What about a “system of cyclability”?

By Aya Itani and Vivi Herrera

Bicycles parked at University of Copenhagen in Amager. Photo by Vivi Herrera

English sociologist John Urry states that, as cars dominate worldwide, there is a ‘system of automobility’. But since bicycles dominate in Copenhagen, what about a ‘system of cyclability’? Aya Itani and Vivi Herrera open some paths of reflection and discussion on this matter, as part of their final assignment for the course “Urbanism and Architecture”.

There are almost as many bicycles as people in Copenhagen. In the Danish capital 799,541 persons and 675,000 bicycles coexist. John Urry says that a kind of mobility can be considered a system because there is a series of components that generate and reproduce its domination. Since bicycles dominate in Copenhagen, what about a ‘system of cyclability’? Taking Urry as a starting point, we extrapolate the elements that, according to him, make the car a system, in order to analyze the domination of the bicycle in Copenhagen. We also acknowledge the need to recognize the path-dependency of the factors that make it the cyclist city par excellence.

Bicycle traffic jam in Copenhagen. Photo by heb@Wikimedia Commons

1: The manufactured object

Just like the car domination is sustained by “leading industrial sectors and iconic firms” that produce the object itself, its parts and other supplements ––such as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Volkswagen––, in Denmark there is a variety of leading firms that design and produce iconic bicycle models. There are over 30 brands of cargo bikes on the Danish market: more than 25 are from Denmark and the rest from the Netherlands and Germany. Copenhagen is one of the few cities all over the world where they are used as a means of transportation of goods and families, in substitution of the super pollutant SUV.

2: The individual use

Urry refers to an ‘individual consumption’ of the car, being the most consumed item after housing (2004: 26), while in Denmark, nine out of ten people own a bicycle. Thus we propose talking about an ‘individual use’ of the bicycle as a way of ‘counter-car consumption’. While the motorized vehicle is related to market-oriented values (efficiency, speed, individualism, socioeconomic status, private property), the non-motorized one is associated with sustainable values (diversity, health, active mobility, social justice and the commons). Cycling provides a holistic sustainability: from its environmental effects at reducing the levels of air and noise pollution, to its social benefits at improving the user’s health and democratizing mobility for those who can not afford a car.

3: A powerful complex

Urry mentions that the car supremacy is supported by its technical and social interlinkages with other sectors and industries ––such as car parts, accessories, oil, advertisement, tourism, real estate development, construction––. In the case of the bicycle, its interlinkages extend worldwide, also within different sectors and industries. First, the rubber industry: the Danish market is supplied by countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Second, its intermodality connects it with other modes of transport, such as the possibility of bringing the bicycle onboard S-trains for free since 2010. Third, the initiatives of architecture and design to build iconic cycling bridges, such as The Inner Harbour Bridge and The Bicycle Snake, which have become symbolic references of Copenhagen at the international level. Lastly, since the turn of the century, the City of Copenhagen has oriented efforts to capitalize Danish cycling culture and promote it as a model for other cities all over the world.

4: A social mobility

While the ‘system of automobility’ is reproduced due to a “predominant global form of ‘quasi-private’ mobility” (Urry, 2004: 26), the ‘system of cyclability’ is rooted in a social mobility: it is environmentally and socially sustainable, less risky, equality-promoter, emancipatory and affordable. In the late-nineteenth century, 125 years ago, young middle-class urbanites used bicycles to tour the countryside and to display their status. Later, in the interwar period, workers used cargo bikes to transport goods while the bicycle was gaining ground against the car and a poor public transport network. Fast-forward again to the 1950s: many Copenhageners with families moved to the suburbs, replacing their bikes with cars and public transit. Today, even though young Copenhageners own more cars than bicycles, they use the latter as their daily mode of transportation, as families do with the cargo bike. This specimen transmits affluence, hipness, as well as child- and eco-friendliness, all in one go.

5: The dominant culture

According to Urry, car culture is dominant since it sustains “major discourses of what constitutes the good life and what is necessary for an appropriate citizenship of mobility”, providing “potent literary and artistic images and symbols” (Urry, 2004: 26). So does the bicycle. On the one hand, it is an emancipatory symbol, purveying women with movement independence to stop depending on their male relatives to travel. On the other hand, it is a symbol of resistance against the oil-oriented system of energy and the car-oriented system of mobility. The symbolic power of the bicycle has been a leitmotiv for several writing works, from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) to The Cycling Diaries (2009) by Talking Heads’ genius David Byrne.

