All about cycling in the Netherlands
Malmö was named Cycling Friendly City of the Year twice before in Sweden. What does that mean on an international scale? How cycle friendly is Sweden’s third largest city from a Dutch perspective? After my visit to Copenhagen some weeks ago, I took the train across the Öresund bridge to experience cycling in Malmö firsthand. In 2013, this city expressed the ambition “to make a good cycling city better, with world-class cycling environments”. I had high expectations. Let’s find out what my feelings are now.
Malmö, in the extreme south of Sweden is a city of 340,000 people, but larger Malmö has well over 700,000 inhabitants. This makes Malmö the third largest city of Sweden (after Stockholm and Gothenburg) and in size it is very comparable to Utrecht where I was born and raised. Malmö was mentioned for the first time in 1275 and was then a Danish town. It only became Swedish in 1658. The city is very compact. It is a mere 10 kilometres from the city centre to the edge. Because the landscape is very flat, Malmö is very suitable for cycling. The historic city centre is relatively small and a large part, the shopping area, has been pedestrianised. There is a small ring of pre-war expansion, but most of the city seems to have been built after World War II. Those post war areas have larger roads for fast-moving car traffic and a finer grid of residential streets away from those larger roads. The many green areas in between have cycle routes that are completely separate from the motor traffic routes. Where the two types of traffic do meet there are mostly protected intersections but also very often underpasses or overpasses. Because of all this, cycling in Malmö felt pleasantly familiar to what I am used to in the Netherlands and a big contrast to the unfamiliarity I experienced in Copenhagen the day before.
In 2006, a campaign started in Malmö. The campaign, by the name of “No Ridiculous Car Journeys”, tried to persuade residents to stop using their cars for very short trips (less than 5 km). Almost 10,000 people said they changed their ways due to this campaign and used the bicycle more. Now, the residents of Malmö make 100,000 cycle trips per day on over 500 kilometres of cycleway. All those cycleways are separated or protected. There are no on-street cycle lanes in Malmö. The city does not believe paint is infrastructure and they are very right about that! Malmö was named Sweden’s Cycling Friendly City of the Year in both 2011 and 2012. The city had an ambitious Cycling Programme for the years 2012-2018. The aim was to increase the proportion of bike journeys in Malmö from the 23% it was in 2008 to 30% in 2018. The most recent sources tell me that the modal share for cycling is almost 30% (for cycling to work or school it is even 40%) so that goal was apparently almost met.
In 2013, the city issued a magazine in English in which Olle Evenäs said: “Malmö is a perfect city for cyclists, it’s flat, most things are close at hand, and we’re working continuously to make it easy and safe to cycle in the city.” At the time Olle was Traffic Planner and Project Manager for the City of Malmö. Since 2015 he is team leader at a traffic and urban planning consultancy in Malmö. Olle was kind enough to show me the cycling infrastructure of Malmö on his free Saturday. It was great that he could explain some things to me that are not instantly obvious. For instance, why almost all the cycleways are two-way in Malmö. Olle said that the Swedes do not like to put up too many traffic signs. “By default, all roads and thus also cycleways are bi-directional under Swedish law. If you want to change that, you need to put up a sign at either end, to inform road users what the traffic direction is. What makes it worse, you need to repeat those signs at every side street. That’s complicated and costly and so it is better to have no signs, accept that the cycleways are two-way and design the rest of the infrastructure with this fact in mind.”
The Swedish desire to have as few road signs as possible unfortunately also leads to crossings where the priority is not instantly clear, at least not to me as a foreigner. Olle explained that on such crossings it is the way the road is marked that tells you who has priority. “When the crossing is marked with white blocks (called sugar-cubes in Swedish) and yield signs for car drivers, then cycling has priority. If no such markings are present people cycling must wait for the road to be clear.”, he said. So far so good, but it becomes complicated when the markings have faded or when such a crossing is right next to a zebra crossing or on the outside of a roundabout where motor traffic needs to slow down anyway to give way to other motor traffic on the roundabout. That this is even complicated for a lot of Swedes became apparent from an answer to one of my tweets from Malmö. In which Anders Norén writes “Confusing priority rules are cause of 1/3 killed cyclists”. As always, some things can be improved.
The city of Malmö tries to make crossings better with a clean and clear design and a relatively new traffic sign. This sign resembles the zebra crossing sign. A blue square showing a person on a bicycle crossing the street between two rows of “sugar-cubes”. Regardless of signs or markings I found that most car drivers were very friendly when negotiating who went first at crossings. Eye contact and common sense worked in a very familiar way for me as a Dutchman. When it is clear where you want to go on your bicycle and when drivers go at a slower pace, they are inclined to give you more room than you are perhaps legally entitled to.
The 2012-2018 cycle plan for Malmö involved an investment of 400 million Swedish Crowns (about 39 million Euros). One of the more striking projects is the underground bicycle parking at Malmö’s Central Station that was opened in February 2014. The bicycle parking facility has space for 1,500 bicycles of which 700 in the guarded area. Furthermore, there is a workshop, an air pump, there are public toilets and screens with real-time information about departing trains and buses. The light and open space with fresh colours is accessible via stairs with grooves or a slope that is better suited for cargo bikes. The facility also has special places for cargo bikes with a rail to securely lock the bike to. The bicycle parking must make it easier to combine cycling with a train journey. Trains run often, for instance to the nearby university city of Lund and via the Öresund bridge to Copenhagen.
Another high-brow project is the 7 story Cykelhuset/Oh Boy Hotel opened in 2016. This is a bicycle apartment building and hotel with 55 apartments and 31 hotel rooms. All the doors, corridors and elevators in the building are designed and constructed in such a way that you can literally take your (cargo)bike inside your kitchen to unload your groceries directly into your refrigerator. The hotel rooms come with a rentable cargo bike. It is almost needless to say that the building provides zero car parking spaces.
Such big projects are impressive, but what really makes a city a cycling city is its attention to detail. The details in Malmö are all very well designed and executed. Level changes at intersections are always smooth. Underpasses are kept light and open and come with art on the walls. The most modern versions follow all the same design recommendations the Dutch also use: reclining walls and good visibility to the other side of the underpass to name a few.
Cycling in Malmö is very convenient and attractive. The people in Malmö are far too modest and quiet about their achievements but maybe that is what makes it even more familiar. I had visited Sweden often in my childhood, but I hadn’t been in Sweden since 1989! It felt very good to be back, it felt even better to cycle there.
My video portrait about Malmö.
Random riding in Malmö. I filmed so much while I rode the bicycle that I made an extra video with all that footage.