Month of Bicycle Commuting In Sweden, 1997
A picaresque account of a brief stay in Göteborg
Long Beach, California, USA
April 17 - May 17, 1997
Begin the Story
Information and Links
Thursday, April 17 and Friday, April 18
Today I'm off to Göteborg, Sweden (known also to
outsiders as Gothenburg). My wife, Julie, takes me to the
stays with me awhile, then goes home. Usually, when I go to Europe, she
travels with me, but this time I'm alone. She and my younger son,
will join me in Sweden in a little while. But for now, it's just me.
I'm a former college professor (UCLA, Electrical
Department), now working as an engineering consultant. Somehow, in
of the fact that I have no real ties to UCLA any longer, I seem to have
retained some of my academic credentials. Last winter I was invited by
Dr. Hans-Olof Vickes of Saab-Ericsson Space to visit for a week, and
I was there, we arranged for me to spend a month in Göteborg, half
at Saab-Ericsson and half at Chalmers University of Technology. I plan
to do some general consulting and to teach a short course in my
nonlinear microwave circuit design.
Something like this is, of course, more than just a
It's an opportunity and an adventure. I have always wanted to use a
for my primary transportation while in Europe, so I made arrangements
rent a mountain bike for the month. I'm not outfitted for serious
and I don't think I'll have time for a long bike tour, but I hope to
a few day rides around Göteborg. And, of course, I will use the
to commute between my apartment and my two jobs. It will be interesting
to see how all this works out.
I have a special problem that complicates things: a
ankle that prevents me from walking very far. This is one reason for
the bike: I can ride it right up to the front door of any place I
If I were to use Göteborg's public transportation, which is
I would still have to walk a few blocks at each end of the journey, and
even this much extra walking might be a problem. Fortunately, bicycling
is easy on my ankle, and I can ride forever.
The plane trip is uneventful. I fly to Amsterdam and
transfer to a plane to Göteborg. Hans-Olof is waiting for me when
I get through customs. He takes me to my new home, an apartment for
Chalmers faculty. It is small but nice, one room with a kitchen and
He has thoughtfully brought some bread, coffee, and fruit, so I don't
to do any shopping right away. I'm jet-lagged and dog-tired, so I crash
early. Plenty of time for exploring the surrounding tomorrow.
Saturday, April 19
My first morning in Sweden. I get up at 5:30 with the
queen mother of all caffeine headaches. (I have avoided caffeine and
on the plane; this is my reward!) I make a pot of coffee, take a couple
of tylenols, and settle down to a breakfast of bread, coffee, and a
After breakfast I put away some of my things. There isn't enough space
for all my clothes, so I will probably have to leave a lot in
Today I feel pretty good, better than I have any
to expect. It's not because of any shortage of exercise. I spend the
doing a little work, and Hans-Olof picks me up around noon. We go to a
shop in his neighborhood and pick up my rented bike. I have a choice of
a mountain bike or a traditional "city bike," a more upright unit with
a seven-speed hub gear (!) and coaster brakes, of all things. I go for
the known quantity, the mountain bike. The guy who owns the bike shop
very nice, helpful and friendly. As I leave, he gives me a bicyce map
Göteborg showing bike routes and streets that are recommended for
bicycling. In the following weeks, I use it a lot.
From there I ride the bike to Hans-Olof's house,
him as he drives. It is a townhouse, perhaps 1800 square feet, with a
back yard. Interestingly, the streets in his neighborhood are named
communications terms: Radiogatan, Electrongatan, Radargatan,
and similar things.
We take a short (~5 mile) bike trip to a small harbor
on the coast. The bike path goes through some charming areas, full of
real estate, ending at a harbor full of small boats. Herbert Zirath, a
Chalmers professor and one of Hans-Olof's friends, has a boat moored in
the harbor. Usually he is there on Saturdays; we look for him, but he's
not around. Heading back to Hans-Olof's house, we fight a stiff and
headwind. Nevertheless, a reward is waiting: his wife has left us beer
and quiche. We talk for a while, and I ride home.
The day has been cold, but clear and sunny. In spite
of this, I run into snow flurries, courtesy of one dark cloud which has
passed overhead. No matter; they disappear in a few minutes. The route
home is a long bike path and goes past the botanical gardens. I make a
mental note to visit.
