Pedestrian Observations from Central Stockholm

I like Stockholm. There’s something reassuringly familiar about it, despite the language barrier, which I think comes from the fact that the Central Stockholm housing stock is of similar vintage as the residential parts of Manhattan. It even avoids New York’s most annoying (to me) architectural tic, the exposed brick. The buildings here are similar in style to the ones in New York (and more generally northern Europe), but most have smooth exterior, with enough variation of colors between buildings to make it interesting.

The streets here vary a lot in width, but outside the older sections of the city, they are never very narrow. In Gamla Stan (“the old town”), the medieval core of the city that is now a tourist ghetto, complete with stores selling Swedish flags or English-language books, there are some pedestrianized streets with single-digit building-to-building width. But in my part of the city – Roslagstull, near the outer end of what’s considered Central Stockholm – the street width ranges are almost identical to those of Manhattan. My street, Birger Jarlsgatan, is about 30 meters wide, while less important parallel streets are about 15 or 20. Like the rest of city center, it’s lined with almost uniformly mid-rise buildings, six to seven stories tall. See photos here, from Södermalm, and here, from Regeringsgatan, a street that for a portion of its length is elevated over intersecting streets.

A feature of Stockholm streets that I have not seen in other cities is that on-sidewalk bike lanes. While the overall sidewalk width on Birger Jarlsgatan is generous, the sidewalk is broken by the bike lane. The inner side of the bike lane is interrupted by trees, and the outer side by sidewalk cafes, and as a result, sometimes walking in the bike lane is unavoidable if one wishes to avoid walking in zigzags. In any case, cyclist traffic does not seem to be heavy; there is much more pedestrian traffic.

Crossing the street is rarely difficult. There are beg buttons at intersections, but the pedestrian light will turn green even without pressing them. The stoplight phasing is simple: most of Central Stockholm is on one of several grids, and even at intersections of two-way streets (one-way streets are uncommon, at least around Roslagstull), there are only two phases per stoplight cycle. Without grade-separated freeways in the city core, the worst streets for the pedestrians are the occasional freeway-like structure, or one of several excessively wide roads. I walk to work on one of those roads, Valhallavägen, and during the daytime, the cars’ noise and air pollution are uncomfortable unless I walk through the parking lots behind the street or the bus bay in its median.

The transit system is useful, though I almost never take it. This is a combination of very high fares (with my pay-per-ride smartcard, I pay 25 kronor per ride, about PPP$2.70) and a city core that’s small enough and pedestrian-friendly enough that I can get around most of it on foot. The pedestrian orientation of the streets matters: my apartment is 2.3 km from the CBD mall and 1.7 km from Stockholm University; but I will walk to the mall, whereas to get to and from a conference at SU, I didn’t walk on Roslagsvägen (which is almost a full freeway) but instead took the subway from my university, KTH, which is more centrally located within the city.

Of course, most people in the region don’t live in Central Stockholm, and for them the T-bana is a lifeline. Subway ridership here, excluding commuter rail, is about 900,000 per day (not weekday), not much lower than on the U-Bahns of much larger Berlin and Munich. As a curiosity, there are many light rail lines that connect outlying suburbs to a T-bana station, requiring a transfer to get to the CBD; the busiest, Roslagsbanan, is a narrow-gauge commuter rail system terminating next to KTH, with one T-bana branch, the T14, running parallel to it for a few stops before terminating. This is in addition to a mainline commuter rail system, with 267,000 daily passengers; this ratio of about one commuter rail rider to three subway riders is higher than anything most (see first two comments) in North America, but is much lower than in major European transit cities like Paris and London, where commuter rail and the metro have roughly equal ridership levels. Among the transit projects under construction in Stockholm is a new rail tunnel, which will increase the capacity of commuter rail.

35 comments

  1. threestationsquare

    I was shocked by the SEK30+ single fares a few years ago, but between the smartcard discount, fare increases elsewhere, and the PPP adjustment, PPP$2.70 doesn’t seem too bad or unusual. (It’s in line with medium-distance BART and WMATA fares, and the zone 1 London Underground fare is around PPP$3.10.)

    I remember using some on-sidewalk bike lanes in Paris, on Haussmann boulevards with plenty of room for them.

    SEPTA has a comparable ratio of commuter rail to rapid transit daily riders (100k regional rail, 270k rapid transit, 70k subway-surface lines).

    • Alon Levy

      The London Underground fares are extreme.

      Yes, you’re right about SEPTA. On second thought, the Metra/L ratio is even higher, despite the 50-years-out-of-date Metra practices.

