I noticed it on my first day.* You can’t help but notice the bikes in Copenhagen – among other reasons, if you don’t, you’ll likely be run down by one. They are legion and ubiquitous (and the separated-by-a-curb bike lanes look fan-fucking-tastic). Behold:
This is actually not the best example, but I neglected to get a picture of the bike horde by Nørreport because I was too busy trying to figure out where the hell my next train was whenever I was by there. But you get the idea: bikes bikes bikes.
Here’s what’s not ubiquitous: redundant D locks attaching said bikes to a fence or parking meter or bike rack or any fairly stationary object that would be hard to cut through.
I have an Oakland state of mind right now. The advice for being a cyclist there goes as follows. Choose one:
- Find the bike of your dreams and then either store it with BikeLink or take it indoors with you wherever you go, or:
- Buy a $200 beater that’ll get you where you need to go and assume that shit will get stolen at some point.
There’s an in-between step, which is two D-locks used in the way described by an official BART sign I see at MacArthur station most mornings: one securing the front wheel to the frame, the other connecting frame and back wheel to one of the previously mentioned stationary objects. Even this is not considered necessarily adequate; it’s just what we have to work with.
So to walk around Copenhagen and see this actually kind of blew my mind.
The fence is RIGHT THERE.
If this happened in Oakland, someone would be along in about ten seconds with a truck and a quick route to a closed warehouse. It feels like walking through a video game and spotting loot. You have gained one bike. Two bikes. Like 400 bikes in the space of a couple of blocks.
Now, it’s not that they’re completely unsecured. What I mistook at first for a rear brake is actually a clever little lock. Can you spot it?
This bike was on the island of Slotsholmen.
Is it locked to the rack? Of course not. It’s just there to correct the bike’s posture.
Instead, there’s this. Arrow added because it was, at least to me, subtle before I picked up on what was actually happening.
There are a couple things going on here, as best as I can tell.
First, it’s not Oakland. Or San Francisco or New York, come to that. I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish friend while I was in Stockholm about social pressure in Scandinavia (which led to speculating what elements of that fed into the creation of Midwestern Nice). If you lift a bike on the street and someone sees you carrying it instead of pushing or riding it, you’re going to look mighty suspicious. That’s not to say bike theft doesn’t happen – apparently it’s fairly common, but more people seem inclined to have a series of shitty bikes, so your heart and bank account don’t break when your latest beater goes missing. You have a bike for a while, then it disappears, and you’re stranded. You get mad. But maybe you’re drunk and need to go home another time, so you liberate an unlocked bike from someone else, ’til we find our place on the path unwinding.
Fair, fair. However, there’s also another element, which I think has to do with living without fear. This came up when I talked to the front desk person at my hotel when I checked out my last morning in Copenhagen. She mentioned that Americans in particular seemed to freeze up when instructed to just leave their bags, unsecured, behind and by the front desk if they wanted to pick them up later. I confessed that I’d had that exact reaction, even though, deep down, I knew it would be fine. “They ask me if it’s safe, and I tell them, well, sometimes I do go to the bathroom or the back room,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing’s disappeared yet.” And indeed, there was my stuff when I returned from my canal boat ride.** There was my wallet, returned to me by kind people.***
Risk and trust. It’s a game and a balance that seems to have gotten really difficult for Americans in the last several years. I don’t claim to know exactly why, though I suspect a culture of fear and anger, with media that feeds it, has played a key role. Bad things might happen. They probably will sometimes. But most of these things are survivable. It’s hard to remember that, though, when news networks have 24 hours to fill with the most sensationalistic stuff possible. If all you’re hearing about is terrorism and little white girls going missing, the world’s going to start looking like it has sharper teeth than perhaps it actually does.
When I leave the U.S. these days, it’s a metric I pay attention to. The time I climbed an Icelandic glacier, ice axe in hand, with no waiver signed. When I feel paranoid when I suspect everyone else is calm. When I feel protective of my own little domain of stuff and dignity as I cross through unfamiliar spaces. The streets I choose to walk down, those I avoid, what inspires my discomfort. And, sometimes more interestingly, the streets I do choose to walk down. The process of listening to valid fear and hearing anxiety that will keep me from doing interesting, nourishing, important things.
There’s still no way in seven hells I’d lock up my future bike in Oakland with only that tiny black cuff. But it’s an interesting exercise, reading one’s fears and assumptions within a new context, asking yourself who has the right of it and who’s living in a delusion.
I guess I mostly choose to treat my life as the beater bike. I keep it safe and do what I need to for things to be ok, but in the end, it’s something meant to get me from one point to another. If I don’t get to see and do the good shit while I’m going about my life, what’s the use at all?
*Well, my first full day. My actual first day, I arrived in Copenhagen from Stockholm midafternoon, a carefully thought out move designed to give me an extra chunk of day there. Maybe I could go to the Designmuseum? Take a walk in the daylight? See an extra neighborhood, yeah? I laid down to rest after walking from central station to my hotel with 30-plus pounds of shit on my shoulders and woke up ten hours later at about 2 am. So much for that. At least I got to see snow?
**No pictures from that either. It was raining pretty hard, which made for some pretty smears of color as we motored around, but shit pictures.
***I have since discussed this with friends, though, and we agreed that the great wallet walkabout would have ended very differently in other cities, among them London, anywhere in France or Italy, San Francisco, Oakland, and probably Seattle. You win some, you lose some, and ideally you’ll strategize based on how these situations are likely to go based on where you are.