If you come to Uppsala it’s impossible not to notice the prevalence of bikes and cyclists.
As a cyclist myself I was thrilled when I first visited to see separate cycle paths everywhere and more bikes than cars on the road. The city appears to be a cyclist’s dream.
I definitely feel much safer cycling here than I did in London, but it’s also different in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated.
In Uppsala cycling is completely normalised. Everyone appears to have a bike and going out on it requires no more thought or forward planning than stepping outside your front door. In an article I read recently about cycling in Britain, the author said he wants cycling to be “a normal thing that normal people do in normal clothes“. That’s what we have here and it’s (obviously) overwhelmingly a good thing.
But when cycling is so normalised, so prevalent, it also loses something: a sense of community. If you cycle in London it becomes part of your identity. It’s almost tribal. You feel that you have something in common with your fellow cyclists, and that colours your interactions with them. You look out for each other, you compete with each other, sometimes (god forbid) you might even start talking to one another.
Today on a footpath I fell off my bike and a fellow cyclist went right on past without stopping to ask if I was okay. Somehow that hurt more than my scraped knee – because it would never have happened in London. I realised that the term “fellow cyclist” doesn’t apply. We’re not in this together. We’re just two individuals who both happened to be on bikes; she had no more reason to stop than the drivers of the cars on the adjacent road.
The way people cycle in Sweden also has a lot to do with the differences between Brits and Swedes more generally. Swedish people will do almost anything to avoid any sort of conflict. So you can forget the scramble over who’s quickest setting off from the traffic lights. In Sweden, just like in the UK, bikes are required by law to have a bell fitted – but in two months here I don’t think I have ever heard anyone use theirs. If the cycle lane is invaded by a huge group of pedestrian tourists, the correct Swedish response is to wait, silently hating them, until they have passed.
The relaxed attitude that comes from living in a quiet, sparsely populated country is also apparent in the Swedish approach to cycling. For me, one of the best things about having a bike is being able to get from A to B very efficiently. Most Swedes don’t appear to take the same view and saunter along on their bikes in a languorous fashion, as if they don’t have anywhere to be. (Which, clearly, they do, since they are cycling there.)
I’m not saying that I would choose dicing with death in London over being slightly slowed down in Uppsala, but it’s funny how you can get what you wanted and still feel like you lost something along the way.