Gothenburg’s vision of sustainability

It’s easy to dismiss foreign experience as irrelevant because each country and culture has its particular institutions and history. However, fundamentally the issues around transport are the same across the world and a recent study visit to Gothenburg in Sweden, a town of just over half a million inhabitants, threw up a number of issues from which we can learn.

Of course, I realised that Gothenburg was very different from any British city as soon as I stepped out my hotel for my morning jog. The main town square bounded by the central station and several hotels which had been quiet the previous evening– northern European towns do lack night life – had turned into a buzz of buses and trams. Indeed, there was a series of lines bounding the square and two, rather perilously for pedestrians, actually crossing it in a diagonal square.

Gothenburg was one of only two Swedish cities not to follow the postwar trend of closing down the tram lines – which was exacerbated by the 1967 switch from left hand to right hand driving and has used that to build up a comprehensive network of  dozen lines used carrying more than 100m passengers – in other words 200 journeys per inhabitant annually – daily.

The key point, though, is that Gothenburg is still dissatisfied with the modal split, with around 60 per cent of journeys by car.  The difference in the political situation between the UK and Sweden was brought home to me by the first thing that Anders Roth, the City’s Environmental Manager, said in his introduction: ‘Our aim is to reduce the number of car journeys’. Moreover, that is a strategy accepted across the political spectrum.

The city is in the midst of a radical set of changes, ranging from pedestrianising most of the streets in the central area, allowing in delivery lorries only for a limited period in the morning, to the creation of a large underground rail tunnel to allow trains to run through the main station which is currently only a terminus, limiting its capacity.

That is an expensive project, part of a £3.4bn scheme that also includes greatly improving public transport which has been voted through by the city council. The crucial catalyst, though, to obtain half the funding from the federal government was the agreement that there would be a congestion charge not just for the city centre but to include the main roads that circumvent the city. Thus Gothenburg, in early January, will follow the example of Singapore, London and Stockholm, the only cities in the world so far to have adopted congestion charge schemes (Oslo is rather different).

There are to be 60 kms of new bus lanes in the next 18 months and there are discussions about whether some of them might be allowed to take lorries, too at certain times. In one area, Lindholmen, a drop off point has been created so that deliveries can be co-ordinated, reducing the number of vans driving in an area with narrow streets.

Probably the nearest city in size and shape in Britain to Gothenburg is Bristol, with the similarity made stronger given both have a rich maritime history. However,  the contrast could not be greater. Rather than trams being sprayed round the central square like confetti at a wedding, Bristol has rejected several schemes for a tram line and has struggled to get a bus rapid transit scheme introduced in the teeth of fierce opposition.

Gothenburg has been helped by the fact that the city council is a powerful body, covering a wide area and controlling the local transport while in Britain the fragmented state of government – the tram scheme was to be built jointly with South Gloucestershire – deters initiative. There are, too, plans in Bristol to create a ‘Living Heart’ by reducing traffic in the city centre, an area similar in size to Gothenburg’s old town where all the minor roads have recently been pedestrianised.

Bristol has a plan to improve its railways but that is very dependent on the results of the franchising process and decisions by central government and Network Rail over investment. Bristol City Council can lobby and put in a bit of money, but does not have the same clout as local government in Gothenburg. Perhaps the election of a mayor – Bristol was the one town to give the idea the go-ahead – may make a key difference. Several mayoral candidates have committed themselves to supporting the ‘Living Heart’ idea.

However, the experience of Gothenburg should not be viewed as something happening ‘over there’. We should take from it the fact that change can come about – even miracles can happen since, while I was there, Sweden went from 4-0 down in their match with Germany to 4-4 in the last half hour – but it takes time and effort. As Gothenburg’s Mr Roth said, ‘there’s a combination of small and big things that have resulted in change’.


  • stimarco

    I think it’s increasingly obvious that there are plenty of technical solutions to the UK’s transport problems. The primary obstacles to getting anything done are political. Until that changes, we can dream all we like, but little of any real consequence will get done.

    This is a serious malaise in the UK. Politicians are no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem.

  • Dave Berry

    In Edinburgh, the politicians proposed a congestion charge to fund public transport improvements. It was voted down by the public. So blaming the politicians seems false.

  • Paul Holt

    So the turkeys in Edinburgh didn’t vote for Christmas. Enough tax is already paid to fund public transport improvements, if only politicians stopped squandering it. The public recognised the congestion charge as just another tax for politicians to squander. This is a target CW keeps missing.

  • resinsman

    Recently visited Gothenburg for an exhibition.
    Pleasantly surprised that I was able to pay, (and get an a discount), online for the Express Airport Bus
    that dropped me right outside the Svenska Masa exhibition hall, (hopefully native Swedish readers will pardon the tautology).
    The adjacent trams seemed to be enjoying their grassed carriageways.

    The town centre will be even more pleasurable if traffic-free.

    (Town council can’t be too hard on the car, the local Volvo plant must be the largest local employer).

    had no coordinated public transport plan when I studied there in the late 70s.
    The bike was the only sensible solution, as long as you had the muscle to get back Blackboy Hill to the halls of residence.

  • W. J. Hall

    As a journalist of half Russian extraction you really should be
    better at recognising a Potemkin village.

    Bristol is not a potential transport heaven only awaiting a
    Supreme Mayor to liberate its potential.

    Both the schemes you mention were based on trying to spend money
    according to current Whitehall fashion, without any concern as to
    whether any useful results are actually achieved, in fact the precise
    opposite, the main planning aim it to hide them where no one will be

    The 1990’s tram scheme was to be hidden on the Parkway to Temple
    Meads railway line, railways at the time being regarded as fuddy
    duddy and declining. In fact the spare space is now wanted for
    reinstatement of additional tracks. This route also missed the whole
    point about trams, which is that they run in the street and stop
    relatively frequently.

    The current BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) scheme comprises first a one
    way guided busway, hidden in the docks rather than where there might
    be customers, apparently as a park and ride from North Somerset,
    which would be better done by the railway, using the stations out in
    the country. Secondly what appears to be a bypass THROUGH south
    Bristol, with the new road disguised as a bus route.

    Local politicians’ rather lukewarm support for this now seems to
    be reduced to claiming that if they do not spend the money in Bristol
    it will be spent somewhere else.

    Anyone claiming that Bristol gave the
    go-ahead to the directly elected Mayor idea needs to remember that
    13% of the electorate voted for the idea, and 12% against, which is a
    small turnout and narrow margin, and not a mandate for fiddling with
    the whole system of local government. The idea of directly elected
    mayors is in any case merely to create a single point of contact to
    receive instructions from Whitehall, and nothing to do with local
    democracy. The recently elected Mayor’s main interest seems to be to
    try to reduce the frequency of council elections, presumably because
    he is afraid of the electorate, who he no doubt fears will take
    against his attempts to create a personality cult.

    W. J. Hall