News & Media Opinion Pieces Healthy Cycling in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Hobart

Healthy Cycling in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Hobart

Frank Nicklason, DEA member, Hobart


THE European cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been transformed by a bicycle revolution.

Recently, I spent a week or so in each of these cities. The highlight of the visit was a bike tour of Copenhagen, with my partner Helen Burnet, guided by Lars Gemzoe, a senior partner with Jan Gehl Architects.

This firm is leading an international movement to reclaim car-invaded cities for the people. The result of adopting bike riding as a form of mass transport in Copenhagen is sensational, for everyone.

Seeing people of all ages riding around the city, seemingly in harmony with many less cars is a great experience. The feeling created is relaxed, exciting, and intimate all at once.

In Copenhagen about 50 per cent of commutes to and from the city centre are by bicycle. The roads are far less clogged. Those who choose to drive are happy with this situation. Motorists show respect to, rather than irritation with, bike riders. Bicycle ways are simple and safe to use. I loved it!

In the past few years, I have been lucky enough to visit three great European cities; Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Paris is a wonderful city but, despite a busy underground rail system, there is way too much motor traffic.

The cars did eat Paris, as they have eaten most cities. In Paris, programs reducing on-street car parking and promoting cycling are well underway.

Bike riders in Amsterdam and Copenhagen are of all ages and levels, some even appear a little frail but they seem to manage.

I saw a person with quite advanced Parkinson’s disease who was able to safely ride his bike in the city centre. It is a interesting fact that people with Parkinson’s disease, even those with serious trouble walking, are generally able to cycle you can check this out this out on Google! A friend of Helen’s, living in Amsterdam, recently sent a great photo a Zimmer walking frame padlocked to a fence alongside hundreds of bikes. MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) are a smaller proportion of the total riding population in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, bike riding there is for the masses.

People of my generation remember a young, fresh-faced John Laws, in the 1970s, spruiking a fly spray, called Mortein. The advertisement ends with Laws delivering the line “and if you’re on a good thing, stick with it”. A medico friend identifies what he calls the Inverse Mortein principle, “if you’re not on a good thing don’t stick with it”.

The results of sedentary lifestyles, with obesity and it’s associated problems, should remind us of the Inverse Mortein principle. Poor health, disability, and premature death are not good things. Greater efforts are necessary to promote happier, healthier, more active lives.

The benefits of physical activity for cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal health are well known. Regular exercise lowers risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and of several cancer types.

The preventative and restorative effects of physical exercise for brain health are less well publicised, but these benefits are crucially important to our lives.

One thing we can be absolutely sure of is that our early human relatives were very active. TV remotes, home delivered pizzas, and cars were just a twinkle in the eye during the Stone Age. Anthropologists estimate that these distant ancestors of ours moved about 20km/day. Our human cognitive skills were developed in the crucible of vigorous physical activity. It would be crazy to think that many hours spent in a chair each day would be good for us.

There is ample evidence that physical exercise sharpens our mental skills, and reduces depression and anxiety. These benefits are available regardless of how unfit a person is before commencing an exercise program. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in concentration, in reasoning, and in creative and abstract thinking. The good news is that even a modest amount of exercise is helpful.

With regard to the diseases of ageing, physical activity cuts risk of developing dementia and stroke substantially. Even a daily 20 minute walk can significantly cut risk.

The benefits of exercise were shown for a group of middle-aged British public servants. In the study, low levels of physical activity were associated with deficits in improvisatory problem solving skills such as mental flexibility. In another study, physically fit American children identified visual stimuli much faster than sedentary ones, and they concentrated better. These fit children paid greater attention to their school subjects, and to their parents.

All of this research is relevant when we consider who might benefit from improved walking and cycling facilities. Just about everyone benefits, a lot.

It has been said of the Sandy Bay (Hobart) cycleway that it could have an unfair effect for motorists, that bike riders may be favoured over motorists, considering current relatively low rider numbers. People who ride bikes are no more reckless with their lives, limbs or internal organs compared to those who choose to drive cars. If cycling in Hobart was safer then many more people would choose to ride.

With more widespread commuter and recreational cycling, motorist awareness of bike riders would increase, with attendant safety benefits.

A colleague was recently struck by an opening car door whilst riding on a busy Hobart street, a medical classmate was killed in a car-versus-his-bicycle collision.

The positives of a strong walking and cycling culture in The Netherlands and in Denmark have occurred because politicians of all colours have committed to providing the necessary supportive infrastructure. A majority of voters has required this of them.

In the 1950s, Copenhagen was overcrowded by cars. In 1962 a busy city thoroughfare, The Stroget, was converted into a pedestrian street. It is now a beloved area with sidewalk cafes where people meet, enjoy food and drink, and just generally hang out.

Jan Gehl’s research shows that three times as many now visit the centre of Copenhagen compared to 1962.

Hobart is certainly hillier than Amsterdam or Copenhagen but there are still plenty of good areas for riding.

Unfavourable terrain should not be accepted as a reason for not developing more cycling infrastructure. I wonder what our Stone Age forebears would think of such wimpy arguments?

There are many benefits of having a strong, active, transport culture. Active transport is more interesting and friendlier. More is seen, heard, and smelt, and more is enjoyed. There are security benefits for private and public buildings when greater numbers of people are riding or walking about.

Greater numbers of people on foot or on bikes are good for local businesses such as cafes and bike shops. Students, those who are unemployed, and others who cannot afford to own or drive cars benefit from this cheap transport.

Active transport is consistent with the need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and with the need to adapt to life in the post peak oil era.

Active transport is closer to our evolutionary, formative past, and closer to our deeply ingrained needs. We suffer needlessly, mentally, physically, and socially when we ignore this.

Visiting  Amsterdam and Copenhagen proved to me the benefits of mass transport using bicycles. We can have the benefits that the Danes and the Dutch already enjoy.


We thank the Mercury for permission to re publish this article which appeared on November 3 in SATURDAY SOAPBOX