America by Design in Denmark: Bringing the best of Danish bike culture to the US
More than 30 years ago, the city of Copenhagen implemented a pedestrian initiative, which was highly controversial at the time. Today, the pedestrian sites and bike paths have scaled and fostered a biking culture which has become an integrated part of most Danes’ lifestyle. In fact, biking accounts for a quarter of all personal transport in Denmark for distances of less than five kilometres.
New York City is currently undergoing a similar transition; rethinking its traffic flow within the city centre. The approach has been controversial as parts of main arterials such as Broadway have been closed off in order to create pedestrian and recreational spaces. Car lanes have been narrowed to add bike lanes, and Citi Bikes have been installed all around the city.
Cities are constantly in flux with new demands and needs of its population. With diverse traffic needs in mind, what will the future hold for New York City?
The Design Store of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has just launched Danish e-bike brand Biomega. The bike is as much a modern work of sculpture as it is a no emissions solution for urban commuters having a pleasurable, airy ride to work. Biomega is aiming to bring the best from Danish bike culture to the US with their mantra: “Your next car is a bike”. Denmark in New York caught up with Jens Martin Skibsted, founder of Biomega to share his perspective on design, urban living, and city planning.
Denmark in New York: The Biomega Bikes represent a modern and artful design that is new to the American market as far as urban commuter bikes go. What was your design philosophy behind these bikes?
Jens Martin Skibsted (JMS): Consumers have an increasing number of urban transport products at their disposal and they are being target by many different competing narratives of their context, use and identity. This creates a kind of “white noise” that consumers find difficult to navigate in. Iconic products, however, make it easier for the consumer to make informed purchasing choices. And that means bicycles need great design to cut through the cacophonic noise and marketing muscles of e.g. the car industry. The bottom line is that products with extended lifecycles are more sustainable, and classic design products support this because their owners tend to service and repair them in order to extend their lifecycle. In a world demanding more sustainable practice the iconic product makes sense, particularly the iconic bicycle in my opinion.
With a vision of cities with zero emissions, the Biomega e-bike endeavours to compete with cars. How have you seen that adoption of bike use in urban places improve the quality of life?
JMS: Bikes are the solution to city centre traffic today: pollution-less, noiseless, fast and cheap. When it comes to urban mobility, it is important to have a range of environmentally attuned transportation choices working in harmony with the bike culture so that there is adequate transport provision for all types of journeys, long and short. Biking is crucial because, like walking, it offers a space which is efficient, quick and simple to cover first and last miles of any journey, which cannot be provided by cars or public transport.
Our aim is to push more people to use bikes as a means of transportation by creating cool and functional bikes and thus making our cities cleaner, happier, healthier, and safer places. There are huge environmental gains of getting people to switch from cars to bikes.
In the 1980’s Copenhagen underwent a pedestrian infrastructure initiative that was, at the time, controversial. Now, it seems all Danes enjoy this aspect of life in the city. New York City is moving towards similar initiatives. How do you see NYC taking on this massive project?
JMS: It is important to note that Copenhagen at some point was car centric but then changed to become a bicycle city. Economically that has enriched the city — not just by being healthier, more beautiful, safer, quieter, cleaner etc., but in terms of commerce and stores of all sizes. The number of potential customers you can have on a street without cars is just way higher.
Copenhagen is small and dense, but today cities of a greater size can easily cover longer distances with electrical bikes and they are becoming relevant globally. NYC has in some parts already been transformed and is taking steps towards becoming a real bike centric city. Danish architect Jan Gehl has been advising the city in terms of bike lane deployment. That has to continue. The next big step will be to make the bike culture multi-faceted and diverse, and to make it flourish. We cannot all be “hard-core cyclists” — we need bikes for all sorts of purposes and subcultures. In the same way that cars with the same functionality cater to different lifestyles so should bikes.
What are the key elements in your approaches to design?
JMS: My entire design philosophy might be a bit long to explain. The short version would be to create some kind of concept that changes or widens an existing product typology in a matter where the idea can live and perpetuate by itself. With Biomega I tried to create new types of high-end, design led urban bikes by utilizing some principles that would allow bicycles to compete with cars. This was achieved by making bikes simpler and easier to use, e.g. no combination gears, adjustable suspension and so on. Secondly, we made them visible and distinguishable — both in terms of safety and aesthetics e.g. nightglow bikes. Additionally, they are made to be durable and sturdy enough for city use. Lastly, my goal was to integrate them — i.e. making something that looks and works as one holistic object and avoid making the industry standard jigsaw puzzle of parts.
Biomega e-bikes have made a sculptural piece of art for daily practical life. How else can design create artful experiences that improve quality of life in big cities?
JMS: I think you can find the beauty in everything — incl. transportation. The HighLine is an example of celebrating pedestrians in NYC. But busses suffer from a bad public perception in the US — as a means of transport you mainly use if you cannot afford an alternative. Busses too are needed and they can become signature icons of a city too. Take the Routesmaster, the red double decker bus in London. When they were taken out of service, there was a public outcry and they were then reinstated. They were redesigned by Thomas Heatherwich — a star designer. They are an intrinsic part of what London is. That could happen in NYC too. Design can be ubiquitous.
To learn more of the story, be sure to watch America By Design, July 17th at 7PM (EST) on ABC, NBC and CBS in most major cities. In August the show series will be available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Garette Johnson is the Commercial Advisor-Design at Denmark In New York
Katrine Nørholm Jensen is the Strategic Communications and Press intern at Denmark In New York