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.

 
 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.