What would you call a person that quits a job for a five-month cycling across Europe adventure from Greece to Portugal? Brave, fun, adventurous? This is how we would describe mission-driven Sidsel Birk Hjuler who did just that. With an immense desire to contribute to the green transition and to raise awareness of the importance of good infrastructure, she has already produced great results. For example, as the Head of Office for Cycle Superhighways in Copenhagen´s Capital Region, Sidsel and her team saw an increase in cycling commuters, who ditched their cars for over 160 km of high-quality cycle paths. We know that sometimes bringing municipalities and various stakeholders together can be a difficult task. But, Sidsel has shown that it can be done.
You just finished your journey from Athens to Lisbon – by bike. Where did the idea come from and how did you manage 4.000 km of cycling across Europe?
I’m very conscious about how short life is and how even ‘the good life’ can turn weary if you don’t dare to do things differently every once in a while. Hence, my love and I have agreed not to let our adventure dreams wait until retirement. And one of our dreams was to go for a very long trip by bike.
Cycling is slow enough to truly experience your surroundings with all your senses and fast enough to cover several countries, and we wanted to get to know our ‘own neighborhood’ – Europe – better. We’ve been dreaming about several routes: eg. from Denmark to the North Cape or south to Sicily. Timing ended up being the decisive matter. We were not able to start our adventure before September. And riding into the winter months, the Mediterranean EuroVelo route became an obvious choice.
Cycling is normal to us. We bike to work every day. However, we have never been on such long trips, and we have never cycled in mountains either. It sure was tough, but even more amazing and beautiful. Many other bicycle tourers ride longer and faster than we did. We took our time and stayed in cities for several days. To us the goal was not to cycle a certain number of kilometers but to enjoy ourselves.
What destinations during this adventure are in your fond memories and why?
Oh, that’s a tough question! All destinations were incredible in their own way. So, I think I would rather like to highlight three ‘experiences’ that made a big impression:
• The mesmerizing nature of the Balkans! In Denmark, less than two percent of the land is wild nature. In the Balkans, luckily, there is a lot more. It became very clear to us how precious it is and how important it is to preserve it – for the sake of all human and non-human beings in this world. It so obvious and yet so easy to forget.
• The Spanish temper in traffic! Most Spanish cities have a general speed limit of 30km/h which makes the street life more socially inclusive. It instantly makes it more walkable and bikeable, and it makes it easier to have playgrounds and parks close to the street because traffic is less dangerous. Kids, elderly, or disabled people can move around more independently since the risks are much lower. Also outside of the cities, car and truckdrivers never passed us unless they were sure to keep a 1,5-meter distance. This ‘considerate’ traffic behavior left an enormous impression on us.
• Abandoned railways revitalized as recreational bike and foot paths! Especially in southern France we rode on many revitalized old railway lines, and it was amazing! They offer you direct access to ‘remote’ nature, clean air, and a silent calmness unpolluted by motorized traffic, while also offering reasonable in- and declines for bicycle tourers with heavy luggage and leading you comfortably from city to city. A great nature experience never too far away from the next accommodation, café, or supermarket.
On our Instagram profile The_Exploration_Date you can find pictures and more specific details about the different places we visited. And if you are planning a trip like this yourself, I can highly recommend to follow other bicycle tourers on Instagram or check out the EuroVelo website. We got so much valuable knowledge just by following others through hashtags like #EuroVelo8 #bikepacking #biketouring etc.
As a Head of office of Cycle Superhighways you did a really great job and the plan is to connect over 60 routes, 31 municipalities and over 850 km of cycling paths. Where does that story begin?
In 2007, the City Copenhagen set a goal that 50% of all commuters in Copenhagen should go by bike. However, looking closer at how the city was to reach that goal it became clear that the important target groups weren’t so much the Copenhageners living and working in the city – the majority already cycled. It was rather the people working in Copenhagen but living outside of the city or vice versa who were less inclined to choose the bicycle.
Copenhagen has over the years become a great cycling city because it has invested in good bicycle infrastructure, but if the city was to get more people to cross the city limits by bike, it couldn’t make that change on its own. It would have to get the neighboring municipalities to join in and collaborate on making good bicycle routes in and out of the city. And that’s how the collaboration was initiated. Over the last decade, the Cycle Superhighway Collaboration has grown, and now it’s not just focused on making high quality routes leading in and out of Copenhagen but connecting cities across the whole Capital Region.
What are the current results of the project?
When a route is made it will be assessed quite thoroughly both before and after completion. On the 10 routes that have been assessed so far there’s been an average increase in bicycle traffic of 38% the year after opening. The routes are being monitored year after year, and it reveals that the increase doesn’t stop after year one – it continues to increase. The number of bicycle commuters counted on the routes before they were upgraded to Cycle Superhighways compared to the latest official numbers from the count in 2021 shows a staggering 75% increase on average in bicycle commuters.
Is it possible to make such a project in other European countries since the latest EU strategies are focused on green transition and sustainable development?
Absolutely! And it’s already happening. Cycling has become a key component in sustainable city planning. And more and more cities are realizing that their success also depends on good regional mobility planning. This calls for a stronger strategical collaboration between municipalities, regions, and provinces. That’s not easy, but it is possible, and you see it beginning to happen in metropolitan areas of Paris, Hamburg, Barcelona, Brussels, Stockholm and many more.
As we speak, the EU Parliament is about to vote on a resolution on developing an EU cycling strategy. The resolution calls for doubling the number of kilometers cycled in Europe by 2030 and a significant increase in support for cycling across Europe. So, the shift towards more cycle friendly cities, regions and countries is happening. The question is, are all the stakeholders ready? Many local politicians are afraid of changing the road space distribution, in academia active travel is still underrepresented in traffic research, and many traffic planners are not experienced in taking cycling into account in the street designs and master plans. There’s a strong need for a rapid capacity building in the public sector, the private sector, and in academia to accommodate the transformation towards more sustainable and healthier cities and regions where active mobility will become the primary mode of transport.
What are your next plans?
Good question that even I don’t know yet. I quit my amazing job when we went on the bike ride and in the moment, I’m figuring out what I should put my energy into next. However, don’t be surprised if it has something to do with cycling 😉