On the way home, I get lost. I can get to my general
neighborhood, but I can't find my building! (I know I left it here
After a few wrong turns, and a few extra hills, I finally find my way
I'm cold and starting to get a little tired. I snack on some bread and
fruit for dinner, and spend the evening reading the mystery novel I
Sunset is around 9:00 PM.
Sunday, April 20
I crash around 10:00 but don't get to sleep easily.
students playing drums in the courtyard around 11:00 don't help.) I
up at 3:00 AM, after only about three hours of sleep. Well, the jet lag
had to appear, I suppose. My room has only light curtains at the
and I'm afraid that after sunrise (about 6:00 AM now) I won't have a
of getting back to sleep. I hang blankets over the curtain rods to
the windows. I read a little, go to sleep around 6:00, and get up just
before 10:00 AM.
Today is like yesterday, cool and windy, but also
sunny. The blue sky is splattered with big cumulus clouds that drop an
occasional snow flurry. I go for a bike ride, mostly along the harbor,
following a well marked, scenic bicycle route. I pass the train station
and shortly afterward, the new opera house; it is a striking building,
evocative of the prow of a ship. Along the harbor, I pass passenger
where ships leave for Frederickshavn in Denmark, freight transfer
and the maritime museum with its tower topped by a statue of a woman
expectantly out to sea. Eventually I come to an area called Alsborg,
the remains of a castle are visible. There's not much left. My son
who is a castle connoisseur, would be a little disappointed, but there
are some charming eighteenth-century buildings remaining. I continue a
few miles and eventually turn around, returning the same way I came. On
the way home, I ride straight up the Avenue, the central shopping
in Göteborg, and stop at the concert hall. There is an interesting
concert Friday, Brahms 1 and the Emperor Concerto. On Wednesday, the
Brahms with some unspecified Berlioz. Although the Friday concert is
(6:00 PM) I think I might go. The concert hall is just a short ride
my apartment, right down at the bottom of the hill. Maybe a mile. I
almost walk it.
do a little shopping: some paper towels, a frozen pizza, pasta and
sauce, some fruit. I'll wait until tomorrow to buy bread, so it will be
fresh. I have the frozen pizza for a mid-afternoon dinner. I'm hungry.
I'm not eating enough.
This evening Hans-Olof stops by, mainly to show me
to get from my apartment to Saab-Ericsson by bike. The route is not
but there is a long, steep hill, about the same as the one on Pacific
Highway just south of Dana Point. I don't think it is too difficult to
ride, but I might need a shower when I get to the top. (Apparently that
can be arranged, too.) After the orientation, we drive by Herbert
house, which is in a neighborhood behind Saab-Ericsson, visit for an
and help him empty a few cans of beer.
Monday, April 21
My first day of work. Up bright and early, and after
a hearty breakfast of three-day-old bread and coffee, I'm off to
The sky does not look as nice as it did over the weekend, so I wear my
rain jacket, partly because of the threat of rain and partly for
I find my way relatively easily. The hill is a long climb but not
the cold is more of problem than the steep slope.
The route is pretty straightforward. My little
is on a hillside near Chalmers. Saab-Ericsson is on top of a hill on
opposite side of the valley. It is well outside of town, in a rural
surrounded by light forests. There are bike paths all the way. I go
the hill on Rydberggatan, through the busy intersection at Korsvagen (a
big bus/trolley transfer point), and across the valley past the
to Liseberg, the city's big amusement park. Then back down the valley
the freeway that goes directly to Saab, through a tunnel under the
and up the long, steep hill on a bike path. Near the top, the hill gets
almost too steep to ride, and it starts to drizzle. Fortunately there
an alternative route, under another underpass, up a longer and more
hill, then over to Saab on the regular streets. This goes through a
area that looks rather nice, especially when it's not under water from
rain. Today it's full of golfers playing in the rain, slogging through
deep puddles. In Göteborg, you play golf in the rain or you play
very little. Your choice.
I park my bike in the bicycle barn, a covered wooden
structure for bikes and mopeds. There must be a couple hundred bikes
quite a few employees commute by bicycle. The barn is so full that I
trouble finding a spot for my bike, but I manage to wedge it in
In my office we go through the standard ritual of
the email and Netscape work, getting the "lay of the land" (i.e.,
the coffee pot and men's room), meeting people, and figuring out what
want me to do.
Mid-morning, I glance out the window. Well, whattaya
know: it's raining. Hard! Glad I brought my rain suit. This might be my
first chance to try it.
