Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Transportation Transformation, Installment One: Welcome to Stockholm

A guest post by
Nelson Sommerfeldt

Editor's note:
Location and community design make a huge difference in our ability to live car-free. This July, Nelson and Melanie Sommerfeldt (pictured at right) began exploring this first-hand when they moved from Michigan's rural, car-dependent Upper Peninsula to urban, bike-and-transit-friendly Stockholm, Sweden. In this first in a series of guest posts, Nelson writes of the transition, of what he and Melanie have seen so far of Stockholm's transport systems, and of their goal to turn this move into a permanent car divorce. -KTA

Ever since I was 16 and had a permit to drive I’ve had a car. Until now.

In July of 2010 I moved from humble little Houghton in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Stockholm, Sweden, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Scandinavia.” The reason for the move is to complete a Master’s degree in Sustainable Energy Engineering at Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, the Royal Institute of Technology. As you might expect, I’m a tree-hugging, eco-freak who wants to make things difficult for us Americans by suggesting we might have to change a few things about how we operate if we are to continue to enjoy the planet as we’ve known it for the past one million years. While I consider sustainability a holistic problem, transportation is an easy target but far from an easy topic.

In the quest to find out what sustainability is, and how to achieve it, I have come to Sweden with an experiment in mind. As we left the U.S., both my wife Melanie and I divorced our cars. Not too surprising since we didn’t want to let them sit idle for two years and they were too big for carry-on. But the real challenge will come when we return home. Will we be able to avoid a shotgun wedding? It’s a particularly challenging notion since we plan to return to Houghton, a rural town designed around motor transport and 270 inches of annual snowfall. The idea is that while here, we can learn how to adapt to public and non-motorized transportation as a regular way of life. Then, upon our return, we can use that experience to continue living car-free. It's much easier to get off the drug when you don’t have access to it, and this is how we hope to get clean. So, let me introduce you to the rehab center.

As one might expect, it is quite easy to not own a car in Stockholm. Stockholm County manages a vast transportation network, consisting of an underground rail system known as tunnelbana, buses that criss-cross the entire city and county, several light rail commuter trains that extend into the suburbs and rural towns, and even commuter ferries that dock downtown. This system can all be accessed with a single card and for very reasonable prices. As a student I am offered discounts, so I can travel as much as I want for as little as $2.15 per day. But even the average adult can travel for $3.30 a day, still a very reasonable price. Oh, and all of the buses run on either biodiesel, ethanol, or natural gas. It’s a part of the city’s goal to be fossil-fuel-free by 2050, but more on that in later installments.

In addition to the motorized public transportation, the city runs a bike-share program similar to systems in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Portland and Minneapolis. There are stations set up all around Stockholm where you can check out a bike, use it for up to three hours, then return it to any other station. This service can be used for 200 SEK, or around $28 for an entire seven-month season. And you never have to worry about any of the costs of storage or actually owning the bike. Once you have a bike, it is a breeze to get around town. The city is covered in bike paths, many of them completely separated from the road; often they have their own intersections and stop lights. Even when you don’t have stop lights, cyclists -- and pedestrians -- are always given the right of way at road crossings. And speaking of pedestrians, there are sidewalks everywhere! When we first arrived, we thought we would have to avoid major road intersections in the city, expecting massive car infrastructure with no pedestrian access. That’s how it is at home, right? Not so here. The pedestrian infrastructure is just as significant as the auto, with hundreds of people making use of it. It’s quite refreshing, really, the city is very considerate of all forms of transport.

To be certain, there are lots of cars in Stockholm. Almost 300,000 of them are in use in the city according to the 2007 Stockholm City Research and Statistics Data Guide. The traffic congestion can get quite tough during the mornings and evenings, enough so that Stockholm was ranked as one of the 20 worst cities to commute into (by car) in a 2010 IBM survey. In 2007, the city implemented a graduated toll system at all major inroads, charging more for entries during the busiest times and gradually less for less busy times. The highest tolls are 20 SEK, about $3.00, and you get charged going in and out. Then once you make it into the city, an annual parking pass can cost you 5000 SEK, which is roughly $2.50 per working day. The revenues generated by the tolls are to be used to maintain and improve roads in the city. In fact, one of the hot topics for this year’s national election (which just ended earlier this month) is the proposal of a highway tunnel that would travel north/south all the way under Stockholm to act as a bypass and reduce traffic through the city center. The party in favor of it won.

So with all of the options available, you would think that transportation here is easy, right? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. I, much like many eco-freaks, would like to see more investment in diversifying America’s transportation system: build or expand light rail, add bus routes and improve bike paths. So naturally, living in Stockholm is a very exciting opportunity to be able to come into a very mature and diverse city transportation system. I will be writing several more installments here on the Divorce Your Car blog reporting both the ups and downs of my experiences in going car-free, and hope it will help paint a better picture in your mind of sustainable transportation systems and maybe give you more ideas about how to divorce your car.

Hej då!


  1. Looking forward to reading more of your posts from Sweden. I lived in urban areas most of my adult life (before moving to the U.P.) and by far the most difficult adjustment for me here in rural America is being so car dependent.

  2. Nice Post!! Divorce a car is not so easy in metropolitan but your story is a igniter to do so, will surly try.