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Kids are the true indicator species of a bike-friendly city

Posted by on May 30th, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Copenhagen Day 5-11
Kids are a common sight on Copenhagen’s cycle tracks.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

There’s a popular idea in bike advocacy and planning circles that women are “the indicator species” of a bike-friendly city. In the case of Copenhagen, which went well beyond “bike-friendly” years ago and where more women ride than men, the new indicator is kids.

Young children ride bikes in Copenhagen in great numbers. And they do it by themselves through the city’s busiest intersections amid massive groups of riders. Before I came here, I expected to see lots of families biking together; but I wasn’t prepared to see so many kids riding their own bikes.

That’s just not something that you see very often in Portland. I know a few people who bike with their kids from North Portland to Emerson School in Old Town every morning (hi Amy and Hau!); but the only other time I see it is during Sunday Parkways. That carfree event is the closest we come in Portland to mimicking what it’s like to ride in everyday cycle track traffic here in Copenhagen. You know the feeling: There’s a huge mob of other people cycling around you and suddenly you no longer feel like a tiny any next to a massive machine that can crush you. Instead you feel relaxed, safe, powerful and confident. It’s that type of environment that allows kids to ride on their own.

When kids feel confident enough to ride on their own — and parents let them — then your city has truly earned the “bike-friendly” label.

Here in Portland, we’re just not there yet. Like I shared in this March 2010 editorial, the width of our bikeways is simply too narrow. It’s not easy for parents to ride beside smaller children, which is an essential step before they can ride completely on their own.

With just one more morning in Copenhagen, I figured it was time to comb through the 440 or so images in the photo gallery (thanks Pro Photo Supply!) and share the best kid-riding action shots. Take a look at them below and think about your gut reaction: Are you appalled? Does it make you happy? Do you think the parents should be thrown into jail?

If you ask me, these kids are one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen during my time here…

Copenhagen Day 5b-10
Copenhagen Day 5b-5

Copenhagen Day 5-14
Copenhagen Day 5b-1
Notice that this young girl is riding on an at-grade sidewalk. That means the sidewalk continues at its same elevation across the driveway; putting cross traffic in the secondary priority and vastly increasing safety.
Copenhagen Day 5-13
Copenhagen Day 5b-45
Copenhagen Day 4-25-37
Copenhagen Day 5-9
Copenhagen school yard-9-10
Copenhagen Day 5-3
Copenhagen Day 3-57-58
Copenhagen Day 3-49-50
Copenhagen Day 3-51-52
Copenhagen school yard-7-8
Copenhagen Day 3-52-53
Copenhagen Day 2
Morning rush in the rain
Copenhagen Day 3-42-43
This little dude is waiting for a break in traffic before crossing over to the cycle track on the other side of the street.
Copenhagen Day 3-32-33
Kids these days love to color coordinate.

For more images, check out the Copenhagen Photo Gallery and read all of our special coverage from Copenhagen here.

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Comments
  • mezay May 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    so true. love it.

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  • KYouell May 30, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I surprised by the helmets, especially in the shot where the presumed parent and younger sibling (on/in a trike) aren’t wearing them. Is there a law, social pressure, or something else?

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    • Randall S. May 31, 2013 at 7:00 am

      Neither, really. When I was in Copenhagen (2011), I saw very few children wearing helmets. I’m guessing Maus is picking pictures of helmeted children so that he doesn’t get flak for showing children without helmets.

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  • mezay May 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    This makes me happy. :)

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  • Greg Raisman May 30, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    That’s a really good indicator. I also think people on hand cycles, using wheelchairs, and red-tipped white canes are other very important indicators of successful urban transportation.

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    • dr2chase May 30, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      It’s just one MUP, but we have that on the Minuteman Trail near Boston. Nowhere near the volumes in Copenhagen, but everyone is out there. The regular with the red-tipped white cane talks on her cell phone while she’s walking, too.

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    • Esther May 31, 2013 at 10:43 am

      Thank you Greg. +1

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  • Jack Simons May 30, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    The crime rate for all of Denmark is less than Portland Oregon’s and it’s population is almost 10 times larger: and yes, Portland’s crime rate is great compared to other large American cities. I think that has a lot to do with parent’s not allowing small children to bicycle alone. A few years ago a Danish couple was arrested in NYC for leaving their baby in a stroller outside a restaurant. The New York Times explained this was a common practice in Denmark to prevent the infants from getting germs inside the cafes. I wish we could all live in such a trusting environment.

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    • ScottB May 31, 2013 at 10:10 am

      Another indication of a cultural difference. Motorists in CPH don’t believe they have the right of way just because they are in a car. Seems like a classice majority/minority paradigm.

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  • Mark McClure May 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan. I found myself smiling from the first to the last shot. Think should be required viewing for all young families in Portland, and beyond. I’ll ask my kids to check the story out.

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  • abby May 30, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I commute from SE into downtown with my 3.5 year old (she rides with me for at least one leg per day)… if you’d like to do another ride-along when you get back!

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    • Joseph E May 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      Your 3.5 year-old rides her own bike into downtown?

