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Spin cycle: Copenhagen’s rise, fall, and rise again to cycling supremacy

Here comes everybody: Rush hour in Copenhagen
Copenhagenize Design Company
Here comes everybody: Rush hour in Copenhagen.

This is part 2 of a short series about bicycles in Copenhagen. Read parts 1 and 3.

As an American on my first visit to Copenhagen a few weeks back, I was whopperjawed by the bicycle traffic on the “bike tracks” that swallow up a lane on each side of many city streets there.

Particularly mind-blowing was the cavalcade of bicyclists that charged across a certain bridge just a few hundred feet from my hotel -- a bridge that, I later learned from city officials, probably sees more bike traffic than any other in the world. Queen Louise’s Bridge (Dronning Louises Bro to the Danes) carries over 40,000 bicycles each day. For perspective, that’s more than twice as many people as bike to school or work each day in the entire city of Portland, Ore., which is roughly the same size as Copenhagen.

Standing on Queen Louise’s Bridge at rush hour, you watch the crush of bike-riding humanity riding past. The riders queue up at the stoplights at either end of the bridge, and woe be to the pedestrian (or driver, for that matter) who gets in their way when that thing turns green. It's such a spectacle that, since the city widened the bike tracks and sidewalks about five years ago, the bridge has become a popular hangout and people-watching spot for young Copenhageners. Some have taken to calling it the "hipster bridge."

A summer evening on the "hipster bridge," which carries 40,000 bikes each day.
Greg Hanscom
A summer evening on the "hipster bridge," which carries 40,000 bikes each day.

More than a third of the residents of the Copenhagen metro area -- 36 percent, by the city’s count -- bike to school or work each day. That blows away any city in the U.S.: In Portland, top among U.S. cities, only 6 percent of commuters go by bike. And a whopping 75 percent of Copenhagen cyclists ride year-round, despite the fact that the weather in this city, which is at roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, was described by almost every local I spoke to as flat-out “shitty” (imagine Seattle, only darker in winter).

Copenhageners are proud of their biking habits. “It’s like brushing your teeth -- it’s something everyone does,” says Marie Brøndom Bay, a representative of the city’s bicycling division. But those numbers have been hard-won. And to Brøndom Bay and other city officials charged with minimizing car traffic and air pollution, and promoting public health, even a third of the populace on bikes is not nearly enough.

Read more: Cities, Living

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An American in Denmark: Close encounters with European bicycle culture

copenhagen-bikes
Mariano Mantel

This is part 1 of a short series about bicycles in Copenhagen. Read parts 2 and 3.

The first thing that struck me, climbing the steps from the train station into the city of Copenhagen on a recent Wednesday morning, was the great abundance of bicycles. The street outside the train station had been converted into a chaotic, open-air bicycle parking lot, with bikes stacked on double-decker racks. Bikes lined every sidewalk, stood two- and three-deep against the old stucco and brick facades, and leaned against every lamp and signpost.

The second thing that very nearly struck me was someone riding a bike. I was crossing a square en route to my hotel, lugging my bags, when I heard, behind me, the jolly “jing, jing!” of a bike bell. Back home in Seattle, bike bells are quaint -- a pleasant way to give fellow bikers and pedestrians a gentle “heads up -- coming through.” Not so much in Copenhagen.

As the cyclist swerved around me he muttered something about a “bike track.” A second bell rang behind me and I realized, suddenly, that I was walking in a bike path that cut through the square. I shuffled as quickly as I could out of the way, realizing that here, a bike bell should be taken as seriously as a car horn.

copenhagen-couple
Nikita Gavrilovs

Such was my introduction to Danish bike culture. I was in Copenhagen for four days with a group of travel bloggers, the trip paid for by Denmark’s tourism bureau, which is trying to promote Copenhagen as a destination for bike tourism. (I generally avoid such junkets. They make me feel dirty. But this one seemed too good to pass up, and with a little arm-twisting, my editor consented to let me go.)

I wasn’t the first bleary-eyed American to nearly get mowed down by a bicyclist upon arriving in one of Europe’s bike capitals. Pete Jordan describes a similar experience in the opening chapter of his book, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist. Nor was I the first American to be blown away, befuddled, or generally wowed by the number of people who ride bikes in these cities. Jordan (you may know him as Dishwasher Pete) reveals that we Yanks have been ogling European bike culture (and the toned legs of European bicyclists) for 100 years or more.

But there’s no shame in that. The ogling is good here! In a jetlag-induced haze, I spent my first day in Copenhagen wandering the streets, swilling espresso at sidewalk cafes, and checking out the bikes and the people who rode them. I learned a few things in the process.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Welcome to the urban jungle: Nature in cities is Grist’s July theme

UrbanJungle

We humans are choosy about the company we keep, particularly when it comes to animals. We'll share our homes with dogs and cats and guppies and gerbils -- and occasionally make space in the backyard for a chicken or two. But the rest of the Animal Kingdom belongs Out There, in Nature.

