Years ago, I worked for Swedish packaging giant TetraPak and had the opportunity to travel to Europe eight times on business. TetraPak is headquartered in Lund and most of my travels centered around the Skåne, the southernmost tip of Sweden. In addition to Lund, I had the opportunity to visit cities and towns like Malmö, Helsingborg and Kristianstad as well as villages like Svedala, Ystad and Trelleborg.
This is one of the world’s great cycling regions, but if you’ve never visited here it might surprise you to see how people really live. There are freeways and ring roads. There are suburbs. The desire to have a little space to call one’s own is universal, and many Swedes live in single family homes just as we do in America. It’s not like the tourism brochures.
But that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, it’s actually very good. One thing you notice right away is just how uncrowded Swedish roads are. This is not a small thing and Americans would be wise to process it. It means that infrastructure supply is in balance with demand. That’s good, right? It means that everything is working pretty much as it should.
And so the logical questions to ask next relate to why this is so and how the Swedes pulled it off. Also, why can’t we seem to do it? Let’s dig a little deeper.
The E20 is a ring road around Malmö. Unlike most ring roads other places, it has integrated transit. There’s a train that runs down the median. The train goes all the way to Copenhagen Denmark to the west and Ystad on the Baltic Sea to the east. There’s a station just to the south of the shopping cluster in the picture above. It’s labelled Malmö Syd (South) Svågertorp on the map. It’s an easy walk from the station to IKEA.
Land Use Patterns
There are car-centric suburbs in Sweden, but Swedish suburbs are far more compact than ours in America. This makes it easier to leave the car parked and choose to walk or bicycle. I think this is probably the most important factor of all. Swedes bicycle because it’s convenient and makes economic sense. It all comes back to the way these communities are designed.
More Americans are expressing interest in this type of community. In fact, when Jan and I chose to relocate to Ogden, it was because many of the city’s established neighborhoods are built closer to this model than the traditional American model. Our new neighborhood feels like these neighborhoods. Every household has a car, but not two, three or more. Data suggests this model is popular with both Boomers and Millennials. Places that have integrated it already are ahead of the curve. Ironically, these are often communities of yesterday but they are also communities of tomorrow.
Infrastructure and Mindset
Let’s take another look at the first image in this article, the one of the IKEA store surrounded by a sea of parking lot. This time, let’s overlay bicycle infrastructure so that you can see how different Malmö is from your city or town.
There are a couple of implications here. First, the Swedes treat bicycle infrastructure the same way they treat roads. They don’t build a cycle path here to appease a vocal minority. They don’t dress it up and take pictures of it to woo tourists. They do it for more practical reasons…to limit automobile traffic and balance infrastructure supply and demand. Swedish cycling infrastructure connects residential to commercial space. It is designed to be used, not showcased. It is practical in a way that most American infrastructure is not.
Second, this post with its images of ring roads and suburban development should challenge that mindset that Europeans cycle only because they live differently than we do. They don’t…not really. If they can do this in Sweden, we can do this here. It is simply a matter of understanding how it benefits society as a whole and then having the courage and will to make it happen.