New Zealander Stephen Knight-Lenihan is a long-time cycling advocate, and was part of Bike Auckland’s predecessor Cycle Action Auckland. He is is now enjoying cycling in Malmö, Sweden and shares this experience with Bike Auckland here:
Isn’t it wonderful to feel normal. After years of being marginalised, arriving at a city where cycling is so mainstream that nobody registers if you arrive somewhere by bike. Anywhere: work, school, the theatre, out for dinner. Concerts. Whatever. That to me is a test. Does someone say: Oh, you’re a cyclist? If they don’t ask, it’s just another way of getting around. No further commentary required.
Coming from New Zealand, my wife Shona and I had to adjust to a city of cyclists. Officially roughly afifth of all trips in Sweden’s southern city of Malmö are by bike. But the morning and evening central city commute feels dominated by cyclists, followed by pedestrians and bus users, with cars a distant third. The vehicle speed limit around town is 30 kilometres per hour, meaning traffic moves slowly.
Drivers give way to cyclists, including where cycle lanes cross roads. This leads to the initially disconcerting habit of cyclists apparently hurtling themselves across oncoming traffic with only a cursory look left or right. It’s so mainstream that Shona bought her first bike. A farm girl, cycling was never something she got round to. Walk, absolutely. Take public transport. Definitely. But cycle? Are you insane? But seeing families, office workers, students, construction workers, old, young, the well coifed and down-at-heel, all happily pedalling was too much. She had to take part.
Now she rides an in-hub three-speed with a step-through steel frame, carrier and basket. A hefty little beast but very comfortable to ride once you get going. Swedish women have a height advantage, being taller than your average kiwi (and your average European, apparently) which helps when leveraging off from a standing start. Doubtless all that cross-country skiing helps as well.
Locals say the rise of electric bikes has ramped up the differential between the standard cyclist and the battery assisted, and it does generate pursed lips amongst the traditionalists. But, they say, it’s not as bad as cycling among the dangerous Danes of Copenhagen. The Øresund Bridge links Malmö and Copenhagen, creating a major economic region, and linking two nations which have had at times a bloody history. Peace treaties during the 16 th and 17 th Centuries eventually saw the southern province including Malmö shift from being Danish to Swedish. Now all the phlegmatic Swedes will say in polite company is how the Danes like to party and ride bikes, fast and not giving an inch. Cyclists account for half of trips to work or school in Copenhagen.
I’ve not cycled there yet. My Swedish friends nod knowingly to each other. He’ll get a bit of shock. Part of the success of cycling up-take is geographic. Malmö and its surrounds are very, very flat and spacious, with wide roads and footpaths allowing for retrofitting of cycle ways. There are also a largenumber of park hrough which dual-use walking and cycling paths meander. This makes avoiding main roads easy, creating a patchwork of purpose-built cycle ways, many well away from roads, allowing cyclists to go where they want, and then providing ways to avoid hazards when they get there.
Auckland’s cycling infrastructure, while steadily improving, still tends to deposit cyclists into a pig’s breakfast of confusion. But before asking why can’t we be more like Malmö, it’s important to note that the geographical advantages are matched by a different culture and attitude. At a planning level, Malmö introduced a five year strategy (2012-2019) promoting cycling campaigns, safety and infrastructure improvements. This included little touches such as bike pump stations situated around town, and major changes such as dropping the inner-city speed limit to 30 kph, providing just under 6,000 parking spaces for bikes at the three main railway stations, and implementing cycle superhighways (Cykelöverfart) which safeguard cyclist right-of-way across roads.It’s this last action which folds into what I see as the local culture, with surveys showing vehicle users respecting cyclists priority crossings. When I cycle round town, motorists almost always anticipate my arriving at a crossing point, and slow right down or stop for me to cross. This includes at roundabouts, something quite alien to my experience in Auckland.
There are other things at play here, however. One is the critical mass effect. My impression is that Malmö has crossed a threshold where the convenience and cost of cycling has significantly altered behaviour, and driving a car is seen as a necessary but avoidable hassle for those wanting to move around the central city. This shapes development to further favour cycling (and importantly public transport and walking) leading to the phenomenon where instead of the domination of acres of carparks there are square metres of bike parking. This is a form of path dependency where earlier decisions favour certain future decisions, reinforcing the “correctness” of the path, and is the opposite to the experience in many New Zealand centres where infrastructure favours cars and the apparent correctness of that pathway.
Under all this is the Swedish ability to hold two apparently contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time: individualism and conformity. This came to the fore during as the Covid pandemic unfolded. Swedish historians Henirk Berggren and Lars Trägårdh describe this as not just accepting but embracing a high trust model whereby the role of the state lies in creating conditions for the individual to flourish. Our Swedish friends summarise it this way: people in Malmö grumbled when speed limits were lowered and cycling infrastructure increased, but accepted it because that is the Swedish way. Berggren, Trägårdh and others note the Swedish social contract assumes the individual is the basic unit. But where philosophers such as John Stuart Mill would say state power can be exercised over the individual only to prevent harm to others, the Swedes differ from Anglo-American view of individualism in that they trust the state to do the right things by the individual. In fact more than that, the state does things not just to protect the weak and vulnerable, but to enhance individualism.
So cycling’s success I suspect in part fits this apparent contradiction (well, contradiction to those with an Anglo-American outlook) in that it both emancipates and individualises transport modes: there’s nothing quite like a bike to exercise a bit of mild anarchy. The range of bikes speaks to that, as does the range of cycling styles, what people wear, and general levels of coolness. True, it’s more evident in Copenhagen, as the Danes are generally far more effervescent that the Swedes. But in their own quiet undemonstrative way, the Swedes show you can get things done without undermining the individual. And remember, don’t get in their way where they are on their bikes.