OK. I admit that the last thing this website needs is another post about the greatness of Europe. Surely, Minnesotan urban nerds are saturated with this stuff by now. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, blah blah blah.
How fancy all that sounds from far away Saint Paul! How nice it must be to walk around and drink espresso at a sidewalk cafe in a lovely street surrounded by a trams and bikes and beautiful people and two hundred year old six-story buildings! Everyone knows that cobblestones look nice.
(Unless you have to ride a bike on them…)
Meanwhile, we can’t keep our precious inlaid bricks from crumbling into a thousand pieces to be replaced every decade or so at great expense, but only in fancy areas. And we have Joe to remind us about how everyday ugly our actual cities have become: bleak dirty and lifeless places that make Astana look like Barcelona.
(+1 point if you didn’t have to look that up.)
So, it can get a little old after a few dozen articles about biking in Copenhagen or strolling in Seville. We get it already, we suck.
That said, I just took a two-week family trip to Scandinavia (Helsinki, Turku, Copenhagen, Växjö, and Stockholm). Obviously, I spent the entire time walking around interesting cities taking pictures. So, it’s my turn. I want to share a few thoughts and observations about Sweden (mostly). I promise that none of them will be about biking in Copenhagen.
What is a Sweden?
Sweden is a country of about 8 million people from which a somewhat disproportionate number of (the white) people who live Minnesota can claim to have a ancestors. This is true for me, too, though my Swedish relatives are actually from Western Canada (via the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).
In fact, one of the things that my mother and I did on this trip was to visit the Swedish Emigrant museum in Växjö, where there were a great many maps and charts showing Swedish people moving to the upper Midwest.
(The exhibit mentioned Saint Paul’s “Swede Hollow” twice, without seeming to quite know that it was a slapdash slum whose name far outlived its Swedishness.)
On my trips there, I was very impressed with Swedish urban design. Given our state’s Swedish pride and American Swedish Institutes, one would hope that making our cities look more like Sweden’s cities would be something to strive for.
In that light, here are a few neat things about Swedish urban design:
#1) Swedes are Not Afraid of The Bus
In order to get to the Emgirant Museum, we wound up off the beaten path in the small city called (completely unprounouncably) Växjö. From there we ended up taking the bus out to a small hostel on a (very Minnesotan looking) lake surrounded by (very Minnesotan looking) cabins.
The buses in Sweden are as nice as any I’ve ever seen, and to me they prove that having a good transit system doesn’t need to be linked to rail. For example, the city buses in Växjö were all very new, mostly double-length, low-floor Mercedes buses with very wide front entrances that accepted cash, credit cards, and (of course) automatic transit cards. They had video screens inside that showed the next stops,
Most importantly, they came relatively frequently. Our hostel illustrated how far the bus system would go, the ride from the city center to the (owned) (mini-golf) resort in a low-density part of the resort town named Evedal, takes about a half-hour to go about seven miles, with half-hour frequency from 10:00 am until 7:00 pm.
The great bus system means it’s quite possible to get by without a car even in low density areas. That’s a big difference from the US.
NOTE: I also rode the bus a lot in Stockholm and Turku, Finland. They were always an amazing experience. And in Stockholm, they even have the bus system separated into two categories (with a few high frequency lines often served by trams.)
ALSO NOTE: Oddly, in Turku, Finland, the buses in the same city are operated by separate private companies. There are small logos above the bus doors of each of these companies, even though they’re all painted the same color. A regular user doesn’t notice this, but I found it odd given the socialist tendencies of these countries.
#2) Traffic Calming in Towns
Whether in a town like Vaxjo (population 60,000) or in a big city like Stockholm (population 1.4M), the Swedes make sure that car speeds are slow where it counts. Sweden is still a car-dendent country. They have a high rate of car ownership, and even maintain a high amount of miles traveled per capita. They’re not that different from Americans, when it comes to loving and owing and driving cars.
But when it comes to encouraging walkable spaces, Sweden is different. Around the downtowns and city centers, traffic speeds are low and crossing the street in many places is rarely the high-speed gauntlet that you find so frequently in the US. This is even sort of true along the “urban freeway” routes that rush through Stockholm (and they’re everywhere!). But even here, you will find the street design paying more careful attention to pedestrian crossings and safety.
The real key is how in shopping centers, by city squares, and in small downtown nodes, car traffic is slowed down to minimal speeds to make it safe to cross the street. It’s also quite common in Scandinavian cities and towns to have a few pedestrian-only shopping streets (like Nicollet Mall would be without the buses). These streets immediately become the most pleasant places to walk and stroll, and they focus pedestrian, street life, and retail activity. These streets and squares are where street musicians, food carts, cafés, and shop windows collect themselves.
NOTE: They do this without a tremendous amount of signage! This is important if you want to keep your city beautiful, and avoid having it look like spatial incarnation of the fine print on a legal document.
#3) Little Tolerance for Drunk Driving
Despite the fact that everything costs a fortune, Scandinavian countries big problems with high alcohol consumption. (Think Wisconsin with depressing dark winters.)
I did zero driving on my two-week trip, but remember ordering a beer at lunch at a nice restaurant in Vaxjo, and the waiter said “You’re not driving are you? This is strong beer.” He made the the steering a wheel motion with his hands, but I assured him that I would only
It was a 5.1%ABV beer (less than a Summit EPA), and it made me wonder. Apparently Sweden has BAC limits of .02 (!) and fines are steep. Here’s some info from an article comparing Sweden and Central Florida (hahahaha):
The fines for drunk driving in Sweden can depend on how much money you have in the bank. One Swedish official told Rasmussen about a woman who had to pay more than $21,000.
The legal driving limit in Sweden is .02. If you break the law more than once, your name, your face and your car goes into a database so police can stop you at anytime. If you’re on Swedish police officer Ursula Eriksson’s list, you’re already in serious trouble.
Eriksson is part of a special team that goes after habitual offenders, working tips from other cops, even citizens who call to report drunk drivers.
“And I will take my police car and I will go pull up outside your house and when you are taking your car keys to go out driving, and when you look out your window and you see a police car, would you drive then?” Officer Eriksson questioned.
Anyway, needless to say, US drunk driving laws are nowhere near that strict (especially in Wisconsin and Central Florida). Imagine if nobody would serve you a drink at a restaurant without first making sure you weren’t driving? That would go a long way toward building support for a decent bus system.
Conclusion: It’s not THAT different
There you have it. Three reasons why Swedish cities and towns have good transit and great walking.
The key thing is to realize that these places are not that different from Minnesota, or anywhere else in the US. Swedes drive a lot, own have cars, are wealthy and educated. But they do the a few key things differently.
(Granted, there are a great many political and economic differences. It’s worth thinking about whether they are differences that make a differences. See for example, the photo of the children-oriented transit museum in Stockholm… That could be Saint Paul, only it’s much more about why transit is cool.)
Stay tuned. If you think Eurocentric urban shaming is bad now, it’s going to get worse. A bunch of Saint Paul planners and pols (including a few folks who write here) just went to Copenhagen for a week.