Stockholm’s Steep Climb to Double Cycling Mode Share

IMG_7471The EU BICI series moves to Northern Europe; Stockholm this week. Previous posts include Seville (Spain), BolognaFerraraPadova (Italy), Berlin , Munich (Germany), Zurich (Switzerland), and Cambridge (U.K.).

The cycling environment of Stockholm—the self-proclaimed “Capital of Scandinavia”—endures incessant questions about how it cannot achieve Copenhagen-like status. Quick responses point to the barriers provided by the 14 major islands (more bridges, bottlenecks, and pinch points). Others point to how increased snow, colder temperatures, and topographical challenges provide insurmountable challenges. These explanations carry some weight.

Stockholm’s relative meagerness is probably better traced to strong transit-related and auto-related imprints:

  • A better public transport system (relative to Copenhagen) makes the subway and on-road buses more attractive than cycling for most distances. When their transit system was designed in the 1940s-1960s, it was an enabler for outlying developments. Relatively high density suburbs (the notorious Vällingby types) were built around metro stations more than 10 kilometers from the center. Distances to the city center are therefore a bit long for the standard bike trip; transit is a more attractive option.
  • A stronger automobile legacy (i.e., leftover primarily from Volvo and Saab) means that auto lobbying is formidable and that car ownership is cheaper[1].

Still, for a European capital city, Stockholm’s cycling infrastructure punches above its weight despite a meager 6-7% cycling mode split. Across a variety of mobility options, one study says Stockholm is second in the world[2]. And, some city leaders claim they are adamant about doubling the cycling mode share by 2030.

You don’t see cyclists everywhere, but along key routes at commute time in good weather, regular platoons of 50 cyclists are impressive. As measured along 18 points (most of them bridges), the city estimates 63,000 cycle commuters into (or out of) the city per day. The city’s boundaries are expansive, consuming almost 200 km2 for the city (and doubling that for the urban area). A notable point for a city with such vast land area is that facilities are everywhere; the total kilometers of cycling facilities across all types (and not discerning of quality) is an impressive 2,110 kilometers, likely topping all cities in the world for such[3]. Furthermore, the city has largely recognized the problems created by bridges and has taken measures to address these (including a ½ kilometer shared pedestrian tunnel provided to avert a steep climb in the center of the city).

The primary cycling corridor from the south, Götgatan, is one of the city’s recent ambitious cycling projects. Realizing that this stretch can easily receive 15,000 cyclists per day, the current city council sought a signature bicycle improvement. In October of 2013 they freed up funds to address the under-capacity of the existing protected lanes along this stretch. Following study, design, and deliberation, the city rolled out a redesign of the corridor in mid-June 2014 which entailed removing a lane of auto traffic, creating more pedestrian space, and widening the bike lanes. Accompanied by traffic signals timed for 18 km/hr, Stockholm now has its own 9 km-long “Green Wave.” It is interesting that at two traffic lights along this stretch, there is a countdown clock to encourage that cyclists speed up to ‘make the wave.’ However, heading into town, this stretch dumps into a shared primary pedestrian only/shopping street for those who don’t ‘mind’ pedestrian-dodging for this final stretch of the prioritized corridor[4]. This is a reminder that continuity of the system is as much of a struggle here as it is in other places[5].

The improvements along Götgatan are one of a dozen higher-profile bicycling projects the city is furthering to improve existing facilities in 2014, including 10 kilometers of new ones. And the city is poised for more though 2018 with city council backing of 1 billion kronor (~$146M). The future list includes thousands of new bicycle parking spaces (many coming at the expense of on-street car parking), a new signage system, protected right-turns, expansion of the bike share network, and incorporating cycle parking standards into new building development guidelines. These infrastructure advances are accompanied by a land use strategy that encourages more densification throughout the region. There was recently a flutter of discussion to allow cyclists to go against the flow on all one-way streets, thereby enhancing bicycle connectivity in a city center that has many one-way streets. So far, however, it has been only talk that has apparently died down.

Thanks much to Joel Franklin, Daniel Firth, Henrik Söderström, and others who provided valuable insights for the article.

[1] A whopping 180% percent tax accompanies all new car purchases in Denmark, making car purchases less expensive in Sweden

[2] See figure 8 in The Future of Urban Mobility 2.0: Imperatives to shape extended mobility ecosystems of tomorrow. Report prepared by Arthur D. Little for UITP; January 2014.

[3]One source suggests the bicycle lane network is the third most dense in the world, with 4,041km of lanes

per 1,000 sq km. See, The Future of Urban Mobility 2.0: Imperatives to shape extended mobility ecosystems of tomorrow. Report prepared by Arthur D. Little for UITP; January 2014.

[4] Admittedly, there exists a circumventing route one block to the west for the fast cyclists, but apparently few people use it.

[5] There are plenty of examples throughout Stockholm where high-quality accommodations suddenly change to shared lanes with motor vehicles and parked cars.

[6] Increased rail capacity will not likely come on line for at least another decade; therefore providing better cycling infrastructure in the short-term would be valuable.

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3 Responses to Stockholm’s Steep Climb to Double Cycling Mode Share

  1. D Maki July 11, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    A meager 6-7% mode share? If Stockholm were in the U.S. this would likely be the #1 cycling city in the Nation. Goes to show just how far we are behind we are in this country.

  2. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon Slotterback July 11, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    Everyone in this photo is wearing a helmet. Quite a difference from their neighbors further south.

  3. Alex July 13, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    A response to the quick criticism you mention: natural barriers are only a barrier to the modes that are least accommodated on the infrastructure that mitigates them. In other words, if space on the bridges between the islands is prioritized for bikes, it’s likely that bikes will be considered a more useful mode. Not sure it would be enough in Stockholm to overcome the immense distances of the metro suburbs you mention, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

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