Q&A : Mikael Colville-Andersen

In recent years, urban planners around the world have had their eyes fixed on Copenhagen, trying to figure out why the city has become such an attractive place to live. There may be many answers to that question, but to Mikael Colville-Andersen the main reason is simple – bicycles.

Can you explain what you do?

We have a consulting company called Copenhagenize, which advises cities and governments around the world on how to make their cities more bicycle-friendly. We help cities by showing them how they can replicate what we have done here in Copenhagen with bicycles.

Why are you passionate about bicycles?

Well, I don’t really love bicycles, I’m just a regular guy who uses a bike to get around. In fact, I don’t really give a shit about them. I like them because they make sense, and they are the primary way to develop a liveable city. Creating bike traffic to allow people to get from a to b is the best way to kick-start that process.

Why are bicycles important to creating liveable cities?

Every city was bicycle-friendly 70 years ago, but in the 50s, we had one of history’s biggest brain farts and started to prioritise the automobile. We can now see that this led to massive problems for our cities. A bike city is genuinely better, because bicycles are basically just fast-moving pedestrians. And cities with more bike traffic are generally cities we want to live in. Our cities were not made for automobiles, and it is becoming clear that it doesn’t work. The best thing is to have a good mix of public transportation and bicycles.

Are the Danish authorities doing a good enough job with regard to bicycles?

The main problem is that we are not the Netherlands. They are, in many ways, 10 to 15 years ahead of us. But we are doing a good job compared to the rest of the world. We have created a uniform infrastructure that allows you to take a bike on a train anywhere in the country and use it without any problem once you get there

Prosperity is now a major issue. Denmark is a rich country, there is a lot of money, and politicians are still investing that money in building and expanding motorways. Prosperity can be seductive in that way. Politically, there is often this idea that if you have money, you should use it on big projects. But again, globally, you have the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan who are ahead of the rest, with the first two being the best.

What needs to be done in order to make Copenhagen a better city?

The biggest problem is that Copenhagen has become very cool, and has been a hot brand for around six years. This is causing us to rest on our laurels, because the world is looking at us and telling us we’re pretty. But we also have to watch what the rest of the world is doing. By 2020, 50 percent of the roads in Paris will have a top speed of 30 kmh. In Barcelona that number is 80 percent. Yet here, there is very little talk about slowing down cars in the city, so in that regard we are light-years behind.

The other main problem is the police. They have a veto right over urban planning, so if the city wants to propose a traffic calming measure, they can say no without explanation. This is very unusual in Europe, and has to change before anything else. Police should not dictate urban planning, just enforce laws. This situation has been a massive hindrance, especially in Copenhagen, though it is better in Aarhus. This is keeping our cities from becoming more liveable.

The other thing is that politicians need to fucking wake up. The health benefits of bicycles are well documented, and so are the destructive effects of cars. Politicians generally are on board, but they need to make it a core theme. The world is watching us because we are such a hot city. We can redefine urban living, and if we do, the world will follow. But now we’re spending a lot of time just looking in the mirror and thinking about how pretty we are.

What do you like most about Copenhagen?

I like the fact that I can ride my bike basically anywhere, and especially that I can do that with my children. I have a seven-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son, and every square meter of the city is accessible to me and to them – we are not locked into car ownership. Everywhere we go, we can go on a bike, and for a seven-year-old, that is amazing. I have that same feeling – nobody is the boss of me. I can go to work or to the café, I can bike home extremely drunk on a Saturday, and it is safe and accessible.

What is also great is the connection with the train system, what we call inter-modality. I can chuck my bike on the train and the metro and have my bike with me 24 hours a day.

What is your favourite spot?

Wherever I am, so long as I’m on a date! Actually, no I don’t really have a favourite spot. I live in Frederiksberg, but I spend most of my social time in Vesterbro. I like Papirøen, the Paper Island, where I have my office. It is an awesome island community with plenty of exciting projects and businesses. If I had to pick it would have to be here. It is a really unique area. M


By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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