Captive Users? In Copenhagen?

Is one of the key reasons so many people ride bikes so much in Copenhagen due to the fact that the bus service here is so bad?

When you ask people a simple question, “why do you bike?” often times the first response you get is “because it’s easy!” If you ask the Copenhagen municipality, they will say that they regularly conduct a telephone survey of why people bike and get basically the same answer. If you read much of the current bicycling literature or follow the current bicycle planning and activism discourse, you get roughly the same kind of argument: create provisions for bicycling (lanes, traffic lights, parking, etc.) and it will simply be ‘irresistable‘ to cycle. So there you go, right?

But people don’t make their transportation decisions in a vacuum. We need to also consider what the alternatives to biking would be. They don’t just bike because biking is made irresistable, they also bike because the alternatives are perceived to be unthinkable or, at the very least, worse.

If you probe people a bit more deeply than you can in a survey questionnaire, you will quickly realize that the flip side to “it’s so easy to bike” is “it’s not so easy to do anything else”. This is not necessarily a good thing to celebrate.

The first thing people I have spoken with mention as a competitor to the bicycle is actually not the car. It’s the bus. And the first thing they mention is the cost of the bus. With rising fuel prices in recent years, the price of bus fare in Copenhagen has gone through the roof, as in many cities.

In 1979, the cost of a bus ticket was 3 danish kroner, or just a little over 50 US cents. A bus fare today is 24 kroner, about $4.65. That’s an increase of eight times the price. If you smooth those data to compare 1979 valuation of the kroner to today’s kroner, a 3 DKK fare should be 9 DKK  today. That is to say, prices have nearly tripled by a true valuation of the price. In the graph below, you can see the price increases both terms of the cost at the time and compared to the kroner in 2010.

Gas prices, by comparison, during the same time period went from 3 kroner per liter to around 10 kroner per liter- an increase of only three times the price, which is roughly in line with inflation rates. As mentioned before, 3 kroner in 1979 would be worth 9 kroner today, so gas prices (despite much fluctuation up and down during that period) have hardly changed in real prices.

Most of these price increases have been recent. From 1979 to 1990, the price went from 3 kroner to 8 kroner. From 1990 to 2000, they went from 8 to 12 kroner. But from 2000 to 2011, the price has soared to 24 kroner.

Yesterday I spoke with an immigrant named Saadi who moved to Copenhagen from Tunisia in 1987. He said if you are two people it would be actually cheaper to use a taxi for about 40 kroner to get from the station we were standing at (Nørrebro) to the closest main train station (Nørreport), a distance of 3 kilometers. If two people took the bus it would cost 48 kroner and probably take about twice as long. A bike, on the other hand, would be as fast as the taxi and virtually free.

Saadi  remembered distinctly when he got off the bus and started biking- it was when bus fares hit 18 kroner about 5 years ago. Bike advocates and the data might celebrate this fact. One more person on a bike, and an immigrant no less! Fantastic! But we might suspect that this man might prefer an affordable transit pass.

But it’s not just immigrants. In speaking with a handful of others on the street, including working class Danes and students, I heard the same thing: sure, I ride because it’s the fastest and easiest way. But that’s also because you’d have to be crazy to ride the bus.

However, it’s not only the transit cost. Riding the bus also often takes 2-3 times longer. The busses – like anywhere- are often perceived as unreliable. Plus, people often complain, they feel packed in like sardines in a can.  Copenhagen has also recently started clamping down with stasi-like heavy spot fines of $112 if you don’t have a valid ticket.

No one I spoke with makes a comparison with a car, probably because that is even more trouble: it’s hard and expensive to find parking, gas is costly, traffic is a hassle, and distances are short. Why bother? Some of the folks I spoke with can’t afford a car and those that have one don’t hardly use it except to get out of the city for weekend and holiday trips.

So, if you aren’t so well off and you are choosing between one of the best bicycle networks in the world which is fast, cheap, and generally a pretty good experience and an expensive, packed, and slow bus ride- which would you choose?

If this is the choice people are facing, should we be celebrating that bicycling rates have gone up in the economic recession? Is this an improvement, or is this just a symptom of people pinching pennies during a downturn and a lousy transit system? Maybe what people actually want is a better transit system, not a bike.


Author’s note: I have started conducting several pilot interviews, close to 10 at this point. These interviews have almost entirely been conducted in the Nørrebro neighborhood, which is largely a working class, student and immigrant area. Most of the people were chosen randomly from people on the street around afternoon rush hour time, so this is still pretty early data.

