I have only cycled once before in Sweden, and that was three years ago after Velo-city Copenhagen when my son and I took our bikes across the strait to Malmo. It was clear to see that there has been an extension of Copenhagen riding culture across the bridge because cycling levels were really high and well catered for.
So I was very interested to see what the capital city was like away from that influence, especially as I was doing an evening talk with the Dutch Cycling Embassy to a group of municipalities from the Stockholm region. It certainly helps to have ridden just a little bit before speaking to a cycling audience, if only to see where we have things in common, I am always reminded of the famous situation when the Beatles landed in the US and as they got off the plane a reporter said “So what do you think of America?”
First discovery was yet another design of bike in use for the public bike sharing, a rather odd looking beast with a small front wheel, and what turned out to be horribly uncomfortable saddles.
Throughout the two days I saw consistent streams of riders, obviously higher numbers than many places I know in the UK or Belgium, up there with parts of Germany but not quite reaching the critical mass of the Netherlands or Denmark. I was quite pleased with myself when I guessed a mode share of 10% as that turns out to be about right, I think I am starting to tune in now as I increase my exposure to different cycling environments.
I was told that this is actually well behind many other Swedish cities and Stockholm may be holding the country back. It certainly was a mixed culture full of contradictions.
Encouragingly high numbers of women cycling which is always an indicator that cycling has been normalised and taken back from us macho types, but then more helmets than I have seen anywhere that doesn’t have a compulsion policy.
As we rode around we encountered every kind of cycling facility, without any rhyme or reason as to which would come next. On road, on paint, segregated and shared use all in a small area and without any apparent strategy, or if there was I missed it. And almost no car free areas except a few streets in the touristy part of the old city, that really is a bit of a rarity now in forward-looking cities now.
Quality of the cycling facilities was pretty good when they existed, often wide and smooth, but there were some totally chaotic and confusing junctions to a newcomer.
I am glad I was following Christian on my first day. The routes around the waterfront were lovely, the sort of ride that makes me want to get up in the morning.
And that’s a point – did I mention mornings? I had my usual hotel problem of waking up really early so I went out for a walk around 6.30. Big shock to the system, pitch dark without a hint of dawn and a wicked wind cutting through the buildings, suddenly you know you have come a long way north.
But as I wandered out of the old city towards the main roads I became aware of lots of traffic noise and discovered that rush hour seemed to be well underway, not just for cars and trains but for cyclists. I was later told that Sweden has quite a long-hours culture; or one where people like to start early so they can get home early. Whatever it was I don’t think I have seen quite so many early riders anywhere. I guess if you get used to cycling through a Scandinavian winter you are used to doing a lot of riding in the dark, but this was quite striking.
Given that I see no cyclists on the roads in Brussels before 8am it was encouraging to see them out there.
Another nice feeling came around the Dutch Embassy, which conveniently happens to be on the busiest cycle route in Stockholm. As the street outside is car free and mingles bikes and pedestrians it could almost be home for the staff. Although the hill is a bit bigger than many of them would ever encounter! Great thing the embassy has in common with any Dutch organisation: When the ambassador talks about cycling in his welcome speech at least he hasn’t been handed the notes on a piece of paper, he has actually ridden a bike around most of his life, as they all have. Gives them enormous credibility as hosts and ambassadors for cycling culture.
I’m looking forward to further invitations, this Dutch – Swedish relationship could go well and I hope to be back to see the results.