My first experience with bicycles as transportation was in Lund Sweden. The year was 1991 or thereabouts. Sadly, I didn’t get to cycle. I just observed, but what I saw stuck with me. I still think about it all the time.
I was working for Tetra Pak AB, the global packaging giant and I was visiting the company’s primary factory and home office. I flew all night on SAS from Minneapolis to Copenhagen, arriving just as the sun came up. I boarded a hovercraft for the short trip across the Øresund to Malmö, cleared customs, and flagged down a taxi that took me the 15 kilometers to the Grand Hotel in Lund.
Lund is a college town, roughly the same size as Ogden. The Grand was located downtown. As I remember it, there was a small park out front and the city’s main train station was on the other side of the park and about a block down the street. Since it was Sunday morning, all the shops were closed and there weren’t many people about. That all changed the next morning. As I left for the quick trip to headquarters, I was stunned by the sea of bicycles that had formed across from the hotel while I got in a few hours of jet-lagged sleep. So stunned, in fact, that I took this picture of a colleague in the midst of them. It was an amazing sight.
I didn’t know it at the time, but many residents of Lund were commuting to Malmö using their bicycles and the Pågatåg (aka the Purple Train). In essence, I was seeing “First and Last Mile” policy in action approximately 20 years before it became fashionable with American transit officials. For those who don’t know, First and Last Mile extends the reach of transit by integrating bicycles into the transit grid. Many people choose not to take transit because of the challenge of getting to and from the train or bus…the first and last miles. Make it easier, the thinking goes, and people will choose transit. One way to make it easier is to encourage people to cycle to the train, just like I was witnessing in Lund.
When I think back to my time in Sweden, I remember thinking how cool this all was. It just made sense to me, so much so that on subsequent trips I ditched the taxi and opted for the Pågatåg myself. Interestingly enough, the train in the above video is named after Ruben Rausing, one of TetraPak’s founders. This appears to be the same vintage of train that I rode. The newer ones are much more sleek and modern looking.
I didn’t have a bicycle…this was well before bike share systems. I wish I had. Be that as it may, I took trains everywhere I went in Europe. I took them across cities like Amsterdam and across countries like Switzerland. Language was no obstacle, even in smaller out of the way places…even way back then.
I now realize, in hindsight, that this was a special moment in time. While it’s true that more Swedes cycle than do Americans, the things I was seeing were skewed due to events on the other side of the globe. At that time, much of Sweden’s gasoline came from Kuwait. In fact, the leading retailer in the country was named Q8 (Kuwait) and Kuwait’s oil infrastructure had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein the previous year. Gas in Sweden cost six times as much as it cost in the US in 1991, and so even though most Swedes owned cars they weren’t using them for the short trip from home to the train station. They were using their bicycles.
Why am I sharing this story with you? For two reasons. First, the Swedes would not have had the option to combine bike + train if the infrastructure had not been already been built and put in place. Fortunately, it was, and so when prices spiked it was no big deal for the Swedes to adapt. Once the choice was made, many chose to stay with it. Today, gas prices in Sweden have normalized, but as this recent Google Streetview capture shows, the Swedes are still riding their bicycles to Lund CentralStation. That’s good.
Second, it’s just a matter of time before another unforeseen event causes the price of oil to spike to new, maybe unimaginable, highs. I know this and I think you know it, too. It is the way the world works, and it doesn’t much matter what our plans are. What’s going to happen is going to happen. We will have to adapt. It would be better if we were proactive about it, you know, like the Swedes.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of this when my wife and I chose to move to Ogden late last year, but now in hindsight I realize just how much this journey was likely influenced by what I saw in Sweden 25 years ago. I remember thinking back then just how much I wanted to live as the Swedes did, riding my bike and a train instead of sitting in traffic, and now I am. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it?