12/13/2011 09:12 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

The Ubiquitous Bike Culture Of Copenhagen

There are five and a half million people in Denmark, and one quarter of them live in the Copenhagen metropolitan area. But their small numbers belie the important message they have for the world: "Save the environment, one person-propelled trip at a time."

Not since I visited China's Guangzhou province in 1984 have I seen a city embrace the bike as essential transport as Copenhagen has. This is not to suggest Copenhagen is alone in encouraging the bike over the car; the Netherlands, Tokyo, Victoria, British Columbia and other areas have healthy cycling infrastructures, too. (I recommend On Our Own Two Wheels a 'round the world exploration of fine places to ride.) Still, the Danes clearly know something about how to encourage human-powered transportation.

So when other urban areas look for examples of how to do it right, the place they turn to is Copenhagen and the word they use is Copenhagenizing.

Fresh from a weekend in the city, having been there and done that, I now understand why.

I'll admit I was dismissive when Visit Denmark's Christina Heinze Johansson gave me that earnest look and warned me that biking here "would be different."

She was worried. How would she ever explain it to her bosses if she got an American journalist killed riding a bike on her watch? I nodded and let most of the dire warnings go in one ear and out the other, Alfred E. Newman style. "What, me worry?"

At home, I bike daily, usually for an hour or more. But, oh, Christina, I should have listened. You were right and I was wrong.

The issue wasn't riding ability or endurance, it was recognizing that what hobbyists think of as mindless activity is serious business in a town where the ratio of bikes to Copenhageners is 2:1. Oh, there are rules. There is etiquette. There are signs to heed, signals to know, crosswalks to mind. After spending two hours touring Copenhagen by dusk, I was exhausted. And I don't mean physically. I mean mentally.

Riding in Copenhagen is equal to driving anyplace else. The bike paths -- specially designated lanes on the street but elevated and protected from the auto lane by a curb -- are as congested with bikes as the streets are with cars. And these bicycles have some girth. Parents carry young children in barrel-sized buckets attached to the front. Deliveries are made from platform-equipped bikes. One afternoon I saw a biker toting a love seat.

As one would expect in this city, there is an abundance of bike shops. Early one morning, I visited Søren Sögreni the "Tiffany" of bike shops where the proprietor proudly showed me one of the 14 limited edition bikes designed for silversmith Georg Jensen. It has a silver bell and a burnished leather seat. This moveable work of art sells for $3,200.

And while craftsmanship has its price, creativity knows no boundaries, as evidenced by the fur covered bike resting outside of Søren's shop. Bike with a horn? You'd get attention using these horns!

What I especially liked about Copenhagen was how the use of bikes is accommodated in ways large and small. There are parking lots and bike storage rooms at the public transportation stations and there are special bike cars on the trains. At the microbrewery and restaurant, Norrebro Bryghus I noticed bike helmets hanging on the pegs along with the coats.

During the warm-weather months, visitors can borrow a City Bike at any one of a number of coin-operated kiosks. The 20 kroner coin is a deposit, returned when the bike is re-deposited at any other kiosk in town. In November when I visited, City Bike was closed up for the season, but the proprietress of Ibsens Hotel happily loaned me a bike from the small fleet of very well-cared for bikes she keeps on hand for her guests' use.

Copenhagen has ambitions to increase the number of two-wheeled-commuters to 50% by 2015, and I hope they achieve it. Even more, I hope their progress sends a message far beyond Denmark and encourages the rest of the world to adopt pedal power, the ever-renewable-energy source.