metropolitan area with some surrounding suburbs in the outer circles (within very close proximity relative to American cities and suburbs). Aside of its beauty and warmth, immediately upon arrival my attention was drawn to two main elements: the city fabric, and public-life culture. It was very fascinating to see how the city fabric from a design perspective and the public-life culture from a social perspective have so strongly and organically absorbed one another throughout its history. 

As the Scandinavians have mastered the art of creativity, the Danes ambitiously managed to incorporate "bike streets" (the public-life culture) into the century-old interweaving streets (the city fabric). Among the cities I have visited so far in the past years, this was the second time that experiencing a very unique and dominating element of a city’s culture pleasantly surprised me. The first was Istanbul, Turkey: how their culture and religion are so perfectly entwined (which I’ll elaborate later). And second, København:  the relationship between the bike culture and use of city spaces among both riders and pedestrians.

København does not have bike lanes. Instead, they have bike streets! Naturally before crossing a street as a pedestrian, as we were taught by our parents and teachers in our childhood years, we look to the right and left ensuring no automobiles are passing at the same time. Well, this is probably not true for those of you that don’t live in NYC or a very large city, since non-New Yorkers actually wait for their green light to cross. First day in København, while the city’s foot/wheel traffic started to pick up by mid-morning  I found myself considerably more alert than normal only to be more cautious of bikes passing by, instead of automobiles. The city streets are designed quite interestingly with a very particular system in place for its three main elements of sidewalk, bike lanes, and automobile lanes to perfectly integrate with each other. Fascinating.

The bike lanes, which qualify more as a street, typically have two lanes with a well thought through system passing through [almost] every intersection, bridge, secondary and tertiary streets, as well as the waterfront. And the most interesting part is the “bike traffic”! They actually get traffic jam from the bikes.  There were moments that, while standing off the edge of a sidewalk at an intersection (as I usually do), a massive group of bikes would race through the intersection after approaching a street that was otherwise empty just seconds before the traffic light turned green.

While observing this bike traffic passing through, one would instantly notice the user-diversity of the riders: students, parents, hipsters, business women and men, elderly, etc. I was quite intrigued by the suit and tie businessman riding his bike under the noon-time sun, or the lady (perhaps in her 70’s) carrying her large bags of groceries and goods while biking to her destination.Now, that’s an ambitious city culture.

Notably, just by personal observance, obesity rates also seem to be significantly lower in København. In fact, according to Bikes Belong, based on a regular survey of Copenhagen residents done by Copenhagen Traffic Department:

  • 84% have access to a bicycle and 68% cycle at least once a week
  • 96% of school children have a bicycle, and 55% cycle to school on a regular basis
  • More than 1 in 6 families with children own a cargo bike or trailer
  • 55% cycle because it's faster than other modes; only 9% ride due to environmental/climate concerns
  • Just 5% of city cyclists say they feel very unsafe
So the question is, considering our recently launched CitiBikes in NYC, what are our chances of reaching such statistics that could be comparable to København? 

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