6: Environmental and health benefits of cycling

Urry, writes that cars are “the most important cause of environmental resource-use” (2004: 26), which results from the amount of material, space and power used to produce cars, roads and environments, not to mention the scale of pollutant emissions. The bicycle represents  the opposite. Cyclists save Copenhagen from 90,000 tons of CO2m every year and also from between 120 and 500 deaths in Denmark caused by noise pollution.

Cargo bike in Værnesamsvej. Photo by Marcela Garcia Loza

These are the elements that, according to Urry, make a system out of a type of mobility. Our proposal is to consider cycling as a system to show that a domination of the bicycle is possible, since it already exists in Copenhagen. Caveat! The idea is not to state that it is a model that can be reproduced in other cities, but rather to be aware of which elements and components need to be taken into account for fostering a cycling culture in other cities. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the path-dependence of the ‘cyclability system’ in Copenhagen which was the result of a series of factors.

Factors Shaping Cycling

To understand why cycling thrived in some cities and languished in others, the factors that shape cycling must be unpacked. Cycling Cities: The European Experience, by Ruth Oldenziel et. al (2016), discusses the five factors that help explaining these variations across time and space. Based on a 100-year experience in 14 different European cities, it analyzes how urban cycling policy, use, and practice functioned. In addition, it traces how policymakers, engineers, cyclists, and community groups contributed to the molding of different cycling systems.

1: Urban landscape and cycling distances

The city’s physical landscape and urban layout play a big role in defining the system of cyclability and highly influence its viability. In early nineteenth century Europe, people started moving in search for better living conditions and working opportunities. In that context, the bicycle served as a cheap individual form of commuting that gave people a freedom in mobility and allowed them to extend their action radius.

2: Urban alternatives to cycling

Reliance on different modes of transport was very reflective of circumstances. During the interwar period, governments started investing in public transit and people were able to access it, yet not all of them were able to afford it. Cycling was encouraged and was widely seen as a working-class mode of transport. Afterwards, purchasing powers increased and people  were able to afford cars. This led many governments to invest in car-oriented street designs as a way for post-war reconstruction and progress.

Despite the alternating collaboration between car and public transit on one hand, and cycling and walking on the other hand, some people developed emotional connections to the bicycle. This type of connection made them still choose cycling as a mode of transport. This gave grounds to the development of cycling cultures and subcultures whereby people formed social groups of cycling to encourage one another and preserve these practices.

3: Cycling as traffic policy

Cycling has proved to be a continuous struggle between governing authorities and planning teams on one hand and on cyclists and activists on the other hand. In some occasions, cyclists have been referred to as ‘anarchists’ for having the freedom and flexibility to navigate easily in city streets. This was problematic for urban planners and city authorities in their structured plans to create order and minimize chaos. With the bicycle’s level of flexibility in navigating streets, it was harder to control people’s movements. For that reason, many post-war cities issued strategies sidelining cyclists and inviting them to know their place.

Cycling infrastructure used for branding the city proved to be an effective policy tool but it does not necessarily go without contestation. It rather opens the debate of authenticity in tourism and the satisfaction of locals with projects that are built for attracting foreigners.

Bicycles in front of Nyboder houses. Photo by Marcela Garcia Loza

4: Social movements and impact

The 1970s, also known as Europe’s era of activism, witnessed remarkable bicycle activism whereby cycling networks started regaining importance and expanding. These strategies took on different forms and dealt with varied concerns. For example, some city streets had graffiti murals with quotes, like “If you rode a bicycle, you’d be home by now”, to promote cycling and highlight its benefits in saving time or improving health. In some cities, the car-shaped bike racks installations showed how a single car parking lot occupies up to eight bike parking spots.

Bicycle parking at University of Copenhagen in Amager. Photo by Marcela Garcia Loza

Furthermore, the bicycle played an important historical role in empowering women and giving them a sense of freedom. Susan B. Anthony, an American activist, claims that the bike “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. Sue Macy highlights the role of the bicycle in improving women’s lives in her book Wheels of Change (2011). In Europe, pictures with people on the bike reflected a certain social standing. While using a bike was in itself a sign of liberation, going to work was another important sign of independence and indicative of being able to afford a bicycle.

