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.