I was asked in an interview recently what the best cities for Cycle Chic are and it was a good question. I figured I'd whip up a Top 5 List of the Cycle Chic'est Cities on the planet. I limited the list to larger metropolises. Being a Cycle Chic Metropolis requires, basically, two elements. A high fashion bar among the population and... bicycles. It requires that a city has a developed bicycle culture, meaning that the bicycle is an important and respected transport option that is used by regular citizens. Citizens who don't identify themselves as being 'cyclists' or members of a sub-culture but who merely use a bicycle to get around. In many ways, Cycle Chic is synonomous with Mainstraim Bicycle Culture.
1. COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
This probably doesn't surprise you, but we're going with Copenhagen at #1. The reason, apart from the fact that bicycles are an integral part of life in the world's cycling capital, is that the fashion bar is frightfully high in Copenhagen.
Copenhageners are simply an incredibly well-dressed bunch. You'll see well-dressed people in every city but in the Danish capital style and textile æsthetics are a fabric extension of the Danish design tradition. If we measure the procentage of a city's population who are well-dressed, Copenhagen is way ahead.
Whatever they're wearing, Copenhageners just hop onto bicycles to get around. Crappy, squeaky bicycles, fancy bicycles, cargo bikes, whatever. The city gets extra bonus points for the rather recent development of investing in cooler bicycles. For over a century bicycles were black and heavy. With the economic boom of the last decade, bicycles were all of a sudden available in all sorts of colours and styles. Now Copenhageners can accessorize with their bicycles.
Chic. Cycles. Cycle Chic.
2. TOKYO, JAPAN
At #2, Tokyo. Fashion capital of the planet. Sure, we look to the catwalks of Milano and Paris to see what's coming, but it is in Tokyo that the clothes make an impact. Even the greeters who bow at customers inside the doors of department stores are wearing ensembles worth more than annual salary.
As far as bicycles go, Japan is third only to Denmark and Holland regarding mainstream bicycle culture. Bicycles abound in this major car-producing nation. You'll see more bicycles in the racks around Shibuya Station on any day of the week than you'll see on the streets of New York and London combined in the course of a year.
In the 'Well-Dressed Sweepstakes' Tokyo nudges ahead of Copenhagen but loses points on the bicycle front. There is less separated infrastructure for bikes than in Copenhagen and, say, Osaka or Kyoto. Cyclists often ride on the sidewalks, which is great for Style over Speed, but the city would be that much more Cycle Chic friendly with bike lane catwalks for the impeccably-dressed citizens.
3. AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
To be completely honest, it's a tight race in the top three. Amsterdam breathes down Tokyo and Copenhagen's neck on the Cycle Chic Cities list. The bicycle is king in Amsterdam, no doubt about that. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the Romulus and Remus of modern bicycle culture.
One thing that always strikes us about Amsterdammers is their fantastic individual style. They are so cool, unique and relaxed, with a high level of 'urban funk' in their style.
We find the Amsterdam affection for clunky old bicycles to be fantastically charming. They compliment their non-chalant attitude brilliantly.
4. PARIS, FRANCE
Basically, if you don't include Paris on any list that has anything to do with fashion or style, they send a stiletto clad task force after you to blow cigarette smoke in your face and to shrug in your general direction.
Fortunately, including Paris at #4 wasn't a difficult choice. Ever since the Vélib bike share programme showed up in the city, the French capital has been under a constant and brilliant transformation to a much more liveable city. Here's a previous Cycle Chic article about the Vélib system's influence on the city.
Since Vélib started, 2 million private bicycles have been sold in the city and it shows. So... the city is virtually bicycle-friendly, which certainly counts on the Cycle Chic scale. Fashion-wise... well... it's Paris. The fashion bar is high and the people who are using the Vélib bicycles and private bicycles are people who you would otherwise ride the Metro with. Impeccably-dressed gents and fabulously-fab fashionistas.
If the city keeps up it's push for a more bicycle-friendly future, you'll see Paris muscling it's way up this list.
5. LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
We had to think about #5 for a while, but London ended up rolling away with the honours. Cycling is up and coming in the city and there are a lot of positive players promoting it. Much of our decision for the #5 spot is based on a two-day photo gig in the city back in June last year. Sitting outside Lock 7 Café in Hackney and watching the morning bicycle traffic roll past was like sitting in Copenhagen or Amsterdam. It blew us away.
Sure, most are fairweather cyclists and sure, there is a lot of lycra about, but hey... it's London, innit. Global city and all that. Fashion centre supreme. "Get on with it, mate" attitude. If there's one global city that has the potential to follow in Paris' footsteps, it's London. From the Swinging Sixties to the Two-Wheeled Teens.
Waiting in the Wings
So who's coming up fast from behind? What cities are - hopefully - soon reaching a level of mainstream urban cycling and therewith glorious Cycle Chicaliciousness? Three come to mind right off the bat.
There is a great deal of effort being made in Toronto to push cycling over into the mainstream realm and already the streets are graced with chic cyclists of both sexes.
With the success of the BIXI bikes share system Montreal is following in the footsteps of many French cities by bringing cycling as transport back to the people.
If there is an American city that has the will and the style to reach the heights of Cycle Chic, it's San Francisco. It's where I left my heart.