Home Environment Copenhagen’s loud sound of silence, biking culture

Copenhagen’s loud sound of silence, biking culture

When you’re coming from a loud and congested city like Kampala, it’s easy to be freaked out by the quietude of Copenhagen. People are quiet everywhere

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Bikes packed at an office building in Copenhagen. Most Danes prefer biking to work. Photo by Gilbert Mwijuke
Bikes packed at an office building in Copenhagen. Most Danes prefer biking to work. Photo credit: Gilbert Mwijuke

By Gilbert Mwijuke

In Kampala, I’ve grown up surrounded by a plethora of sounds signaling the lives of those around me: street preachers shouting on top of their voices, shops and bars playing loud music to attract customers, and the wailing sirens of police cars trying to bully motorists off the roads because of the heavy traffic jams that characterise my home city.

In fact, I have a feeling that Kampalans think that life can only go on with a constant stream of incessant noise, traffic jams and their legendary disorderliness.

My recent travel to Copenhagen – Denmark’s capital city – for a Danida Fellowship programme made me appreciate the sound of silence and the city’s orderliness.

Even though the Danes are known to be good at drinking alcohol (Denmark’s youth are considered to be Europe’s biggest drinkers), silence is so engraved in them that even the drunks imbibe quietly.

“Drinking is a very big aspect of Danish culture because that’s how we bond. However, here there is no culture of loud music and other sounds,” says Dr Vijay Shah, a professor of Cultural Studies in Copenhagen.

When you’re coming from a loud and congested city like Kampala, it’s easy to be freaked out by the quietude of Copenhagen. People are quiet everywhere. There is no chatter on the trams, trains or buses. And cars are quiet, too. In fact, car horns are rarely heard here because it’s against the law to hoot unless you’re in danger. Back at home in Kampala, commuter mini-bus drivers can hoot 18 times in 11 seconds!

4.8 million bikes

When I first arrived in Frederiksberg, a leafy Copenhagen suburb that became my home during my stay in the Danish capital, I was amazed by how the Danes preferred bikes to cars despite the fact that Denmark is a high-income country where the majority can afford cars.

Cars seem to be so affordable here that even their taxis are mostly luxury car brands such as BMW and Benz. I even saw a Tesla branded Taxa (Taxi)!

But biking remains the most popular form of transport here, and official statistics put the number of bikes in Denmark at 4.8 million – in a country whose total population is just over five million people.

While in other countries biking to work is perceived to be for the poor, in Denmark almost everyone uses a bike because here people are seen and treated equally despite their socioeconomic statuses.

“The equality culture here is so strong that those that are successful never show that they are; they also ride bicycles. You can say in Denmark the bicycle is an equalizer,” Dr Shah says.

LiseWalbom, the CEO of Food Nation, a non-profit public-private partnership that works to create awareness of Denmark as a frontrunner in innovative and sustainable food production, is one of Copenhagen’s high-heeled that use bicycles to go to work instead of cars.

She says: “I and my husband prefer biking to work because it’s faster and saves us the hustle of finding parking and all.”

And bikes are not only used for going to work. The Danes cycle everywhere: to the grocery, to social events, and even to bars. In fact, it’s common to find tens of bicycles parked at a bar in the middle of the night as their owners drink away.

They are not afraid of riding their bikes back home at night even when they are drank because there are always very few cars on the roads as most road users prefer bikes.

The use of bikes has not only ensured that there are no traffic jams on Copenhagen roads, but the practice also promotes people’s health and protects the environment by reducing carbon emissions from vehicles – which is crucial in a world that is currently at war with global warming.

However, unlike in many other cities, biking in Copenhagen is also ideal because of an enabling environment: the terrain is flat and the city has an extensive network of bicycle lanes.

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