I have lunch with Hans-Olof. Saab-Ericsson treats.
is OK; I can eat a good lunch and don't have to cook in the evening.
food is actually very good. They call it a choritzo sausage,
makes me think of Mexican sausage, but it's really a Polish sausage
an attitude. They have fresh fish on Tuesday through Friday, and
says it's excellent. The cafeteria is great; the food is good, and it's
a pleasant, modern room with large windows. These let in lots of
light and create a sense of being outdoors.
I plod along through the afternoon. Hans Grondqvist,
one of the other engineers, stops by and we have coffee. The 2:00
break is a very civilized tradition in the Scandinavian world; everyone
takes a break at the same time, in the same place. It's not only very
but it guarantees that everyone meets, face-to-face, at least once a
A lot of problems that otherwise might be ignored get solved at these
I stare out the window at the rain. It's raining
This will be some trip home!
Five o'clock comes, and, amazingly, the rain has
The sun is coming out and everything is drying. I won't even have to
my rain pants to prevent splashing on my clean clothes. I head back
the mountain, retracing this morning's route. There isn't much
traffic in Göteborg, but it is a little congested on the bridge by
Liseberg. What a pity! I was looking forward to feeling superior to all
the autombile-bound suckers stuck in rush-hour traffic!
Dinner: I'm not very hungry, but cooking gives me
to do. I try to cook the shell macaroni I got at the local
but I boil it forever, it seems, and it won't soften. Where did this
come from? Ancient Egypt? Surplus Space Shuttle tiles? The Petrified
I have more luck with the canned chopped tomatoes; they cook down
and with the addition of some spices, it almost seems like real pasta
I can't wait for tomorrow!
Tuesday, April 22
At this point it's time for a description of the
Saab-Ericsson Space is like nothing in the US. From the
the appearance of the building is striking: its siding is corrugated
and some of the windows are round. They look like portholes, giving the
building the appearance of a ship. Like many things in Göteborg,
reflects the city's nautical heritage. There is a geodesic radome at
end on top of what looks like a concrete silo, obviously used for
testing. Indoors, the decor is all light-colored wood and white
Scandinavian. Lighting is mostly from fluorescent fixtures that hang
the ceiling and plug into ceiling-mounted outlets; they have pull
to turn them on. Most striking are the offices. As in the US, they are
located along the outside walls, so each has windows, but unlike
I've ever seen, each office has glass walls on the hallway side. This
you know exactly who's around. (But don't close the door and change
your jogging shorts!) The center of the building is for computer
labs, printers, file cabinets, library shelves, and similar things. But
the most striking and least believable difference between Saab-Ericsson
and US aerospace companies is that the cafeteria food here is great!
Now back to the news and weather:
I plod along through the day. Around 4:00 (7:00 AM in
California) I call Julie; she's surprised and happy to hear from me.
weather is decent, so I do a little shopping on my way home. I ride
to The Avenue
, Göteborg's main street. At one end is the
art museum and concert hall. These buildings surround a huge fountain
a statue of Neptune, another testament to Göteborg's seafaring
I stop at the concert hall to pick up a ticket for Wednesday's concert.
We'll see how the Göteborg Symphony does Brahms!
Back at my apartment, I'm surprised by a knock on the
door. Eric Kollberg, a professor from Chalmers, is there with Dave
a Cal Tech professor, and his wife! Fortunately I'm dressed and the
is more or less decent. (well, more like less.) They stop in and chat
a while. Unfortunately, his wife (who seems really nice) plans to leave
right after Julie arrives; otherwise, they could pal around together.
A noisy night. A loud TV just below me that is still
going at 11:30. Some drunken students are raising hell in the open area
just below my window. I go for a walk and return just after midnight.
TV is off, but a radio is going. I sleep a little, but at 7:00 AM some
type of washing machine is rumbling away in the room next to mine. I
up trying to sleep, get dressed, and head off to S-E.
Wednesday, April 23
Another uneventful day at Saab-Ericsson. Again the
climb to the building, park in the bicycle barn, and enter.
By afternoon it's raining again, and by 5:00 it's
heavy. I see a few snowflakes mixed in with the rain. If there ever
be a time to try out my new rain suit, this is it! I look like an
explorer on my way out of the building. As I ride home, I see that a
Swedish bike commuters have similar outfits, so I don't feel
but most cyclists look like cats that someone threw into the river.
smoothly through the gentle rain, I'm warm and dry, and the whole
of riding through the rain is actually very pleasant.