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  • Kevin Wagoner May 30, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Growing up in small town America I biked to school a lot. These pictures are awesome. It would totally rad to see that in here at home in a bike city.

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  • becky May 30, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    If we could only get some of those cute yet functional bikes (racks, fenders, baskets!) in America instead of the typical faux-mountain bike with heavy shocks.

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    • Monica May 30, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Becky, I just purchased an Isla Bike for my 8-year-old (which I learned about from Bike Portland) and it’s highly functional–and fast. Within a couple of days, she was riding 6 and 8 mile stretches at a reasonable rate of speed. Check them out.

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      • Barbara May 30, 2013 at 9:33 pm

        I also miss the kids bikes made for transportation I’m used to from Germany (we need to get Puky to sell in the US). There, kids bike come auomatically with fenders, racks, bells, kickstands, reflextors and lights, some of it is legally mandatory. It seems that even with Isla-bikes (or the Specialized and Trek kids bikes we use) you need to get all this added on separately.

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    • annefi May 30, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Look at Islabikes show room, North American headquarters at SE Seventh and Stephens.

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  • spare_wheel May 30, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Its amazing how almost all the children have helmets but almost none of the adults do. That is some real cognitive dissonance.

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    • Faux Porteur May 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      Children are known to fall while learning to ride bikes, wearing a helmet makes sense.

      Adults (especially ones that grew up in Denmark) aren’t known for crashing bikes, so helmets aren’t necessary.

      Adults here in the US wear helmets because the odds of getting hit by a car is so much higher here than it is in Copenhagen.

      Cops wear bulletproof vests, SWAT teams wear full armor, the rest of us don’t because the activities we engage in are seen as low risk.

      I wear my helmet when riding in Portland, I don’t when riding on rail-to-trail systems, when I drive a car or walk down the street.

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      • alliwant June 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

        Excellent comment. Auto traffic is the main reason I wear a helmet, and recommend them. Collisions with cars are the only time I have known of a helmet preventing head injury, but I’m glad the cyclists involved are still with us. Also, helmets make a great place to mount a mirror, and if you’ve never used a helmet with a mirror, try it. Knowing what’s going on behind you is invaluable in traffic. I always know when to trim my path to the left or right depending on traffic overtaking me. The closest thing to a downside is feeling a little weird walking on the bike paths or sidewalks without a helmet/mirror, because I can’t see behind me.

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  • Barbara May 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    It’s great to see all these kids biking and also biking without adults. I would say that in genereal parents in many European countries aren’t as paranoid as US parents and let their kids do more independently. For example it’s normal in Germany to let your 6 year old walk to the neighborhood bakery or store alone to buy something. Here the store clerk would call child protective services!

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    • are May 30, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      i was hoping someone would mention this, thanks, barbara. there is an enormous cultural difference between the u.s. and other places with respect to the monitoring of younger kids. and in large part it is something that has emerged here in the last fifty years or so. it used to be commonplace for kids to be out and around, playing in the streets and across backyards, pretty much continuously from the end of school until bed, checking in at home only long enough to catch dinner.

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      • Kari Schlosshauer May 31, 2013 at 2:17 pm

        I agree. There’s a lot of social shaming (swathed in the guise of “being afraid they’ll be abducted”) that goes on in the US around letting kids be and become independent.

        I can’t tell you how many times I’ve parked my kids (aged 1 & 3) outside a shop in the stroller or cargo bike (been able to see them the whole time & gone in for one minute to grab something, usually a snack for the road) — only to return to a crowd, comments (“do you know what kind of people walk down this street?!”), and/or LOOKS.

        I hate to imagine what will happen in a few years when I let them go off on their own (because I trust them and they know what they’re doing), but I’m fairly afraid CPS will be a part of it, not because anything bad is happening but solely because of someone’s misplaced paranoia.

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  • wsbob May 30, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    I really like the top picture, showing that people are using hand signals. Hand signal displayed by kid in front, wearing a red shirt, is fairly conspicuous. Same with the arm of the bigger person in dark clothes, a few riders back. The arm of the person fourth back or so, showing signals, isn’t held far enough away from their body to present what I feel people would generally regard as an easily visible signal. A need for all riders to boldly display hand signals may not be as important amongst a group of riders, as it is for a solo rider.

    About kids riding…I wonder what time of day they’re riding…commute? …and how far.

    On our area’s Westside: Beaverton, Orenco, Hillsboro, Bethany, and more communities there, I wonder just what the likelihood may be, or could be, 10 or 20 years down the road, for any kind of high rate of biking that would even remotely approach that covered in these bikeportland stories from the last few days, about biking in Copenhagen. We, as residents and community leaders, don’t well plan for that kind of transportation functionality. With our typical community infrastructural planning, it’s hard enough to get adults to ride 2-4 miles from home to job, school, work, shops, etc, let alone kids by themselves.

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    • Nick Falbo May 31, 2013 at 7:55 am

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with regards to planning for the future. How could we ever hope to achieve anything like this with business as usual infrastructure and planing? The truth is, we can’t.

