A shared bike and pedestrian lane in Stockholm. Sweden, 2021. Frankie Fouganthin, via Wikimedia Commons

Oslo, the capital of Norway, is a city only slightly denser than Stamford, surrounded by residential suburbs. But the ease with which people move around the city could not be more different. 

The Oslo mass transit network is cheap and efficient with transit from any part of the city to the outlying suburbs comfortably achievable in less than an hour and usually having multiple routes—bus, tram, or subway—to choose from.  We should reinvent our cities to look more like Olso. 

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Street parking has largely been eliminated, parking fees have been increased and car speeds have been set to – at most – 31 mph in the city. Because of these restrictions on cars, protected bike lanes are almost non-existent and bike lanes themselves are rare. Raised crosswalks are another safety feature conspicuously absent. And yet, biking and walking are safe and widespread.

Oslo’s secret to success has been predicated on making it harder and more expensive to drive and easier and cheaper to do everything else.  

Other governments across the world – even ones that are more incompetent, more corrupt, less wealthy, and more divided than ours – have been able to figure out how to cheaply and efficiently move people about their nation more effectively than ours. Americans pay a major price for this. We pay with rising traffic fatalities, worse air pollution (which we continually learn is more harmful than we previously believed), noise pollution, and in many parts of the nation being forced to shell out thousands of dollars so we can get to work and the grocery store.   

Because of this, there is a well-established tradition of Americans going to Europe, and coming back with a head full of ideas about how a European model can be lifted wholesale and simply plopped down in the middle of some typical American city or town.

Zach Oberholtzer
Zach Oberholtzer

Unfortunately, any effort to make driving slightly more inconvenient and traveling by other means slightly easier often seems to be viewed as a wholesale onslaught against freedom and liberty.  Oslo’s model would be hard to duplicate here since it requires abandoning the almighty god of rubber and steel. 

Here in the U.S., we know the reason we suffer traffic deaths and higher rates of cancer: speed and vehicle miles traveled. But we flatly refuse to do anything about it. America is very much a “have its cake and eat it too” society. With that in mind, there is another Scandinavian city we can turn to for advice, and is more readily adaptable to our car-addled society.  

That is Stockholm, Sweden. 

Unlike Oslo, Stockholm has a spread out geography due to the archipelago the city occupies.  This geography presents multiple constraints similar to New York City, in which movement between islands is restricted to a scant few bridges and tunnels. The city is more dependent on cars and has more abundant parking and allows parking on the streets. 

Rather than reduce car presence, Stockholm has tried to allow bikers and pedestrians to co-exist with cars. The city separates bikers and pedestrians from fast-moving cars through a combination of protected bike lanes and pedestrian-only promenades and plazas.  Car speeds in Stockholm are generally limited to 20 mph in the dense urban core. By contrast, average speed limits in Hartford are currently 27 mph, New Haven 27.5mph, Bridgeport 24.8mph, and Stamford 25.3 mph. These might not seem like major differences compared to Stockholm, but Connecticut’s own infographics indicate pedestrians’ risk of death increases from 10% at 20 mph to 50% at 30 mph. 

The merit of Stockholm is that its approach is mostly made up of infrastructure changes that can be grafted onto car infrastructure. 

Many towns and cities in Connecticut have main thoroughfares full of shops and restaurants where the street is more a glorified parking lot than a transit artery. Simply closing these streets to traffic would allow shoppers and restaurant goers to avoid unnecessary air and noise pollution from idling cars. Eliminating these scant few parking spaces also would allow for more outdoor eating areas for local restaurants and more areas for potential addition of green spaces like gardens and trees once the street is reclaimed. 

Connecting people to these pedestrian plazas should be networks of protected bike lanes and contiguous sidewalks grafted onto the main roads. If we are not going to slow down our busy streets, protecting bikers with physical barriers should be a priority. Additionally, citizens should have more options for mass transit and the state should continue to invest in improving bus and train services (although the state seems to be doing the opposite with our trains). 

Finally, the country needs to take a serious look at land reform and promote at least modest increases in density. Something like row homes in most Connecticut town centers is perfectly congruent with existing “neighborhood character.” 

The country doesn’t have to Manhattanize for mass transit and bike infrastructure to make sense. Stamford, for example, boasts a large degree of different environments from urban to suburban to even rural. Yet Stamford is less than 10 miles from the beach to the city line on its longest axis. Anywhere in the city should be reachable by an hour-long bike ride. Does that mean everyone will choose to bike from the northernmost point of Stamford to the beach? No of course not. But even a 30% reduction in vehicle trips could transform the city in terms of traffic, noise, and pollution and is well worth pursuing everywhere in the state. 

By implementing similar measures, notoriously car-centric Brussels has achieved a 15% reduction over just a four-year period, for example. 

I believe in a “build it and they will come” mentality and sky-rocketing rents in American cities indicate the high demand for walkable density. The American car-centric landscape wasn’t built overnight, and it won’t be undone overnight. That doesn’t mean we can’t find useful model cities with approaches that are more easily adaptable to our current city designs.

A Stockholm-like approach of grafting new infrastructure onto the existing car infrastructure will hopefully avoid triggering a motorist backlash.

In order to shift culture, we need Americans to become acclimated to the idea that the car isn’t the best method for transiting across the countryside, certainly not for society writ large or the environment. And as culture shifts, hopefully, models like Oslo won’t seem so alien or radical.

Zach Oberholtzer is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.