Tonight is the concert. I stare out the window and
about the weather. I toy with the idea of taking a bus, but I don't
the schedule, and this is not a good time to experiment. I notice that
some of the raindrops seem to fall awfully slowly--are those
After a while, the rain turns almost completely into snow, and it seems
to be falling heavily. Fortunately, no sign of accumulation; it's
too warm and wet. Well, so I ride through snow now. What the hell--the
bike has snow tires, right?
I'm really eager to go to the concert; hearing the
Symphony should be a real treat. I decide to go by bike. I leave my
about an hour ahead of time, although I know it's only about a
ride. Once downtown, I lock my bike to a post, slip out of my rain suit
right outside the concert hall, stuff it in my backpack, pull up my
and walk into the hall coatless and dry. I then check the backpack, and
I'm off to the show.
The concert hall is a little strange by US standards.
There is only orchestra seating and some slightly raised areas, called
Loges, along the sides. (All tickets are the same price; this is why.)
The orchestra is on a stage that projects out into the audience more
most, but not exactly a proscenium. They do Berlioz' Roman Carnival
Overture, Berlioz' Summer Nights, and Brahms 1. I've never
Summer Nights before; it is entrancing. The Brahms is wonderful.
All in all, a spectacular performance.
It's still raining when I come out of the concert
I get into my rain suit, unlock the bike, and I'm off for home. The
is brightly lit, so riding home in the rain, even at night, is not a
I wonder if there are any laws requiring bike lights. Quite a few
don't have them, so even if there is, they probably aren't enforced.
Thursday, April 24
Still raining like hell. I ride to work in the full
suit and make my entrance to Saab-Ericsson in dripping yellow plastic.
I'm quite a sight: not your usual, overdignified college prof. In the
shed, I see Carlotta Hedenas, a engineer from Ericsson Microwave whom I
met in November. I don't recognize her at first, since she's dripping
and in a helmet, and my glasses are foggy from the cold.
Today I teach the first part of my short course. It goes well, and
I get some positive feedback from the students. We have over 60 people
signed up, a pretty good turn-out.
The rain stops around 3:00, and there is even a
sunlight and blue sky visible between the clouds. By 4:30 it starts to
cloud over again, so I think this is a good time to leave. Also, the
are open late on Thursdays, and I need to exchange some money. On the
home, I ride into town again. I find a FOREX place along the Avenue and
exchange $200, getting better than 7.5 Swedish crowns per dollar, a
good rate. I ride around town a bit more, enjoying it so much that I
don't want to go home. The dreary day recedes behind me as I push the
past underneath my wheels, noticing everything I can about my new
I still have trouble believing that I'm really here.
Friday, April 25
The folks at Chalmers suddenly realized that my
doesn't have a TV, so the ordered one for me! Very thoughtful of them.
There is a lot of English-language TV in Sweden, even US shows, and of
course CNN and NBC Europe for news. The TV and a radio, as well, arrive
just after 4:00. I set up the radio, but the TV needs a cable to
to the building's cable system. So, I can't watch it just yet. I can't
imagine why that wasn't included.
I go out bicycling after the delivery people leave.
has asked me to get her a schedule of trains from Göteborg to
she plans to go to Helsinki, Finland, via Stockholm, to see some old
I try a different route and promptly get lost. I end up downtown at
hour. Biking through rush-hour traffic in downtown Göteborg is not
for the faint of heart. The area is a huge cloud of pedestrians,
buses, cars, trolleys, and anything else on feet or wheels, all
in different directions. The mean free path between each of these
is no more than a yard or two, and their motion is as unpredictable as
gas molecules. I get through undamaged, physically if not
I know about where the train station is, or at least
was, last time I saw it. Since it apparently hasn't moved, I find it
too much more trouble. Train stations are the places where you see real
travellers: people without a lot of money and in need of a shower.
are populated largely by affluent business yuppies stuck in a
attitude. And usually they don't need showers. The Göteborg train
station is an old one (aren't they all!) and has the usual complement
newsstands, eateries, ticket offices, incomprehensible
signs, and benches full of tired old ladies and college kids with
I find the ticket office and a pile of train schedules. Success!
Now that I have a radio, I check out the CD store in
the train station. Naxos CDs are 50 crowns there, a little under 7
Not bad; in the US they're about $5. I don't get any, though. Books are
worse. A US paperback that goes for $8 at home is about $13. I'm not
hard up for something to read.