Nature has a habit of jumping fences, however. Take the wild black bear that recently broke into the Knoxville, Tenn., zoo, or the hordes of kombucha-sipping raccoons that are invading some corners of Brooklyn. Our attempts to draw hard lines around our habitat inevitably fail, or succeed only briefly. Proof: Even Superstorm Sandy couldn't chase the rats out of the NYC subways.

In fact, there's a movement afoot to make more room for the wild and wooly in our increasingly urban world. Conservation groups are turning toward cities as a new frontier, and academics and educators argue that connecting people -- kids in particular -- to the natural world right where they live can not only instill a desire to protect big-N Nature, but make them happier and healthier as well.

That's why we decided to dedicate the month of July to exploring the "urban jungle." The messy thing that we like to call civilization is actually more like a coral reef, crawling with nocturnal and avian invaders who make a pretty good living on our scraps and in our architectural nooks and crannies. Those creatures, and natural spaces like parks, can have a profound influence on our lives and our urban culture, too.

Read more: Cities, Living

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“Catastrophic failure”: Adventures in car sharing, part 2

Sharing was supposed to make me feel better. Instead it made me feel like this.
Shutterstock
Sharing was supposed to make me feel good. Instead it made me feel like this.

The air-conditioning compressor: Sounds harmless enough -- another of those little metal widgets bolted under the hood of your car. But under the right circumstances, it can be a killer. I know. It offed my car-sharing experiment.

If you’re just joining us, last winter, my wife and I decided to rent out one of our cars as a way to cover some of the costs of owning it -- a decision I wrote about in the first story in this series. We listed the car through RelayRides, one of several new companies that facilitate this sort of “peer-to-peer” car rental.

Our first transaction went smoothly. John, the guy who rented the car, brought it back right on time, gas tank full, and not obviously any worse for the wear. He’d had it for two weeks, and put 500 or so miles on it, and we had a cool $246 to show for it. (John had paid more than that, but RelayRides takes 25 percent off the top to cover insurance and other expenses, plus a handy profit, I’m sure.)

It was a decent start, but it wasn’t even a third of what we’d spent to prep the car for renting ($775 on a full tuneup and deep clean). It would take a lot more renting before we covered our start-up costs and started to chip away at the $860 a year we pay to keep the car registered and insured. Our dream of making enough to buy a cargo bike seemed a long way off.

I started to look a little closer at our P&L.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Share-brained idea: Adventures in car sharing, part 1

Shutterstock I’ll say this about “sharing” my car: It seemed like a good idea at the time. My wife, Tara, and I own two cars. One is a little fuel-efficient city car, a Honda Fit, that’s good for 95 percent of what we need a car for: shuttling the kids to and from school, running out for groceries, weekend trips to the islands or woods. Bikes and buses have their place, but we use the Honda just about every day. Our second car, a Subaru Forester, takes care of the other 5 percent of our automotive needs: bombing through snow …

Read more: Cities, Living

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Nature’s CEO: Mark Tercek says conservation is good for business

mark-tercek-700x450
Dave Lauridsen

Mark Tercek leads the largest conservation group in the galaxy. As president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, he oversees a staff of 4,000 people spread around the planet, an annual budget exceeding a half-billion dollars, and land holdings that would fetch billions more if they weren't all locked up for the sake of protecting wild animals. Still, the former Goldman Sachs exec insists that he’s a small-time player in a world where large corporations rule and nature lovers get what they can.

In his recent book, Nature’s Fortune, co-authored by Jonathan Adams, Tercek argues that nature deserves a bigger slice of the pie. He's not looking for handouts (though his organization, like Grist, depends on the generosity of good people like you). Instead, he argues that conservation is good for business -- a message he says is catching on, particularly among corporations and cities.

Witness New York. In the 1990s, faced with the prospect of building a multi-billion-dollar water treatment system, the city instead invested in protecting its watershed in the Catskills, partnering with communities, landowners, and farmers to prevent pollution, rather than paying to clean it up after the fact. As a result, the Big Apple gets clean drinking water at a fraction of what it would cost to build water treatment plants, and the Catskills get an infusion of green -- trees, yes, but also cash. (Tercek and Adams tell that story in the book, in a section that we’ve reprinted here.) The Nature Conservancy is now helping to spread that model to cities all over the world.

Tercek dropped by Grist HQ a few weeks ago for some vegan vittles and a chat with the whole staff. Here are a few of our questions, and snippets of his answers, about how his organization is changing with the times, the challenge of getting city people to care about conservation, and his dealings with the big businesses that make even the Nature Conservancy look small.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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As the climate warms, skiers can kiss their Aspen goodbye

Chipper up, shredders, there's always pond skimming...
TenSafeFrogs
Chipper up, shredders, there's always pond skimming ...

