Notes from Norway

Translation: Share the road. Seen while touring among farms and fjords in Inderoy.

Translation: Share the road. Seen while touring among farms and fjords in Inderoy.

I might have expected Trondheim, Norway to have lousy bike infrastructure. After all, its latitude is just shy of the Arctic Circle, it’s a city of only middling size, and Norway is a petro-state with a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund earned almost entirely from oil. But I would have been dead wrong.

I had the privilege of visiting Trondheim on a recent business trip and was glad to find a thriving, lovely haven for bikes as transportation. Anecdotally, there seemed to be more bikes on the roads than cars. The cycle path in front of my hotel headed straight to city center and was constantly busy. Across the street was a double-decker covered bike rack serving the residents of an adjacent apartment building. Strolling around the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, I found every entrance to every building surrounded by tremendous bike racks — and the racks were overflowing. Students pedaled. Businessmen pedaled. Grandmothers pedaled. Researchers attending the conference with me told stories about how much faster it is to get anywhere in Trondheim by biking than by driving, even despite the city’s steep hills.

For that matter, most of the people who weren’t biking seemed to be using public transportation. Trondheim has no subway, but the buses come constantly. Even buses to the airport, nearly an hour away, run once every eight minutes, with multiple stops in the city.

How does Trondheim do it? First, they have great infrastructure. I saw plenty of cycle paths, offering cyclists a place to ride that keeps cars on the other side of a curb. Where there weren’t cycle paths, there were bike lanes. Wide bike/pedestrian routes along the river and along the fjord offer quick, quiet, picturesque connections between city center and outlying neighborhoods. That said, by US standards, few neighborhoods are really “outlying”, which is Trondheim’s second secret. Though there are fewer than 200,000 residents, the population density feels to me like it’s similar to Boston or DC. Almost nowhere is too far to bike. Third, bike infrastructure is clearly planned and carefully maintained. Signs mark the way, a bike lift (sykkelheis in Norwegian) helps cyclists up the hills, and automated counters gather vital statistics about how many people travel by biking or walking. Finally, alternative transportation is incentivized. Gasoline sells for about three times as much in Norway as in the US (though the price is actually cheap by European standards). Moreover, according to one of the conference hosts, the Norwegian government taxes car purchases at roughly 200%, making bikes and buses into financial no-brainers. In many ways, Trondheim, Norway has chosen to build a society in which human-scale, human-powered transportation is comfortable, economical, and normal. That’s what really explains all the biking vikings.

I’ll take one minor point of exception to biking in Trondheim: the city’s bike share program is nowhere near as convenient or effective as Zagster right here in Rochester. City bikes in Trondheim cost about $10/day for tourists and require that the day start and end at the tourism office downtown, from which user cards are obtained. Zagster in Rochester costs just $1 per half-hour ride, with rides starting and any Zagster rack and ending at any Zagster rack. For an extra $1, you can even end your ride in Rochester anyplace within the city limits — it’s wonderfully convenient. (To learn more, see my earlier article about Zagster.)

Inconvenient city bikes notwithstanding, the main point is clear: Trondheim gives a tangible and unarguable example of a mid-sized, snowy city where human-scale transportation is the norm. Biking and walking and riding buses there are the easiest, most enjoyable ways to get almost anywhere in town, and nearly everybody uses them. The result is a healthier, more human, more sustainable city. Let’s keep working to bring the same quality of life to Rochester.

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