Pedalling Dreams

How Copenhagen fell in love with cycling

Bicycles outnumbered cars in Copenhagen for the first time in 2016. chandni doulatramani
31 December, 2020

In the early 1970s, a Copenhagen-based cinema operator named Søren Sögreni wanted to buy a bicycle. He could not find one that appealed to him. Despite an exponential growth in the use of bicycles in the first half of the twentieth century, the easing of fuel restrictions following the end of the Second World War had led to Danes opting to buy motor vehicles instead. As a result, cycling as a preferred mode of transport fell to an all-time low. Sögreni decided to make a bicycle himself, using tools he used at his job. So beautiful was the bicycle he designed, purely by instinct, that several young colleagues soon began requesting him to make bikes for them.

Sögreni began selling handmade customised bicycles in 1981. His designs were minimalist—simple and sleek, with clean lines and no frills. Although he took advice from mechanics, he learnt mostly by experience. “I kind of started the fashion of bicycling in Copenhagen,” he told me. “Everybody had the same bike and not much to choose from. With the way I made the system here, anyone could choose anything and customise it, so that was a big difference.”

That fashion has resulted in Copenhagen becoming the most cycle-friendly city in the world. Bicycles outnumbered cars in Copenhagen for the first time in 2016. According to data from the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, a network of professionals in the bicycle industry, as of 2017, 41 percent of all trips in the capital were made on bicycles and 62 percent of residents cycled to work or college, as opposed to only 24 percent who used cars. 

Children are introduced to bicycles at the age of two and taught good cycling habits at school. (Around half of Danish children cycle to school.) Copenhagen is also the birthplace of “cycle chic”—men in formal three-piece suits and women in trench coats carrying Gucci bags can be seen pedalling through the city streets. People with children often buy Christiania bicycles, named after the Copenhagen neighbourhood where they originated, that have a cargo cart attached in the front. According to the Cycling Embassy, a quarter of families with two children in the capital owned a cargo bike.