Ask any pack of bona fide shredders about their exploits on the slopes last winter, and they're apt respond, "Winter? What winter?"

The winter of 2011-12 was one of the warmest, driest winters on record in North America. The skiing and snowboarding was so bad -- and the weather in coastal cities so mild -- that many avid powder hounds just sat it out.

I wrote about the devastating season for the latest issue of High Country News. The story is based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., home to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Southern California’s beloved snow sports Shangri-La:

After early storms that got the lifts running in time for the Thanksgiving 2011 rush, Mammoth was socked with a merciless dry spell. Nary a flake fell between Dec. 1 and the end of January. Just over the usually snowbound Tioga Pass, people were ice-skating on the snow-free surface of Yosemite National Park's Tenaya Lake -- for the first time since 1930, old-timers said.

Mammoth Mountain's notorious winds, meanwhile, scattered volcanic pumice across the ski runs. "There were a couple of days when you just said, 'Wow, that was the worst skiing I have ever experienced,' " says Craig Albright, managing director of the resort's ski and snowboard school.

At the end of February, the ski area laid off 77 employees, almost a quarter of its full-time staff. Locals called it Black Wednesday. And as the ski resort went, so went the town, where lodging and sales taxes are the bread and butter. On July 3, battered by the hard winter and hobbled by a string of bad decisions stretching back over more than a decade, Mammoth Lakes declared bankruptcy.

When I visited in December, the community was picking itself up and dusting itself off. This winter has been better for the town and the ski resort. But the story offers a look at what climate change has in store for ski towns -- and some of our beloved winter pastimes.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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NYT, WaPo cut back environment coverage, since we’re not worried about that anymore

The Green Blog
Shutterstock

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.

All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.

The Times decision in particular has people's heads spinning. Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review called the paper’s recent pledge to continue its robust environment coverage “an outright lie.” Paul Raeburn captured the sentiment in a post on the Knight science journalism blog Tracker: “The editors of the Times have perhaps forgotten that they work on an island, and that the entrance to their building is not too far above sea level -- current sea level, that is.” Slate served up a sampling of “the 65-odd other Times blogs that did not get the axe,” which include The Carpetbagger, about awards shows, The Rail, on horse racing, and six blogs on style, fashion, and leisure.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Can Sally Jewell sell Obama on the value of the great outdoors?

sally_jewell
REI

Last week, President Obama nominated Sally Jewell, CEO of the outdoor gear giant REI, to head the Interior Department -- the branch of government that manages national parks, monuments, and rangelands spanning from Ellis Island to Yosemite, and is currently overseeing an epic oil and gas drilling spree. Environmental groups are tripping over themselves to praise the president for his impeccable taste.

"In Jewell, President Obama chose a leader with a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune gushed in a statement. Mike Daulton with the National Audubon Society called her “a strong leader who understands that protecting our natural world goes hand in hand with a strong American economy.” Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, beamed that “she knows how important fishing, boating, and hiking and the great outdoors are to our families, to our future, and to our heritage as Americans.”

You get the picture. Why do the greenies love her so much? For starters, she’s a card-carrying conservationist with a long record of working to protect the wild places where she and her customers like to play. But there’s another reason Sally Jewell is the darling of Big Green groups: Her industry has given conservation cachet in Washington that it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1970s.

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The secret to the sharing economy: ‘You don’t want the drill — you want the hole’

drilled-hole
Shutterstock

Neal Gorenflo had his come-to-Jesus moment with the sharing economy in a parking lot in Brussels.

It was June of 2004, and Gorenflo was well on his way to becoming a bona fide suit. He had worked in the telecommunications business and for an investment bank. Now he was on a strategy team for the global shipping company DHL, up for a promotion, and on a business trip in Belgium -- and he just couldn’t live with himself.

“On the surface everything looked great,” Gorenflo says. “But I felt disconnected from my community and my potential and my loved ones. I went for a jog outside my hotel. I projected myself into the future and I saw a mountain of regret. I stopped in the parking lot of this industrial warehouse and I started to cry.”

That was the breaking point, Gorenflo says. He ran back to his hotel room, resigned from his job on the spot, and vowed to “make a world where people felt like they were part of something meaningful.” He didn’t call it the sharing economy then, but it turns out that’s what he was after, and with a little work, he found it.

Neal Gorenflo.
Neal Gorenflo.

Fast forward almost nine years and Gorenflo is founder and publisher of Shareable, a website dedicated to promoting the sharing economy in all its forms, from car sharing to tool lending libraries and even pet sharing. Shareable is a one-stop shop for everything from the scoop on Jellyweek (sorry, you missed it) to a guide to sharing your wi-fi without sacrificing privacy or bandwidth -- and it is, itself, the product of a whole lot of sharing.

I spoke with Gorenflo for Grist’s series on the sharing economy.

Q. What did you do after you quit corporate America in 2004?