Especially now, more than ever before, we need to emulate the Danes. And not just in Lahore
veryone cycles in Denmark. In Copenhagen more so. What we do with all sorts of three-wheel rickshaws and those horrid Chinese Qingqi demons, the Danes do with bicycles. They have two-wheeled attachments in front turning the thing into a tricycle for a parent to ferry children. It is also used to transport light loads. One child families have an attachment in the rear.
On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I learned that their crown prince takes his child to school on a bicycle. No sirens blaring SUV security detail following that poor prince. What’s worse, the poor man also stops at all the traffic signals. Maybe he ought to learn a few lessons from our so-called nobility.
During the morning and evening rush hours there are more cyclists than motorists pedalling hard and purposefully to get wherever they need to be. During the day, bicycle parks are literally choked with two-wheelers.
Danish roads are safe for cyclists because of dedicated cycling lanes where they have precedence over motorists and pedestrians. And woe betide the jaywalker who unwittingly steps in the path of a speeding cyclist. For even though I witnessed none, I was told cycle crashes are known to occur.
Using the bicycle to get around is an old tradition in Copenhagen where the first bicycle lane was laid out in 1892. This was just after the significant increase in the number of bikers in the 1880s. The idea of a dedicated lane was to prevent crowding on bridle roads. Two decades later the internal combustion motor car began to replace animal-drawn vehicles but the cycling population continued to grow.
Things rolled along until the oil crisis of the 1970s. The 1973 Yom Kippur War and US backing of Israel resulted in an oil embargo by oil-producing countries and just when the West needed as much of it to run its transport and industries, there was no oil. I don’t know about other nations, but the Danes resolved to overcome this by taking to bicycles. Everyone, not just the middle or lower class, gave off their cars and cycled.
To ease the bicycle traffic, Danish towns increased the layout of dedicated cycling lanes of which Copenhagen is a fine example today. But that should not be taken to mean there are no cars to be seen in the city. Only they are used sparingly and I never saw car-choked streets. Bicycle-choked certainly, but never car-choked. Unsurprisingly, the air quality index in Copenhagen during the six days I was there was never higher than 35.
Is it asking too much for young people to take to the bicycle? Damn the environment, just do it for the wonder it works on the legs and the heart.
For Danes today, cycling is like second nature. When they wish to go somewhere, they don’t reach for the car keys but for the bike lock key. The number of locked bicycles outside train and metro stations means you cycle to the nearest station in case your journey is too long to cycle all the way, leave the bike there and ride public transport.
There are also bike rental outlets where you rent a bike, ride it and to make it as user-friendly as possible, leave it locked at your destination. Rental payments are made by card and everywhere across the city bikes are available to be hired.
I felt envious. For one, until about 2006, I used to cycle around Lahore – without its dedicated cycling lanes. In those days the only danger was the madcap wagon driver who could, in every likelihood, run me over from behind. Fortune preserved me, I suppose. Then came the moped boom of 2006-07 when one could purchase a 70cc machine for as little as Rs 25,000. Suddenly Lahore was awash with virtually millions of mopeds ridden by everyone, even juveniles, all without training and licences. Worse, they did not have an iota of courtesy.
I gave up cycling when I, riding on the extreme left of the road, was on several occasions overtaken by a bat out of hell from the left and barely escaped being entangled with the speeding moped. The last time this occurred was in 2020, when evident by his get-up and backpack, the moped-rider was a college student.
The cheap mopeds with poorly constructed engines are now smoke-belching rattletraps. And we complain about the pollution in Lahore but we will not cycle or get on the Speedo buses or the metro bus and train. We want to ride from our bed to our desk without having to walk an inch. You can just forget about anyone wanting to pedal.
Back in the 1960s in our school with an enrolment of eight hundred, on any given school day, rain or shine, our cycle stand was with no fewer than five hundred bikes. Ditto when I was in college. In those days cycling twenty kilometres or so one way was all in a day’s work, now it is moped all the way.
Is it asking too much for young people to take to the bicycle? Damn the environment, just do it for the wonder it works on the legs and the heart. Especially now, more than ever before, it has much to do with the purse as well with petrol reaching Rs 250 per litre, we need to emulate the Danes. And not just in Lahore.
The writer has authored several books and is a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society. He tweets @odysseuslahori