An L.A. Cyclist’s Take on Biking in Copenhagen and Berlin

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Bike parking at Copenhagen Central Station. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I live in Los Angeles and belong to the 1% of Angelenos that regularly bikes to work. I am not a purist—I still own a car and probably will for a long time until L.A. realizes many of its ambitious transit goals. Biking in L.A. can be wonderful, but it can also be a terrifying and fragmented experience.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been in Copenhagen and Berlin, two cities regularly cited as being among the most bike-friendly areas of the world. As a cyclist in L.A. that has many hopes for the city of Angels to become a cyclists’ utopia, I have many thoughts about my experiences riding bikes in both cities.

The King’s Gardens, Copenhagen (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Copenhagen: A Cyclist’s Dream

Copenhagen is the crème de la crème of cycling cities. About a third of Copenhagen citizens cycle to work–owing largely to the city’s over 200 miles of separated cycle tracks, copious bike lanes and plentiful parks to bike in. By 2026, 46 more miles of cycling tracks will be installed.

The vast network of separated and protected bike lanes is incredible. There’s also the mind-boggling ability to leave your bike without locking it to anything– most people just park it somewhere on the sidewalk where it’s out of the way and lock the rear wheel. In addition, Copenhagen’s small size makes it possible to bike across entire city in about 45 minutes.

Cycle track in Copenhagen (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

During my few days in Copenhagen I biked to restaurants, sights and through the city’s elegant parks. It really struck me how seamlessly one could weave through the city without feeling vulnerable. I oftentimes found that the ride to someplace new in Copenhagen could be as exciting as reaching a destination.

My only moments of frustration in Copenhagen largely stemmed from my general unfamiliarity with the city. As someone who doesn’t speak Danish, remembering street names was a tall order. In addition, the city’s denser areas become a bit of a labyrinth. I understand that this is a problem solely for tourists, but I found myself longing for some semblance of L.A.’s grid after a few too many wrong turns and confusing intersections. However, even these moments led to other displays of Danish virtue. On two occasions when I remained lost and puzzled looking at a city map of Copenhagen, Danes approached me and asked if they could help point me in the right direction. These are considered the happiest people in the world for a reason.

Tempelhof Airport. While you can’t ride your bike in the very inner part of the airport pictured here, you can get pretty close. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Berlin: Most Interesting Recreational Spaces

Berlin is in the process of becoming more like Copenhagen. On a recent tour of the Reichstag, member of the German Parliament Karl Georg Wellmann informed our group that the city is intentionally heading in that direction.

While the network of bike lanes and paths is not as separated and distinct as it is in Copenhagen, cars and bikes share much of the same mutual understanding on the roads. Motorists are accustomed to driving around cyclists and act accordingly. It isn’t terrifying to bike amongst traffic like it is in Los Angeles.

“LiveBoat,” an audio installation as part of “48 Hours Neukölln” a 2 day art event in Berlin that took place at Tempelhof. The installation consisted of what was supposed to resemble a refugee boat that played audio recordings of Berliners’ experiences with the refugee crisis. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

One facet of cycling in Berlin that in my opinion trumps even Copenhagen is its recreational cycling areas. My favorite place to ride my bike is at Tempelhofer Feld, a former airport with a fascinating history. Originally built in 1923, Adolf Hitler later envisioned it to one day become a grand gateway to Berlin and an architectural symbol of the Third Reich. It was later the site of the Berlin airlift in 1948. Today, it is a public space in a class of its own. The last flight took off from Tempelhof in 2008 and it opened up as a park back in 2010.

The runways remain there as well as the airport structure itself. There was even an airplane parked in front of one of the terminals when I was there. Racing down former airport runways on two wheels feels subversive and liberating in a way that only Berlin’s public spaces seem to achieve. Pedestrians, cyclists, segwayers, rollerbladers and others can now make use of a vast space that was once reserved only for airplanes.

Otto von Bismarck statue in Tiergarten (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Tiergarten (in German it means The Garden of Beasts) is another fabulous place to bring your bike in Berlin. Stretching 520 acres- various paths run through the park and lead you serendipitously to many of Berlin’s landmarks: Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column, Russian Memorial and others. All throughout the park are the “beasts” which consist of statues of historic German figures including Otto von Bismarck, Beethoven, Goethe and other German luminaries.

Los Angeles: Well, at least there’s the weather

In lieu of my cycling experience in Europe, I know that L.A. has a long way to go to reach the level of Berlin and Copenhagen. However, L.A. has a few advantages for cyclists that I realized I took for granted.

First- the weather. Los Angeles has the best climate for cycling that I have ever experienced. One rarely has to worry about the rain (even when we aren’t in a drought) and it’s rarely prohibitively hot. Most of the time it just feels great to step outside and take a ride in our famously moderate weather. In Copenhagen and Berlin over the past couple of weeks, I was drenched after a few days of riding.

Second-no cobblestones. While cobblestones are inseparable from our romantic images of Europe, they are no fun on two wheels. It feels like being on a pogo stick.

Third-the grid. As mentioned earlier, I found the windy and oft-changing street names a bit challenging as a first time visitor of Copenhagen. If there were a way to create a city that combined LA’s grid pattern with Copenhagen’s infrastructure, and also with a space as amazing as Tempelhof—I’d call that heaven.