      • Nathanael

        London’s actively trying to keep people away from the center zones. The fares get better if you somehow avoid zone 1, and even better if you avoid zone 2. I suppose this policy is due to the severe overcrowding they experience in the core.

  2. knott

    Regarding costs, most of the ridership use the much cheaper monthly commuter passes. These are a very good deal, in particular for people commuting from more remote parts of the county (the cost is 790SEK/monthly for everyone in the county, unlike one-ride tickets which use a zone-system). Unfortunately, the reliance on monthly passes is not associated with a flexible attitude towards ticket gates/collection on trains/buses due to political populist dysfunction.

    A noteworthy aspect of the Stockholm public transit system is that it is extremely radial, maybe more so than anywhere else in the world. Further public transit investments are also going to reinforce this aspect.

    Building height is due to late 19th century and early 20th century building regulations. There is no formal zoning in Stockholm, but instead a very rigid municipality planning monopoly.

    • Alon Levy

      Ah, yes, the radiality is pretty bad, if you don’t live and work on the same line (as a colleague of mine doesn’t – he lives in Roslagstull and teaches in Kista).

      But isn’t the upcoming expansion plan going to provide better connections between lines in Central Stockholm and Solna?

      • Alex B.

        It seems that the radiality of the transit system is at least part due to the geography of the city and the water bodies that divide it.

      • knott

        The new commuter train tracks will increase transfer opportunities between commuter train and subway in north Stockholm which is very welcome, thus creating a very useful new transfer point. However, in the large scheme of things it largely reinforces the current radial structure by essentially going parallel with the older train tracks and will carry even more passengers to the central station.

    • threestationsquare

      Is Tvärbanan useful for circumferential travel? It’s existence makes Stockholm’s transit seem less radial-focused than e.g. Prague (and certainly less than e.g. Chicago).

      • Alon Levy

        I do not know how useful the Tvärbanan is, but I also live in the sector of the city that isn’t served by it. That said, at least for going to Kista, it can’t be too useful (although they’re extending it in that direction): people from the south can take the subway and transfer at T-Centralen, and people from Alvik can take the subway and transfer at Fridhemsplan.

      • Josh

        No. You basically have to go through T-Cent to get from any one part of the city to another.

      • knott

        The Tvärbanan is a good idea and almost manages to help out with the great concentration of travel around the central station, but in the end it fails. It is always a few minutes to slow to transfer to Tvärbanan if you want to transfer between two subway lines, compared to just staying on the subway and transferring in the CBD. Thus, it is mainly of use for those starting/ending their trip on one of its station. It has potential though, give it some speed upgrades and denser frequency and it should be able to capture some of suburb-suburb transit.

      • Sascha Claus

        is Prague really that radial-focused? With three lines, they’d have to dedicate ⅓ of their metro network to circumferential travel to have just one line. All while having ¾ of all four modes, with a large tram network (2,7 MiB PDF) that seems to be good enough for circumferential travel (and certainly larger than Stockholm’s).

      • knott

        Everyone has to enter at the very front of the bus and show a ticket, except at a few express buses (where there are people at the bus stop checking tickets). For the subway there are ticket gates with staff everywhere, which means that many suburban subway stations have unnecessary few exits due to costs (and that there are no elevators directly from platform to street level or similar solutions).

        In a system where most of the ridership has a monthly pass anyway it is really a very dumb solution.

  3. simval84

    What I know of Swedish urbanism (I hesitate to say “Nordic” because the Norwegians and the Danes seem to differ in city-building from the Swedes) I got from exploring through Google Maps, so caveat emptor. The core city seems to be like most European cities with traditional European blocs (3-to-6-story buildings built to the street with inner courtyards, the negative image of towers in parks, often with stores on the ground floor) but outside these city centers, the new developments are completely different. The street grid breaks down completely, with neighborhoods formed of similar buildings in cul-de-sac opening on major roads being very frequent. There is housing variety between neighborhoods, but not inside each neighborhood, it looks like there is very little piecemeal construction, they don’t build housing, they build entire neighborhoods.

    You may have one neighborhood of single-family-detached housing, the next neighborhood may be made up of 2-story rowhouses, others have 6-story towers in parks, each being built like self-contained cul-de-sac, not all have visible stores and groceries, plenty of seemingly residential-only zones. The arterials that connect neighborhoods also frequently lack eyes on the streets as the buildings in each neighborhood are inward-looking. Some of these neighborhoods even have most or all parking built between the arterial and the buildings themselves, creating a parking lot buffer between the street connection to the rest of the city and the neighborhoods themselves (I wouldn’t want to walk anywhere at night). This organization seems to help transit as they concentrate high-capacity lines on these arterials that connect each neighborhood, whether it be provided with articulated bus lines, trams or otherwise.

