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.

 
 
 
 
 

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