Stockholm Syndrome

I’ve travelled to enough places to know that the familiar tends to temporarily fade in the face of the new, novel, unique. Oh, why can’t we be just like this, do things exactly like they do here? If only we were on permanent vacation life would be so grand.

So I hesitate to head in this particular direction, comparing cities, one that I call home and the other I visited for less than 48 hours. Especially two such wildly different cities – a compact medieval town built over 14 islands versus another, fronted on a lake and just over 200 years old, its major growth spurt occurring during the age of the automobile. A fun but futile exercise. Nothing more than apples to oranges, dollars to deutschmarks. Why bother? What’s the point?

The thing is, despite the glaring differences, Toronto and Stockholm, Sweden are not diametrically dissimilar. Toronto is bigger both in population and area but, surprisingly, the two cities are not that far off each other in terms of density. Whereas single family housing is a rarity in Stockholm (when they do it, they do it grandiosely with riverside mansions on the island of Djurgården), the city is largely comprised of 3 and 4 story apartment complexes. There’s none of the high rise living that is common place in Toronto.

Moreover, the two cities share a geographic kinship. They are northern towns, both subject to long, cold winters and ever so fleeting seasons of warmth and sun dresses. Of course, it’s more extreme in Stockholm than it is Toronto which makes some comparative aspects between the two instructive.

How do residents get around and conduct their business in what might be considered inhospitable weather for a majority of the year?

Stockholm has a much more extensive subway/rail system than Toronto (surprise, surprise). Four lines spider out from the main train terminal on Östermalm. Surface routes are covered mainly by buses and the odd streetcar/trolley services some spots. It also utilizes a ferry system since it contends with water on all sides. Not for nothing is Stockholm referred to as the Venice of the north.

But, like Toronto, public transit in Stockholm seems like a secondary mode of transit, one taken not as a last resort but merely to supplement the main mode of travel which, in Toronto, would be the automobile. In Stockholm, it’s on foot and bicycle.

Now, it was springtime during my stay, a cool, cool springtime with a hint of winter still in the air, but springtime nonetheless. There was no snow on the ground. Biking and walking were easy.

Yet, it’s hard to imagine how the population would or could revert back to public transit/private vehicle method of movement when the snow blows in. Simply put, Stockholm is not designed for easy car use. Or more to the point, the city flow is not dictated by cars. Now before you go flying off, all half-cocked, talking about its age and how it was built before car travel, there’s plenty of examples where old, pre-Henry Ford cities have been reconfigured to accommodate private vehicles first and foremost. Rome. London. New York. Toronto.

So this is a choice not simply some fate put upon us by circumstances.

In Stockholm, roads are a public space and there is a hierarchy of how they’re used. Pedestrians rule. Anyone not travelling by foot must always be aware of those who are. It is your responsibility to not to adversely interact with them.

Cyclists are offered the same protection in terms of motorized vehicles. Bike lanes run throughout the city. They’re bult off road as well as at the edges of sidewalks and as sharrows at the sides or in the middle of roads. A biker’s main concern is to not hit a pedestrian. That’s their responsibility.

Those choosing to drive a car must be vigilant of everyone else using the roads. Roads are not their domain in Stockholm. They are forced to share the space equally and seem to bear the most responsibility for any problems that arise.

This set-up seems to naturally lower speeds throughout the city. The faster the mode of transit you’re capable of at street level, the more the onus is on you to travel safely, defensively. Pedestrians amble. Joggers job. Cyclists cycle. Drivers? Well, they go as fast as the situation dictates. They do not dictate the pace.

Thus, the streetscapes in Stockholm are more human, full of non-automated life. Cars and other vehicles are present but it’s just not their sole playground everyone else has to adapt to. When pedestrian life takes precedence, pedestrians will fill that space. When car travel does, well, you do the math.

We can’t simply admit that designing cities around private vehicle use was a huge mistake, and then tear up the suburbs and start all over again. I know, I know. As tempting as that is. But we can admit continuing to design cities for the primacy of private vehicle use is a mistake and stop doing it. Let’s start from the centre and work our way out. That part of Toronto that was here before cars were and that has been scarred trying to accommodate the ease of automobile use ever since. Let’s reclaim that. Not by banning cars but by forcing them to start sharing more evenly, both spatially and economically.

Our mayor and his allies love to claim that there’s a war on cars, some sort of challenge to the divine right of automobile owners, when actually all that’s being contested is their primacy on our roads. No, as a matter of fact, you don’t own the road. Car drivers aren’t even very good tenants, using more than their fair share while bearing little responsibility for many of the negative results of their presence.

Until we recognize the adverse consequences of giving over a good chunk of our public space to private car use, we’ll never really start to build healthy, more liveable cities. Toronto doesn’t need to be more like Stockholm. It just needs to think more like Stockholm and put driving in its proper place. As part of an integrated transit system and not king of the road.

swedishly submitted by Cityslikr

3 thoughts on “Stockholm Syndrome

  1. I have visited other cities where the motorized vehicles are forced to make nice. Anywhere they are, everybody seems happier. When you create that atmosphere, everyone just slows down. They have no choice. It creates a social structure that has a heck a lot less road rage and stress. We could definitely learn from these cities.

  2. There’s an interesting map that was published a couple of years ago, which you can see on page 19 at . It shows everywhere in Stockholm that’s within 30 minutes of the city centre by various forms of transport.

    The pale green fill representing bicycling, and the blue border representing cars, cover about the same area; the red border for local public transport stretches noticeably further in several directions.

    And Stockholm isn’t even a bad city for driving! It has all sorts of viaducts and motorway tunnels even close to the city centre, ample underground parking, and a light congestion charge to keep things from getting too crowded. This all speaks to the advantages of the cycle and transport network, not to a ‘war on the car’.

    (The public transport network is also expanding. At the moment, they’re extending a tramway to the north-west, and building a railway tunnel to double capacity through the city centre; future plans include substantial tramway expansion, and a metro extension to the south-east.)

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