Copenhagen’s cycling silence – a hypothesis

There’s been something niggling at the back of my mind ever since I returned from Copenhagen a couple of months ago. I was really struck by how quiet cycling is there. It felt almost funereal, so it’s perhaps fitting that a certain perplexedness at the silence of Copenhagen cycling has since accompanied me almost like a haunting …

And then on my ride into work through the fog this February morning, I had one of those little light-bulb moments (I only seem to get these when I’m on my bike), a sudden realisation of why Copenhagen’s cycling procession is so silent. It seems obvious now I’ve thought it, but I posit it as a hypothesis here, because it remains just that – I’ve no evidence.

There were I think three main components to Copenhagen’s cycling silence.

First, and most obvious, was the complete absence of the ringing of bells. So many cyclists, but no ding-dings – how could that be? I’ll elaborate on this below.

Second, there is something to say about our always shifting and relative positioning in time and space, which makes places sound more or less noisy. Although I live in a city much smaller than Copenhagen, I’m accustomed to hearing the noise of motorised traffic when I ride on its urban roads. When I rode through the streets of the Danish capital it was between the rush-hours, and people on bikes easily outnumbered moving cars. To ride in so big a city with so little noise of traffic is something to which I’m simply not accustomed. I think that partly explains why the experience also felt slightly eerie and melancholy to me. I associate cities with noise, and am almost unsettled when my experience is otherwise (and rather ironically, this despite the quest for quieter cities being one of my political goals). I remember the same feelings from riding regularly through other big cities in my past, especially at night. (And one of the many reasons I so love cycling is because of how it both enables the evocation of such powerful and beautiful feelings and then provides the conditions to dwell in those feelings. But then, once I’m off the bike, they tend to evaporate – they belong to the bike.)

Third, and this I think is mainly why Copenhagen cycling felt funereal to me, in my ordinary, everyday experience it’s rare for so many people to be in such close proximity to one another and yet produce so little sound. I can think of only two similar situations: ‘pedestrianised’ town and city centres, but in such places people are often walking together, and so there’s a hubbub generated from the sound of voices; and Critical Mass, which we consciously and temporarily construct as a car-free space and where, funnily enough, I’m also often unsettled by the silence, and sometimes find myself making noise just to break it. In contrast to both ‘pedestrianised’ urban space and Critical Mass, Copenhagen’s cyclists proceed by and large in solitary fashion – they are strangers to one another, strangers who do not speak. So there are all these moving bodies, so many people going to so many different places – in silence. A truly weird and wonderful experience, and one which I guess will become more wonderful as it becomes less weird?

I’d be interested to know how Copenhagen cyclists understand and experience their sonic cycling environment. Of course there will be considerable diversity, but in general are Copenhagen cyclists proud of and/or otherwise attached to the collective silence which they together produce? Is that one of the reasons for the absence of bell ringing? From my very brief observations, people seemed not on the whole to be listening to music as they pedalled. Could that be another reason for the belllessness (I just made that word up I think, to see how it looked – you must forgive me, I’m a sociologist ;-))? If everyone’s paying attention, not pedalling to other rhythms but dwelling in the here/now, then the loud and jarring intervention of a bell is perhaps less necessary.

But my main hypothesis is this – bicycle bell-ringing thrives in conditions of unpredictability. A bell is a warning, an announcement of your presence. Britain likes bell-ringing cyclists because we’re not expected to be there; we’re an aberration; out-of-place. We must make ourselves known because if not we’ll make people jump – “I didn’t expect you there”.

Copenhagen’s cycling silence is a collective triumph, for a certain sort of cycling – predictable, ordered, separated cycling. In these conditions, to ring your bell is to suggest otherwise, to question and sabotage the correct etiquette of the Copenhagen city cyclist. Remaining quiet means you do what’s expected, and doing what’s expected means you remain quiet.

Silence is a mode of governance. It forces you to do only the expected, to know your place, and to stay there.

Ringing your bell would announce you as a rebel with a different cause.

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4 Responses to “Copenhagen’s cycling silence – a hypothesis”

  1. sheffield cycle chic Says:

    The eerie silence you describe can be experienced in British cities too – but only when there is heavy snowfall. Suddenly the streetscape is transformed and instead of the constant stream of cars, a small trickle of people on foot walk down the centre of the road. Odd conversations drift through the air. In this world the car is truly an intruder and the noise of the occasional 4×4 seems incongruous.

  2. Mikael Says:

    Interesting read and observation. Although I hear at least one bell a day – often more if I’m cycling around more often. My issue is with the style of bell here. It’s mostly the ones that emit a sharp, rude DING! In fact, I think we should start a campaign to ban them, forcing people to buy pleasant bells that say dring dring…

    But it is quiet, yes. Now that you mention it. Which is wonderful. I gave a keynote last year about bicycle anthropology and what having such high levels of cyclists gives to the fabric of the urban landscape.

    you’re elbow to elbow with your fellow citizens, even if you’re not noticing them or talking to them. You smell shampoo, perfume. You hear squeaky bicycles, people talking to each other or on their phone.

    In my Cycling’s Five Senses series I sum up this sensory experience.

    And to gain a sense of how quiet it is in the morning rush hour, regard the last shot in the City of Cyclists video I made for the City of Copenhagen. The silhouette shot at the very end. In the rush hour, on the world’s busiest bicycle street, Nørrebrogade, you can hear birdsong and squeaky bicycles. It amazed me so much I kept the sound in when editing.

  3. Mikael Says:

    You may have seen this bicycle bell film from Japan before…

  4. Sarah McC Says:

    I first noticed the immense presence and usefulness of bells while riding in Toronto. There was a clear culture of bell-ringing complete with rules on when you ring and how other riders and drivers should respond. When you pass a parked car with a passenger, ring your bell. When you are about to pass another rider, ring your bell. Everyone seemed to expect the ring and responded in a safe and nonchalant manner. This was different than how I experience bells in Davis. While people do ding sometimes, it always evinces looks, and can produce unpredictable reactions in pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.

    Another bell story: I was riding with one of the earliest mountain bikers, who has a bell attached to his trail bike. He always rings when he sees someone rather than calling out, since he likes the neutrality of the bell. There is no gender or tone inflected as there is in the spoken word, and less room for misunderstanding. I should mention he had a rather friendly bell. I found this really interesting given the tense politics of trail riding in Marin county where he rides.

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