Mikael Colville-Andersen Writes the Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism

CC BY 2.0. Mikael Colville-Andersen/ Lloyd Alter

We are not talking about bikes here, we are talking about cities.

My first interaction with Mikael Colville-Andersen was inauspicious, in which he rather dramatically called me the Fox News of the bicycle world, a darling of the bicycle helmet industry, and a promoter of the culture of fear. That was back in 2009; by the time we met in person in 2013 I had read every word he wrote on his Copenhagenize site and had become pretty much a proselytizer for his vision of bicycle urbanism. He was nice to me this time.

cover of book

© Copenhagenize/ Island PressSince then he has become a phenomenon, speaking everywhere and running a consultancy with offices around the world, and he has put his thoughts into a book, Copenhagenize- the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism.

The key message that Mikael Colville-Andersen delivers is that bikes are not for racing or recreation or even commuting, or any of the many other subsets; they are just a great way to get around in cities. Just look at Copenhagen, where half the population uses them and nobody thinks twice about it.

The bicycle belongs in cities. It's transport, it's a shopping cart, it's a family adhesive, it's an analog dating app. With the rise of the cargo bike, it's an SUV. It is everything you can imagine, anything you wish, and whatever you want it to be- and it's been all that for 130 years. This most human form of transport represents the perfect synergy between technology and the human desire to move. It is the most perfect vehicle for urban living ever invented.

Mikael doesn't go in for fancy bikes, or think much about bikes at all. He thinks about where they go.

It is all about the redemocratization and reallocation of our urban space... we need to bend over backwards to make our streets safe for all users, including those who wish to cycle. Reluctantly squeezing the bicycle into a car-centric Matrix serves very few. A massive effort to redemocratize our streets is the greatest urban challenge we face.
Vester Voldgade

Vester Voldgade/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is a serious subject but Mikael makes it a lot of fun. He describes the successes and failures in Copenhagen (like the silly kissing bridge and the redesign of Vester Voldgade, where I almost took out a few tourists who couldn't tell it was a bike lane). He complains that stupidity knows no borders when engineers reinvent the bike lane:

One rule of thumb to consider is a simple one: If you don't see a particular infrastructure in the Netherlands or Denmark, it is probably a stupid infrastructure design....Don't worry, the engineers and planners we need to fire will probably get other jobs. There's other engineery stuff to do.
trash can for bicycles

Trash can for bicycles with Mikael Colville-Andersen in the distance/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are so many gems in this book. Mikael describes how we have become Climaphobes incapable of existing outside our thermal bubble that we travel in from office to car to home. He demolishes all the myths: It's too hot! It's too cold! It's too hilly! We have sprawl! He spends a lot of ink on details, on the little things that make cities work well for bikes, from parking to garbage bins.

But in the end, Mikael Colville-Andersen's biggest contribution to the cycling world is about attitude and messaging. Forget about "avid cyclists" and talk less about bikes, more about how "the bicycle as transport can contribute to the greater challenge of improving city life." Just stop it with the helmets which just scare people off bikes and encourage a culture of fear, especially if you are going to ignore what helmets might also do for drivists or, as one twitter wag put it recently, stairists or showerists. Be positive, and remember that we are not talking about bikes, we are talking about cities.

Over the last decade I have written a lot about bikes and bike advocacy; when I write about everything from urban design to energy efficiency to even self-driving cars, it is from the bike seat view rather than the windshield view. I can honestly say that Mikael Colville-Andersen has been one of the most profound influences on my thinking, because he is just so sensible. So I am not a dispassionate or disinterested reviewer; I knew I was going to love this book before I cracked the cover and I can't say enough good things about it, so this is less a review, more of a gush. Everyone who cares about cities (and bikes) should read it.

Lloyd Alter on friendly terms with Mikael Colville-Andersen. Photo: Lulu-Sophia
Lloyd Alter on friendly terms with Mikael Colville-Andersen. Lulu-Sophia/CC BY 2.0