Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

A look at Copenhagen and Portland traffic, circa the 1930s

Posted by on October 29th, 2009 at 11:55 am

Copenhagen, 1937
– Watch videos below –

In light of Portland’s ongoing love-affair with Copenhagen, and the fact that Mr. Bicycle Copenhagen is in town at this very moment (prepping for the big event tonight), I thought it’d be fun to take a look at the transportation legacy of our respective cities.

Portland, 1939

I’ve heard local planners discuss how Copenhagen really started their march toward being the world’s top bicycle city after a fuel crisis in the 1970s (the idea being that, they’re only a few decades ahead of us). Niels Jensen, senior traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, reinforced that idea during a recent panel discussion in Portland when he credited citizen activism in the 1970s (a response, in part, to a post World War II car boom and resulting fuel crisis) for sparking a renewed commitment to bicycling by Copenhagen’s politicians and roadway engineers (he also told us Copenhagen built their first cycle track over 100 years ago).

However, adding fuel to the idea that Portland and Copenhagen’s transportation legacies are rooted in very different histories are two videos that have traveled widely around the web. The videos show how traffic looked in each of the cities in 1937 and 1939.

In the Copenhagen video from 1937, scores of people are seen riding bikes, in much the same way they do today. In the Portland video, shot in 1939, cars dominate.

The Portland video was dug up by local historian Dan Haneckow. (It’s interesting to note that the videos are accompanied on his blog by artifacts from the Portland Traffic Safety Commission who warns people of the perils of traffic — “Speed Kills!” is one of their mantras.)

Here’s one of the Portland videos (shot at Sandy Blvd and SE 28th/33rd):

And here’s the video from Copenhagen (evening bike rush hour begins at about 6:30 mark):

So, while Copenhagen did have a bike renaissance in the 1970s, they were able to draw on an old and rich legacy of biking to get the public support and political capital to do it (it was key, said Jensen of those protests in the 1970s, that many Copenhagen residents remembered how great biking was in their youth and they demanded a return to those days).

Portland can’t draw on a similar legacy. Our decision makers and elected officials did not grow up riding a bike comfortably and efficiently around a city (rubbing shoulders with their well-dressed peers).

This isn’t to say Portland will never make great leaps in bike mode share, but rather, we should keep the immense task of ahead of us in perspective. One thing’s for sure, we’ll never get there by dipping our toe in the water. It’s either dive right in or get out of the pool.

— Learn more about Copenhagen and how Portland does — or doesn’t — stack up when Mayor Sam Adams and Copenhagen’s Bicycle Ambassador Mikael Colville-Andersen take the stage tonight.

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  • Mark October 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I imagine Danes might not appreciate a travel video describing them as saving the white race and bringing civilization to the “darkest” corners. Other gems: bicycles as spectacles, bike parade, peaceful poor people because of a pension for 65+.
    On the transportation side, it’s not just bikes, but pedestrians and streetcars that make up the mix. That legacy has a huge influence on the mode split.

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  • Perry October 29, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Ireland, Scotland and England certainly do not remember the Vikings as having brought “civilization”…they’re grateful for the mead, though.

    Sandy was a lot scarier in ’39 than it is now!

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  • ayresjk October 29, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    “hey kids! some day you can grow up and own your very own gas guzzler just like me!”

    reminds me of this:

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  • Todd Boulanger October 29, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    These films are also fantastic in light of the newness of the technology of colour film stock for portable cameras that Kodak released in the mid 1930s. These travelogs would not have happened without it.

    Remember that social security in retirement was a new developing concept for America (and the announcer) when the film was scripted.

    As for our leaders not remembering happy bike riding around the city in their youth – I would hope those older than 40 remember biking to school at least.

    I was surprised at how few bikes were shown in the Amsterdam film (another in the series) – in areas of similar activity and density. Their bike density should havebeen similar – so perhaps it was edited out or not an important topic the second time.

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  • Todd Boulanger October 29, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    I liked the bi directional bike lane in the center of Sandy Blvd footage. 🙂

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  • Todd Boulanger October 29, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I was surprised to see the intersections (out in the far eastern suburbs) operating on all caution flash. It was like watching the operation of a high speed two lane roundabout without deflection. Crazy stuff at those speeds.

    Though in some ways the cars flowed like bicycles in the Copenhagen footage.

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  • Jeff Parker October 29, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Boy, I’m glad Sandy doesn’t use a flashing yellow light all day like in the 30’s, that was some hairy driving!

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  • Amsterdamize October 30, 2009 at 3:52 am

    Todd, I’d hate to think that Mikael tampered with the Amsterdam footage :). Anyway, here’s a nice sample of those good ol’ 50’s days, pretty much similar to what it’s been like in the 30’s 😉

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  • jim October 30, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Another significant factor in Danes’ move to bicycles might just be that since at least the 1960s Danish gasoline cost as much for a liter (about a quart) as it does for a gallon here. I think a few more Portlanders would bicycle if gas were $10 a gallon here.

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  • Jabin October 30, 2009 at 10:03 am

    It wasn’t just the “far eastern suburbs” check out Broadway and Interstate with the trolley mixed in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dHmuFTigzI&feature=related

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  • […] the last week or so there’s been a few videos of historical traffic situations posted – from Portland, Copenhagen and Amsterdam […]

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  • […] the bicycle for all trips, where 37% of trips by commuters to work and school are by bikes. Yes, Copenhagen had a bicycling legacy from before the post-WWII car boom to recall, but so does the USA (if on a smaller […]

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