      It’s such a a shame too, because whenever I’m on the westside and I see all of those new streets built over the last 20 years, I think of what a missed opportunity it was. Most of those new streets have no on-street parking, painted bike lanes, and few driveways. This is a perfect recipe for cycle tracks, and had our design standards provided for 10 ft cycle tracks on the roadside, rather than 6 ft bike lanes, the westside would be well on it’s way to a world-class bike network by now. Retrofitting those streets with cycle tracks won’t be impossible, but it won’t be cheap.

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      • wsbob June 1, 2013 at 12:27 am

        This link: http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/05/south_cooper_mountain_needs_re.html …leads to an Oregonian editorial I read mention of a couple days ago, but managed to search for and read, just a few minutes ago. Its topic details some of the transportation problems that are compounded through planning decisions typically conventional for our area. In short: build a big, new housing development on open land (here…farm land), many of whose residents likely employment (Nike, Intel) will be 5 to 8 miles away.

        I recall a quote either in one of the recent bikeportland ‘Copenhagen’ stories, or a comment in response to one of those stories saying that in Copenhagen, for a commute, a strong percentage of people will ride up to 3-4 miles; where longer mileadge is required for such trips, ridership drops off.

        The editorial: mentions current inadequacy of existing roads to handle present day traffic. That acknowledgement should be setting off alarm bells for anyone attempting to visualize what traffic congestion will rise to with build out of this development in the works. Consider this statement from the editorial:

        “…Those two companies, as well as other large employers where residents are most likely to work, are more than five miles away from the area to be developed, reducing commuting options other than automobiles. …”.

        Doesn’t mention bicycles, but by ‘commuting options’, likely being well aware of how bikes are used in Portland for that purpose, it’s reasonable to assume bikes are considered by the editorial writers to be a commuting option.

        I’d like to think a Copenhagen style bike freeway, or cycletrack, could remedy the transportation challenges created by the kind of planning exemplified by South Cooper Mtn, but it’s difficult to be optimistic about that.

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  • Rachel May 30, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    I used to live in Portlamd (without kids) and now live in Copenhagen with my 5.5yo and 2yo sons and husband (and third son on the way). I love seeing these posts relating to the two cities, as they are my two favorite cities anywhere.

    We live in the city, very close to many of these photos. My 5.5yo has ridden his bike on the cycle tracks at peak hours, every day, since he was 3.5yo. He is still learning hand signals, but people are immensely considerate of kids (and those riding with kids) so its not an issue. We travel about 1 mile each way for our commute to his kindergarten and his brother’s daycare. We don’t have a car. We have many bikes and a cargo bike, and we use the busses and trains. My husband and I both work full time. We love it here. Keep up the good work Portland people – ride, ride, and ride some more.

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  • dwainedibbly May 31, 2013 at 5:38 am

    I entirely agree with your premise but I do have one comment about downtown (since you mentioned people biking with kids to Emerson School in Old Town): there are very few kids living in downtown, so I’d be hesitant to draw conclusions about the entire city based solely on what you see in downtown Portland.

    Outside of bicycling, kids living in a neighborhood is a livability indicator, one that many of us in the Downtown neighborhood have concerns about. At nearly every meeting I have been to, where a new development is being discussed, the question of “how can you get more 3BR units in this building so that families with kids can live there” comes up. The City even gives a bonus to Floor Area Ratio (total sq ft of floor space vs the size of the lot) to buildings that have more large units as a way of trying to encourage this.

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  • John Liu May 31, 2013 at 6:58 am

    As Barbara mentioned, there is a broader difference between the US and Europe as far as kids being out and about alone goes. In most Portland neighborhoods, you won’t see too many younger kids walking to school alone. It isn’t just a bike thing.

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    • ScottB May 31, 2013 at 10:12 am

      Depends on the neighborhood. Most of the kids at Rosa Parks Elementary walk or ride to school.

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      • KYouell May 31, 2013 at 10:41 am

        Agreed. Abernethy is nice for this as well. I tend to park our bakfiets away from any of the bike racks so that I’m not in the way of the kids that need to lock up. It’s a nice problem to have.

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  • Spiffy May 31, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I like the Portland weather… half your photos are rain, the other half sun…

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  • sd May 31, 2013 at 10:29 am

    This is one of the best articles ever!
    Making bicycling infrastructure robust and safe enough for children to ride should be the standard for all of portland’s cycling development. This has been overlooked and is incredibly short sighted.
    The impending overly complex N williams cluster is an example of design that will not meet this standard.

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    • Mark MCClure May 31, 2013 at 11:41 am

      Yes! And the improvements would also accommodate seniors on bikes, who I think are sometimes forgotten. Said the almost 60-year old who still rides now and then…

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  • Matt May 31, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Gives me goose bumps of joy to see that many kids riding in an urban environment!

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  • Jim Lee May 31, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Portland parents drive helicopters.

    Except Emily!

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  • Mike Healey May 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I’m appalled that all their children seem to be underfed.

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  • Robert Ping May 31, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    Wow. Civilized.

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