COPENHAGEN – Cycling through the heart of some European cities can be a terrifying experience as you jostle for space with cars, trucks and scooters that whizz by with only inches to spare.
Thankfully for bicycle enthusiasts, a movement is afoot to create more room for cycling in the urban infrastructure.
From London's "cycle superhighways" to popular bike-sharing programs in Paris and Barcelona, growing numbers of European cities are embracing cycling as a safe, clean, healthy, inexpensive and even trendy way to get around town.
Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and the Danish capital, Copenhagen, are the pioneers of this movement, and serve as role models for other cities considering cycling's potential to reduce congestion and pollution, while contributing to public health.
The trend is catching on also outside Europe, says John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University in New Jersey and co-author of a new book titled "City Cycling." Pucher says urban cycling is on the rise across the industrialized world, though Europe is still ahead of the pack.
"Americans make only 1 percent of their trips by bike compared to 26 percent in the Netherlands, 18 percent in Denmark, and 8-10 percent in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and Finland," Pucher told The Associated Press, citing official statistics.
But you don't need statistics to realize that cycling is in vogue. From airbag helmets to e-bikes, here are some the ways the bicycle renaissance has hit the streets of Europe:
They're not anything as spectacular as multiple-lane expressways for cyclists, but city planners believe they're central to the bicycle revolution: They combine bike paths with bike lanes on regular streets to give pedaling commuters a smooth ride from the suburbs to the city center.
London opened four "cycle superhighways" in 2010, which basically amount to a blue lane for cyclists on the edge of city streets. Copenhagen's approach is more ambitious, seeking to keep bicycles and motor vehicles physically separated as much as possible. The Danish capital plans 26 such routes — the first of which opened this year — building on bicycle-friendly features that have been in place for years.
Stop lights are adjusted to the rhythm of bicycles, not cars. Intersections have foot rests and hand rails so that cyclists don't need to put their foot down when they stop. The route is lined with air pump stations and trash cans that are tilted for easy access from the saddle.
"A cycle highway is where cyclists get highest priority, with few obstacles and as few stops as possible," said Marie Kaastrup, a Copenhagen city official in charge of bicycle programs.
Bike sharing, or "city bike," services that offer bicycles for short trips in the downtown area have come a long way since the first large-scale program started in Copenhagen in 1995. That concept was simple: deposit a coin to release a bicycle from any of a number of bike racks across the city — like unlocking a shopping cart at the supermarket — and get your coin back when you return the bike (not necessarily to the same rack).
Less than two decades later, scores of bike-sharing programs have been launched in Europe and beyond. The most recent ones are high-tech, with customers using smart cards or even mobile phones to unlock bikes from docking stations. A milestone was reached when Paris introduced its "Velib" program in 2007, showing that bike sharing works also in a major metropolis. With more than 20,000 bikes it's the biggest system in Europe.
London's bike-sharing system has registered more than 17 million bicycle hires since it started two years ago.
"In places where cycling wasn't a big part of transport — like Paris or London — it's been a real game-changer. It's normalized cycling," said Julian Ferguson, a spokesman for the European Cyclists' Federation.
U.S. cities including Washington D.C., Minneapolis, San Francisco and Boston now have bike-sharing programs. A system with 10,000 bicycles that was supposed to open in New York this year has been delayed and is expected to launch in 2013. But the fastest growth is happening in Asia where some of the world's biggest bike-sharing programs have been introduced. The Chinese city of Hangzhou has a system with 60,000 bicycles.
Ironically, Copenhagen's pioneering city bike system was scrapped Wednesday after city officials decided to redistribute funds to other cycling initiatives.
So you've cycled to town. Now where do you park? Europeans are creative in this respect, chaining their bikes to lamp posts, street signs and drainpipes, or just parking them in random clusters on street corners. But theft is a major concern.
To create order, some cities have built ambitious parking lots for bicycles, typically close to major transit hubs like train stations. Amsterdam has come up with some of the most eye-catching solutions, including a high-tech rack that works a bit like a jukebox. You put your bike in the rack, and it revolves underground. When you want it back, it rotates yours back to the surface. It doesn't seem to be a big hit among Amsterdam's cyclists, though. It only has space for 50 bikes and access is often blocked by bicycles parked in front of it.
For people living far from the city center, getting to work by bicycle alone may not be time efficient. That's why many European countries encourage mixed-mode commuting, allowing cyclists to bring their bicycles onto trains or subway cars.
Austria's next generation of high-speed train, expected to arrive in 2013, will have a bicycle compartment for six bikes per train car.
In the Netherlands, you can use the same smart chip card you use to catch a train or tram to get a bike from a sharing system and cycle the last part of the journey.
Today cycling in Europe is embraced by people of all social classes and political persuasions. But a new subgroup has emerged: the cycling hipsters. They don't just consider the bicycle as a means of transport, but a fashion statement. Danish-Canadian photographer Mikael Colville-Andersen has captured this phenomenon in his Cycle Chic blog, showing Europeans looking oh-so-stylish on their vintage two-wheelers or aerodynamic racing bikes. An unwritten style rule for the cycling fashionista: the color of the helmet should match that of the frame.
Speaking of helmets, many cyclists don't wear them, saying they look bad and ruin hairdos. Two Swedish designers came up with a solution that protects both head and hairstyle: an inflatable airbag that you wear around your neck in a collar. It's a lot more inconspicuous than those traditional egg-shaped helmets — until it ignites. If you have an accident, the airbag inflates in a fraction of a second and wraps around your head. You'll hit the ground looking like an astronaut, but at that point you probably don't care. The price tag of 4,000 Swedish kronor ($600) may be discouraging, though. After all, you can only use it once.
The daredevil bike messenger weaving through traffic with Tour de France-like determination is gradually being replaced by a clumsier, but more practical, cycling equipage: the cargo bike. Many of these bicycles look odd because they are custom-made to carry packages of particular shapes and sizes. They usually have a wide flat area in front of the seat. Some are designed to serve as billboards for companies, like the "sperm bike" used by a Danish sperm bank to transport sperm to fertility clinics in Copenhagen.
But it's not just for show. Amid efforts to cut down on carbon emissions, transport officials have started discussions on how to make more use of cargo bicycles across the European Union. The European Cyclists' Federation estimates that 25 percent of all urban goods could be delivered by such bikes.
Electric bikes are one of the hottest cycling trends in parts of Europe. Also known as e-bikes or pedelecs, they are fitted with a small electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery, which can give you a nice boost when cycling uphill.
It's not a new invention: bicycles powered by electricity have been around for more than a century. But sales have taken off with the development of lighter and higher-capacity batteries and sexier designs.
China is the dominant market, with more than 100 million e-bikes on the streets. But sales are surging rapidly in Europe, especially in Germany but also in the Netherlands, where about one in five bicycles is electric, according to industry reports.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. AP writer Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this report.