Three Urban Design Lessons from Sweden


Just a Swedish street. (Note the “no car” sign, presence of cars.)

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?


Swedes were pulled to Minnesota like moths to a flame.

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


Nice big (empty) bus in Växjö.

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, 

temp1Most 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. 


Kneeling bus at the end of its route. I think they were CNG, too!


Dynamic next stop signs.



Nice big doors.


Bus schedule with entire system map.

#2) Traffic Calming in Towns


Slow speed city street in Stockholm.

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.


Main shopping street (traffic calmed like crazy) in Växjö.


Crosswalk at a big arterial in Stockholm. Note the 30kph signs, dedicated bus lanes.


Flower planter chicane calming on a small rural road in Växjö (Evedal).

#3) Little Tolerance for Drunk Driving


Bottle of “strong beer.” Apparently my phone was drunk.

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.


They have beg buttons too. In some cities (not Copenhagen), people still ignore them.

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.


Kids riding in the child-size tram at the Stockholm Transit Museum.


A farmer’s market with old people buying vegetables (just like in America).


A very busy urban road (high volume) with people waiting to cross for a long time (just like in America, only safer).


9 thoughts on “Three Urban Design Lessons from Sweden

  1. Steven Prince

    Sweden is fundamentally different than Minnesota:

    In the 1950s their government handed national and regional planning to a group of geographers led by Torgen Hagerstrand (at Lund University) who developed a comprehensive statistical and spacial model that focused on personal constraints, not markets, to make decisions about institutional and transportation investment and location.

    In the 1950s the only planning being done in Minnesota was by highway engineers.

    Creating cities like those in Sweden is not an issue of attractive design, and is not just about local decisions or traffic calming. It requires a regional approach that looks at what constrains individual journeys.

    If we want a less car-centric city, we need a less car-centric region, which requires a commitment to regional planning and control (and the capacity of public entities to manage that control) that we just do not have.

  2. Matty LangMatty Lang

    We (the Saint Paul crew) also crossed the bridge to Malmö, Sweden for a day so get ready for some rad skate park footage and a Swedish cat that couldn’t resist the camera. I promise the video won’t be all about biking in Copenhagen.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The beg buttons are a detail I noticed a huge difference in between Copenhagen and Stockholm. In Copenhagen, there are virtually no intersections that require you to use a beg button to get a walk signal (some exceptions in more suburban areas, but you’d still get a bike signal regardless). In Stockholm, ABSOLUTELY EVERY LIGHT had them, even right in the city center — and a bicyclist also had to hit them.

    It doesn’t seem to have hugely impeded walking or biking in that city, but it was a pretty annoying detail.

    I agree with your article in particular related to buses. I’ve spent a great deal of time in Oslo — which is a mostly suburban city, and heavily dependent on buses (although they do have a trunk system of rail). But buses come reliably. There is no need to show driver payment, and all three doors (yes, three, not two) open at every stop. No shoving will all your might to open a back door, or people exiting in back clogging up people entering in front. Despite windier streets and lower density than Minneapolis, it’s a much more pleasant ride.

    We need to try doing buses right before we invest seriously in just-as-slow streetcars. Hopefully the “A” line will be a good test of buses done right.

  4. Sam

    As a huge Scandophile I have to add a fun point. In Norway (and the rest of the Scandinavian block if I remember correctly), ferries are also part of the public transportation system. It’s a very popular activity to take the ferry in Oslo to one of the many islands in the fjord – you’ll find masses of beautiful Norwegians sunbathing on rocks next to the water when the weather permits beautiful summer Scandinavian afternoon. Now, if we could only learn from their parental leave policies before it’s my turn to have some pups of my own….

  5. Nick

    Another detail regarding the speed debate: local air quality is a big part of the calculus there. They have invested large amounts of money in the North and South Link tunnel networks in Stockholm and the Göta Tunnel in Gothenburg. A key justification for these is reducing the harmful effects of particulate pollution due to autos in the urban environment.

    Upon completion of those projects (North Link isn’t done yet), they introduce more traffic calming at the surface, with the effect of discouraging through traffic and improving air quality. To be fair, slowing speed limits without removing that traffic probably wouldn’t have much of a positive effect on the feel of the urban environment (I can’t comment on whether it would help air quality).

    If we started to include public health in the cost benefit equations, our priorities would probably shift as well.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Personally, I think that slower traffic does significantly improve the feel of urban environments. I’d much rather have cars driving by at 20 mph than 40 mph.

      All else being equal I too have no idea the impact of faster vs slower on pollution. However, replacing stop intersections (signaled or signed) with roundabouts (or likely mini-roundabouts) or giving one direction sharks teeth (yield) instead of stopping would seemingly reduce pollution somewhat.

  6. FG

    I think Sweden is a better model for the US than Denmark for a huge host of reasons, density, etc, but even then it falls short for bigger cities.

    Interestingly, a lot more is privately owned and run in Norden than one expects from their collective or “socialist” ethos, hence the buses in Turku.

    I will say, though, that they love neon signage, particularly in city centers.

  7. Keith Morris

    For one thing, the buses are treated more like rail: that map over here would be a jumbled mess of the whole metro and every bus route. There it’s laid out in color-coded linear fashion: why is that impossible here?

    As for slow, narrowed commercial streets we already have lots of those, except they’re not found in the cities, they’re all in small towns: large curb bump outs for pedestrians, angled parking to narrow the street, lots of stop signs in lieu of green waves, etc. Apparently once your town or city gets to a certain size you have to wipe those out for commuters, because who cares about the people who live around those streets?

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