    Someone said that they don’t have zoning per se (I guess that means little to no by-right development) but strong central planning from the cities (a bit like the UK if I understand correctly), that might explain how the new developments look like.

    BTW, just an aside, I think that more can be learned from new developments and suburbs than from looking at older central neighborhoods which may have been grandfathered in. Newer areas bear the mark of contemporary urban planning practices much more than older ones.

  4. knott

    This is pretty accurate in my opinion. There were very ambitious urban planning projects through most of the 20th century, essentially all of which can be criticized on the accounts you give above. Commercial and public services are concentrated around public transport (quite reasonable think), though it gives the rest of the suburbs a very sleepy feeling. In Sweden beyond Stockholm where heavy rail public transit is non-existent this kind of planning has very little attraction.

    Some of these neighborhoods are very well planned (from the 1930s to the 1950s in particular), built according to a single plan, not too far out, and are actually very attractive places to live. The standard of housing is also high, and integration with public transport and the quality of greenery is very high. The obvious shortcomings are the low density (in particular as they were built when they expected a family of 5 to live on 350 sqf), and the inflexibility of the urban form. They don’t provide any feeling of urbanity at all, though these neighborhoods are getting quite attractive and expensive. These suburbs were followed by a lot less attractive suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s much further out where housing was of decent standard and with (most times) decent public transport, but with a very sad urban environments and planning (compare with French banlieus, though it is not quite that bad). From the 1970s onwards there has then also a lot of automobile sprawl even further out, with no access to public transport at all, but these are so far out that a person living in the central city would never experience them. Add to this a number of older municipalities in the north and east that has been incorporated for 100+ years, dominated by rich NIMBYism and small houses and you pretty much have Stockholm outside the inner city. The last two decades show some promising signs of increasing brownfield developments and infills in the suburbs, though most of the outer city is still very non-urban.

    • simval84

      Where you replying to me?

      You mentioned the greenery, that was another thing that struck me: most of the recent neighborhoods look as if they were lost in forests. It’s pretty impressive, even if it’s not urban. It’s rare to see a city that seems to be so surrounded by forests, most cities historically were built in the middle of farmlands where trees had been mostly cleared out, because with slow transport, cities depended largely on food grown locally to survive. That leaves me to wonder about Stockholm’s history since the city almost seems to be built in the forest (though around rivers and lakes).

      • Alon Levy

        Well, maritime cities had a network of maritime trade to get food from. For example, Lübeck is famously not on any major river, and relied on coastal shipping to get supplies.

        This is just general, though; I don’t know where premodern Stockholm’s food supply came from. Sweden never had a lot of agricultural wealth, but conversely, preindustrial Stockholm was a very small city – as per this, 10,000 in the decades after independence, and 50,000 in the early 18th century.

        • Eric

          Sweden only had 10k-50k inhabitants when it was a great power controlling the Baltics and playing a decisive role in the Thirty Years War? Wow.

          • Eric

            I meant of course: “Stockholm only had 10k-50k inhabitants when Sweden was a great power controlling the Baltics and playing a decisive role in the Thirty Years War? Wow.”

          • Eric

            But that was a few centuries earlier, when all of Europe was much less developed, in particular the state system.

            Well, now that I look at the numbers, at the time Paris had a population of ~400k but it’s an outlier and was allied with Sweden (according to the Wikipedia summary). Enemy capitals like Warsaw and Vienna had capitals with populations similar to that of Stockholm.

      • knott

        The nature around Stockholm (in particular southern Stockholm) is very poorly suited for agriculture with plenty of hills, rocks and islands. Stockholm is where it is because it sits right on top (i.e. the old city) on the only passage to lake Mälaren, which was the main waterway for much of central Sweden.

  5. Oreg

    On-sidewalk bike lanes seem very common in European cities, certainly in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland. Preferably a small curb separates them from the pedestrians. It doesn’t work so well without, with pedestrians and cyclists frequently interfering with each other.

    Fares in other cities:
    Amsterdam: EUR 2.80 = $3.50
    Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich: EUR 2.60 = $3.25
    Zurich: CHF 2.90 = $3.00
    Makes Stockholm look average, no?

    • simval84

      We have to be careful when comparing transit costs. If in the US it may be frequent for ticket prices to be very low so that most people prefer paying their transport one ticket at a time, that’s not the case in many other cities.

