Professor takes the street fight to Europe

Person on bicycle crosses a snowy intersection in Copenhagen

Max Adulyanukosol / Unsplash

Professor of Geography & Environment Jason Henderson looks to Copenhagen for green transit inspiration

Most Americans would consider San Francisco a bicycle-friendly city. A respectable one in every 25 trips in the city happens on a bike, putting it near the top for cities in the U.S. But none of those cities comes close to Copenhagen, Denmark, where cycling accounts for almost one in every three trips.

Man in suit on bicycle smiles at the camera

Professor of Geography & Environment Jason Henderson

Although much ink has been spilled in academic journals and the popular press about Copenhagen’s remarkable bicycle culture, until recently one question remained largely unanswered, says San Francisco State University Professor of Geography & Environment Jason Henderson: “What made that happen? How did they get that?”

For Henderson, that question is at its heart one of politics. A city’s political environment shapes the way space is divvied up for different kinds of transportation: think parking spaces and bike lanes. In search of an answer, he spent three summers and a semester in Copenhagen, interviewing city planners, transportation advocates, politicians and more to understand the battles that shape the city’s transportation infrastructure.

While Copenhagen’s cycling culture and infrastructure may seem worlds away from San Francisco, Henderson says his time across the Atlantic showed him that the conversation in the two cities has more similarities than differences. “It’s easier to build a cycle track in Copenhagen than it is here, but there’s still a political battle,” he explained. “They have the same debates with the same ideological and political alignments — they just have different inflection points and different institutions and laws that might affect the actual mechanics of the process.”

One factor driving the difference is the bicycle’s biggest competitor for space: the car. America used to be a bicycle nation, too, around the turn of the 20th century. “There was definitely a very vibrant and lively movement,” Henderson said. “Then it was defeated. The bike went down, and the car came up.”

For some, the entrenched car culture in the U.S. means the country’s transit systems can never be more like Europe’s. But Henderson imagines a different political future. “What if our car industries were less powerful in these debates about space, about how we’re going to organize our society?” he said.

It’s about more than making cities more livable, he says. Looming in the background of the conversation is the contribution that car emissions make to the Earth’s changing climate. 

Since his time in Copenhagen, Henderson has begun to look elsewhere for inspiration, too. He’s now taking a close look at Germany, a country with an influential car industry like America’s but with a more robust national movement to address climate change.

He’s also begun studying the effects of electric cars as a new frontier in the battle for street space. (After all, those charging stations have to go somewhere.) While they’re widely lauded as the future of clean transportation in the U.S., Henderson notes that electric cars are only as green as whatever generates the electricity that keeps them running. For the meantime, at least, Henderson is sticking with his bike.

“Cycling is a very practical, reasonable and pleasurable way to move around cities,” he explained. “But the city has got to be built for it.”

Henderson’s book “Street Fights in Copenhagen: Bicycle and Car Politics in a Green Mobility City,” co-authored with Natalie Gulsrud at the University of Copenhagen, was published in June.