Photo by 1541.

Last night’s keynote speaker at the National Bike Summit was Andreas Røhl, Bicycle Program Manager for the City of Copenhagen. The Danish capital has established itself as one of the world’s leading cycling cities, with bicycling registering a 36 percent mode share for commuters and 60 percent of Copenhagen residents claiming the bicycle as their primary mode of transportation. Last night, Røhl gave a slightly longer version of a presentation he gave on Tuesday night, a full summary of which can be found at BikePortland.

One of Røhl’s many interesting statistics came from a biennial survey of Copenhagen cyclists. When asked for the primary reason why they bicycle, a combined 61 percent of respondents said it was either because cycling was easy and fast or because it was the most convenient mode of transportation. 19 percent cited exercise, 6 percent pointed to financial reasons and a paltry 1 percent were motivated by environmental concerns.

Røhl’s conclusion was that, in order for cycling to become a mainstream transportation option, it has to be promoted and planned for based primarily on its convenience. In large, congested cities such as Washington, this is an entirely real possibility. While it’s easy to say that Copenhagen’s experience can’t possibly translate to the United States, there is already an American precedent for promoting sustainable transportation on the merits of its convenience, and DDOT’s new director has first-hand experience with it. The example, of course, is Zipcar.

A recent New York Times Magazine article delved into the history of carsharing and the explosive growth of industry giant Zipcar. While other car-sharing services are primarily non-profit and focused on the environmental benefits of reduced driving, Zipcar makes no apologies for its use of capitalistic methods in pursuit of eco-friendly goals and, of course, profit:

[Zipcar founder Robin Chase] had no desire to create the car-sharing equivalent of a community garden; she wanted to build the Whole Foods of the industry…Chase, who had little patience for the earnestness of environmentalists with whom she was otherwise philosophically in step, sold her product on the basis of convenience, savings and lifestyle.

Current Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith goes further:

Ninety-five percent of people living in the 15 largest cities don’t need to own cars. If we were to sign up just 5 percent of them, that gets us to a million members and a billion dollars… We’re much more mainstream now than we used to be… I like to say we’re in the freedom business: you can do your thing without the cost and hassle of ownership. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to get that.

New DDOT Director Gabe Klein previously served as Zipcar’s regional vice president in DC. He must be intimately familiar with techniques that build a mass market for sustainable transportation, and early indications from his first few weeks have been encouraging. The lessons of Copenhagen, it seems, are also the lessons of Zipcar. Will DDOT learn these lessons under the leadership of Gabe Klein?