My method has been primarily to approach people who are near their bicycle, explain my project to them briefly and then start by asking them one simple question “why do you bike?”. I then let the conversation flow from there, probing for things like how often they ride, how far, what other modes of transport they use and why, etc. Nonetheless,  there are a few key themes that seem to recur. I will be posting some of these stories on this blog in coming weeks so stay tuned.


6 responses to “Captive Users? In Copenhagen?

  1. Good start on explaining transit behaviors and choice. I look forward to hearing the interview results. When I see the urban streets dotted with riders it seems that the likelihood of getting someone to respond to “why they ride” might be a great way to break the ice. But, there might be more to this. My experience of making conversation with other riders has been a great joy over the years. Simply, I can’t get the same experience on a bus or in a car. Riding compels me to know the sense of a place and satisfy’s my native curiosity for a social belonging. The question is not why I ride> That’s like asking why I eat or sleep. Riding is just how I roll. When we can take the labels away from riding behavior then possibly more Americans will see that it really is normal to move around. For now riders are the new “lab rat” modeling an ancient human behavior. It doesn’t hurt either that more riders are on board because of increasingly costly bus and car alternatives.

  2. Great Project!

    it will be interesting to read the results,

    i have 2 tangents:

    Tangent 1:

    Captive Users?

    I am trying to define ‘captive user’ … just for fun, this phrase always comes little clunky to me.
    My dictionary says – a person who has been taken prisoner or an animal that has been confined.
    Or – to choose one option over another, because all other options are not as appropriate.
    Or this post says ~ to be stuck with a solution, because all other options are perceived to be unthinkable or, at the very least, worse

    where i work in Malawi (Africycle), we often hear Malawian cyclist called this ‘Captive Users’ , because Malawians are poor and cannot afford other means of transport…~right? Most malawians would prefer to be using a black Mercedes Benz for transport, that preference is greater influenced by the status of owning an expensive, powerful, big car rather than appropriate transport measures. i try to defend Malawians being coined ‘captive users’ by saying, In Uxbridge a small town where i grew up ~80 km north of Toronto. Cycling daily as transport was out of the question. When i lived there i used a car every day, but was i a captive car user? Why did i use a car? “because it’s easy!” why was it easy? because it was normal. I was not a ‘captive car user’ because i was poor and i could not afford a private helicopter (the ‘greater’ transport solution). We see this words Captive Users creep up in the design, planning and bicycle spheres, and i feel it often is describing normal behavior.
    not to say its a bad thing, but why do we call appropriate decision making, normal behavior ‘captive’?

    Tangent 2:

    why do you bike?

    an interesting project:
    Take the same hand full of questions, sampling method that you mention, and apply it around the globe, try and grab the extremes of the cycling world from copenhagen, to Malawi, to sport cyclists in USA etc. such a project would be more for entertainment than any actual scientific gain.(any one this done before)

    Jonny P (pm me)

  3. The Making Cycling Irresistible publication is available for free here:

    It’s a seminal work comparing the United States (as well as Canada and the UK) with the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.
    It spells out, over and over, that what will draw new riders in the USA is proper bicycling infrastructure.

    • I think this article (and Pucher’s work in general) gets a lot of important elements of the challenge: improve conditions for cyclists and restrict other modes (particularly cars). However, the real competition to bikes isn’t cars- it’s busses. See this post. This is the dark underbelly of this argument- if we make other modes more difficult, we risk forcing people onto bikes and out of what they might actually prefer.

      Another issue with his research is that it completely discounts all social aspects. It is entirely technocratic and rational- if we just build the infrastructure right, everyone will get on their bikes. Would that work equally well in El Paso and Dallas as in Davis, California? I doubt it. Biking so far has been mainly popular in west coast, liberal college towns. People go there for the lifestyle and biking is part of that lifestyle. No one moves to Dallas to bike. So if Dallas just builds bike lanes, will they come? Maybe. But we also need to build up social support networks around it and work to change people’s attitudes and values.

  4. Very interesting. In London the cycling population does include some captive cyclists and there may well be more if the bus fares continue to increase at their present rate: 30% in two years!

  5. Another thing that mystifies me is why on earth there isn’t a proper tram system in Copenhagen, as there is in so many other progressive European cities.

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