Here's how the Swedish capital changed the debate on urban transportation

Stockholm's city hall. Image: Martin Savén.

There are already more people living in urban areas than in rural ones; the UN Population Division predicts that almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will crowd into cities by 2050. How can these urban centres remain liveable and attractive without razing buildings and parks to make way for ever wider highways? 

Part of the solution is changing the perspective of the public debate. The example of Stockholm holds insights which can be applied to other cities facing similar challenges.

In 2013, the Swedish capital adopted a new urban transport strategy called the Urban Mobility Strategy, as a part of the policy initiative to tackle increasing congestion. It attempts to move away from a traffic-planning system centred on automotive transport, to one that takes into account other modes of transports, such as buses, trams, a subway system, bicycles and walking. 

Over the past six years alone, Stockholm’s population has grown 16 per cent to just shy of one million – a figure demographers in 2007 predicted would only be reached only by 2030. With forecasts now moved forward by a decade, Stockholm faces a difficult challenge to retain a high level of urban mobility.

The city has already implemented some progressive measures to reduce congestion, but it is hardly enough to keep up with the growth figures.  Some 80 per cent of commuters into the city centre use public transport during peak hours. The implementation of a congestion charge since August 2007 continues to effectively reduce traffic and commuter delays. But despite such policies, the city is seeing increasing congestion.

Increasing mobility, not increased traffic

Stockholm is working with both supply and demand of mobility to mitigate congestion. First, by planning the city more densely, Stockholm aims to reduce the demand for transportation, while maintaining the advantages of living in a city with an attractive offering of employment, housing and recreation. With more of these offerings more compactly co-located, other modes of transport than the space-demanding car become more attractive: in particular cycling and walking, which require less space and have a high capacity.  

An extract from the English version of Stockholm's Urban Mobility Strategy.

Secondly, the city’s goal is to make the transport infrastructure more efficient, by transporting more commuters and deliveries on the same road infrastructure: in essence, it's increasing the supply of mobility. 

The city’s Urban Mobility Strategy began by asking: what do Stockholm’s inhabitants need as they go about their daily lives? Their answer: urban transportation for commuting to work, school, recreation, as well as allowing for deliveries so that there is food in the grocery store and paper in the office. Speed, reliability, and commuter comfort are important aspects that need to be taken into account when choosing how to manage urban transportation. But not every journey has the same needs.

When the efficiency of different modes of transport is compared, cycling, walking, and public transport win out over cars in terms of capacity and road-surface. This is especially true if there is only one person in the car, as is often the case in Stockholm and many other cities of the world. The UMS, accordingly, gives priority to these more efficient modes of transport. The aim has been to shift the focus from a mode-of-transport oriented focus to a mobility-oriented focus: that is, from what can be supplied to what is demanded.

Political landscape, process and implementation

Cycle lanes, parking fees, and bus lanes create excited debate as soon as change affects people’s everyday lives. As soon as it’s a question of “my” commute, voters and politicians have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. As a framework, the UMS has helped facilitate the political public discussion, shifting the debate from one particular mode of transport to the more general questions of mobility. Most citizens use many different modes of transport, juggling different identities. They are cyclists, drivers, public transport passengers and pedestrians all at once. 

The UMS structures the discussion by looking at the “exchange rate” at which road surface is traded between different modes of transport, i.e. as the number of people transported per unit of time. In turn, the debate has become more focused on the distribution of capacity rather than the specific advantages of one mode of transport over another. 

The distinction is crucial. The UMS has reshaped the debate on urban mobility by changing the public discussion and helping to explain and convince the people of Stockholm what measures need to be taken for the city to continue to thrive and develop. Stockholm's experience with the UMS shows that communication and dialogue are important tools when cities around the world tackle the challenge of congestion and urban mobility.

Martin Savén has previously worked as an advisor to the Mayor’s Office in Stockholm, and is now studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 

The Blavatnik School of Government exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” on 11-12 December will explore new ideas to tackle the impacts of rapid urbanization across the world.

 
 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.