5: Cycling’s cultural status

Cycling attained different cultural statuses based on several factors. At some points, bicycles proved to be the most effective way of commuting without spending so much money on transport. At other points, they were rather associated with poverty and ‘backwardness’ as compared to cars which paved the way into modernity and promoted individual freedoms. Since the 1970s, a broad-based movement improved the cultural status of cycling as a choice for a greener lifestyle, and in the 1990s, cycling attained a status in the index of public health and sustainability. The most recent cultural status of cycling with its confirmed potential for branding the city has boosted cycling policies in most European cities.

Girl with bicycle in Fredriksberg. Photo: Marcela Garcia Loza

Other Perspectives

Drawing on experiences from cycling in our cities, Beirut and Mexico City, we arrived at the conclusion that cycling dimensions are manifold and nuanced. Cycling in cities with less developed or nonexistent cycling infrastructures could be very challenging and even sound impossible. However, despite the nuisances, cycling cultures are based on different narratives.

The bicycle and Beirut City

In Beirut, cycling infrastructure is almost nonexistent and highly improvised. Yet, a cycling culture has developed and continues to develop in different forms. Instead of being a means of transport, cycling has more often taken on a form of leisurely activities carried out on linear public spaces such as the waterfront. However, a significant number of workers from lower social classes rely on the bicycle to go to work as they can’t afford other means of transportation.

Furthermore, the bicycle has provided a space for street vendors who couldn’t afford renting a shop for their small businesses. It is not unusual to see a local type of bread “ka’ak” being sold on bicycles in Beirut’s public spaces. The bicycle in this case is more than a mobility tool, it is rather an opportunity for people to use it in a way that suits their needs.

As mentioned earlier, activism strategies take on different forms and extents. In Beirut, a nonprofit organization, The Chain Effect, merges education and advocacy with design and planning. Their mission is to “promote the bicycle as a sustainable and convenient form of urban mobility, and facilitate its use in Beirut through street art, public interventions, community projects and holistic city planning”. They initiated a ‘Bike to Work’ campaign which dedicates a day with free bike rentals while collaborating with restaurants and cafes to offer people free drinks and refreshments on their way to work. This campaign aims to promote cycling as a mobility alternative that could be integrated in their daily lives.

The bicycle as more than a mobility tool – a common practice of selling ka’ak at Beirut’s waterfront. Photo by craigfinlay at Wikimedia Commons

The bicycle and Mexico City

In Mexico City the cycling infrastructure is still in a first stage of development, very far away from the Copenhagen case. The first cycling path was opened in 2003, with a 75 kilometers length, it is barely used by people for daily transportation, due to its steep ramps that are even difficult for a professional cyclist to climb. Until 2010, the first cycle path located in the city center was opened, but with a five kilometers length, being insufficient to cover Reforma Avenue, the road where it goes along. In addition, despite the fact that the Mobility Law of 2014 establishes a pyramidal hierarchy, in which pedestrians and cyclists have priority, motorists hardly respect these rules. In 2017, according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), 117 people were killed by road traffic in Mexico City. But there were probably more deaths, since there is no proper methodology for counting them, according to the non-governmental organisation RepuBikla.

Despite all of the above, I (Vivi) use the bicycle as my daily means of transportation, exercise and also empowerment. I do it regardless of the voices that tell me: “Aren’t you afraid of being run over?” “I don’t do it because I have to dress up for work”. “There’s no way I can get to the office all sweaty.” Going out on the streets every day to cycle in a city like Mexico is an act of resistance.

White bicycles in Mexico City are hung on streets where cyclists have been killed by car drivers. Photo by Marcela Garcia Loza


Even in cities with established cycling infrastructures, one could be confronted by the reality of cycling. This reality emerges from social and physical aspects of cycling in the city and could range from wider navigation considerations, to smaller infrastructural details, to social and cultural understandings.

Despite the quality of infrastructure, people find ways to accommodate for their interests and practices within the urban fabric. As Michel de Certeau points out in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), people appropriate streets, they use them in ways that respond to their needs and desires, they reproduce the space as they adapt it to their uses. Similarly, cycling could be a proxy for social change, improved health, and sustainable cities. Finally, established cycling systems could serve as an inspiration and a starting point, albeit being adapted, for cities with less developed cycling infrastructure. Taking into consideration the factors that vary from a place to another shall help in understanding the best approach to the given context. This, in turn, could aid in developing new cycling cultures that emerge.