      For example, in Montréal, one boarding on the buses or subways of the STM costs 3,00$ CAD, but a monthly pass costs only 79,50$. Meaning you need only take transit 27 times in a month (equivalent to 14 round trips) to justify buying a monthly pass. You can also buy 10 tickets for 25,50$. So very few people actually pay the 3,00$ fare. In fact, only around 26 million people per year, out of 413 million total trips, pay the full 3,00$ price to board (that’s 6,3% of all trips). 4,3 million monthly passes are sold per year. It’s likely that around half of trips are paid for with monthly passes, with much of the rest being with tickets bought 10 at a time.

      They keep adding various other tickets and passes too… unlimited week-end, unlimited evening, unlimited daily pass, unlimited 3-day pass (for tourists likely). Only the very occasional transit user and the poor who do not have the means to pay for the whole month in advance tend to pay cash… and end up paying twice what the middle-class commuter pays (yes, that is a problem, largely ignored).

      It seems to be a bit the same in Stockholm, From the info I have, you can buy an unlimited monthly pass for 790 SEK, that’s about 110$. So if you use transit more than 30 times per month, buying a pass makes a lot of sense.

      I think the point of high cash fares is to discourage people from actually paying cash, which slows down boarding significantly.

      • knott

        Regarding the 790 SEK monthly pass it covers all of greater Stockholm, the type of tickets Alon talks about can be either 50% or 100% more expensive for tickets outside the inner parts of Stockholm (which is roughly the subway system).

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, if you look at suburban fares, rather than urban fares, Stockholm stops being expensive and becomes very cheap because of that zone-free monthly pass.

      • Sascha Claus

        > »I think the point of high cash fares is to discourage people from actually paying cash, which slows down boarding significantly.«
        Which you could do equally well by having the driver neither checking nor selling tickets (via POP, TVMs and/or selling them at stores). The official reason usually is to encourage people to buy monthly passes, which in turn is to encourage off-peak use. Shifting off-peak use from autos to public transit is usually a political goal; and deducting the price of a monthly pass from a bank account greatly reduces the hassle of handling cash money. (Remember that this was invented before smart-cards.)

    • Alon Levy

      Are you sure you’re comparing the same kinds of fares across cities? Most cities have a discount for buying tickets in bulk (like the Parisian carnet, or loading fares on a prepaid smartcard in cities that have smartcards), and an additional discount for monthly passes. In Berlin, if you buy 4 tickets you only pay €2.20 for each, and a monthly ticket costs €78. Stockholm’s 25 SEK tickets are for people with smartcards – the cash ticket fare is higher. The unlimited pass, as Simval notes, is 790 SEK, which is €86 in exchange rate terms (and less in PPP terms, but not much less).

      In Zurich, you can get a day pass for the cost of two single tickets, and the unlimited monthly discount is quite large. Within Zurich proper, the unlimited monthly fare is 91 CHF… which is like €50 after doing PPP adjustment. Switzerland is expensive in everything, not just public transit fares.

      • Oreg

        The prices I gave are for single tickets, i.e., the most expensive option. Everything else becomes exceedingly difficult to compare as the available options vary so widely. Of these cities, only Amsterdam has smartcards. I gave the price for a disposable one-hour smartcard. Bulk, day pass, monthly options:
        Amsterdam: no bulk discount; € 7.50; € 89
        Berlin: 4 for € 2.20 each; € 7.20; € 97
        Frankfurt: no bulk discount; € 6.60; € 83
        Munich: 5 for € 2.50 each; € 6; € 71.50
        Zurich: 5 for CHF 3.77 (€ 3.13) each; CHF 8.40 (€ 6.98); CHF 81 (personalized, € 67.28)
        The covered areas vary somewhat. Berlin is ten times the size of Zurich.

        BTW, do you have a nice source to compute PPP?

        • Alon Levy

          Traditionally I’d just compare PPP and nominal figures for GDP per capita. There’s a better source out there, but be aware it’s a monthly average so you need to compare it to the right exchange rate.

        • Sascha Claus

          Even the one-hour-tickets vary: some are full passes and include breaks, going in circles and even going back if it fits into to time of validity; some cities prohibit all this and even require you to take the next vehicle when transferring. But the aforementioned cities (at least the german-speaking) include as many transfers as you like, as long as you’re closing in on your destination.

          Monthly subscription passes often include a free ride for your family in your free time: in Munich 3 children aged 6–14 Mo.–Fr. after 9 a.m.; in Frankfurt 1 adult Mo.–Fr. after 19:00 and on weekends the whole day; in Berlin 1 adult + 3 children aged 6–14 Mo.–Fr. after 20:00 and on weekends the whole day; in Dresden 1 adult + 4 children Fr. 18:00–Mo. 4 a.m. …

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