On the way home, I do some scouting around. I ride
the canal that runs through the center of the city, especially the part
east of the center of town. It's very attractive, and the bike path is
wide and smooth. I should check out the rest of it this weekend. Or go
to the art museum; I haven't been there yet this trip. I also stumble
the ethnographic museum, which is probably worth one trip. Or maybe I
save these for bad weather, which means that I'll probably see a lot of
Saturday, April 26
This is a beautiful day, clear, sunny, and
warmer than most days last week. Just as well: today I have a few
to do. I need a cable to connect the TV to the building's cable system.
I find just what I need at a TV store in a shopping mall downtown. I
get a French baguette for lunch from a high-class seafood store.
I'm near the bridge to the other side of the harbor,
and I've been wondering what's there, so over we go! I ride about a
inland. Have I ever biked over a real bridge before? I don't think so.
I do find out what's on the other side: nothing useful. There is a huge
shopping area, but I don't go into any stores. I see some large fields
of daffodils incongruously planted along a dingy and well-worn freeway.
After exploring a little, I decide that my side of the harbor is much
so I turn around, go back over the bridge, and into downtown
I go to the train station and buy a couple cheap CDs.
Now, at least I have something to listen to. I bike through the park
the canal; I see spring flowers starting to come up, and I marvel at
spectacular old buildings. Everyone in town is outside. The sidewalk
are full (even though the customers are bundled up in coats), there are
sidewalk vendors, thousands of shoppers, even a horse-drawn cart full
kids. I walk down one narrow, cobblestone street lined with antique and
used-book stores. Many have tables out on the very narrow sidewalk. No
cars can get through; there are too many people, so the place becomes a
de facto pedestrian mall. This is the place to come for used,
books. Most are about 20 crowns, compared to at least 100 for new ones,
and there is a good selection.
This is a great morning. Everywhere I look, there's
to see. This is the first I've sensed a flavor to this town; last week
it was buttoned up so tight against the cold and rain that it was hard
to get much of a feeling for the city.
Hans-Olof and his wife Margareta stop by for a few
and invite me to dinner on Sunday. Of course, I accept.
Sunday April 27
Today I feel pretty decent, and I'd like to keep it
way. Instead of going out on the bike and wearing myself out, I stay in
and do some work on my laptop computer. The weather looks great; clear
and sunny. People outside are lightly dressed, so it must be warm.
I leave for the Vickes' house at about 4:15. The
is beautiful; I am wearing only a sweater, but, no fool, I bring a coat
and rain gear in my backpack. It is a five-mile ride, which normally
take more than 25 minutes, but this is Sweden and I'm not on my
I cut through the Chalmers campus, then head uphill past the main
called Sahlgrenska. From there, it's a short, steep downhill, past the
botanical garden and a wonderful, laid-back European park called
and finally straight along a relatively level bike path the the Vickes'
neighborhood. It takes about a half hour, so I look around a shopping
near their home for about ten minutes. I arrive on the dot of 5:00.
What a nice evening. Salmon soup, homemade bread,
white wine. Everything is wonderful. After dinner we sit outside for
cream, fried bananas, and coffee. I probably shouldn't drink coffee at
7:00 PM, but it's a nice evening and pleasant company; it's impossible
to say no. Finally, it's approaching 8:00, and sunset will be here
so I better leave. I make my excuses, thank them again, and I'm off.
though the sun is setting, it's still warm enough that I don't need my
jacket. I'm back in my room just as it's starting to get dark. I take
easy. Tomorrow's a work day.
Digression: Bicycle Commuting in Sweden
Now that I've been doing this for a week, I'm an
Here's the straight story.
First and foremost: bicycling in Sweden is not about
a bunch of environmentally aware yuppies working hard at being pleased
with themselves. Bikes in Sweden are not conveyances for spandex-coated
fashion plates wearing color-coordinated jerseys and (maybe) helmets.
are real transportation for real people. Everyone rides. It is
Americans, at least--to see the variety of people on two wheels: kids,
adults, young people on dates, commuters, housewives going shopping,
men and women. They ride along carrying groceries in backpacks,
kids in child seats, and large parcels on small carrier racks. They're
going somewhere and doing something. The idea of using a bike to make a
spectacle of oneself, the life goal of most riders in LA, seems
Bicycles in Sweden are real transportation, not a
toy. Bicycling is not a "fashion sport," to use a term from the LA
People bicycle to work because it is the most sensible form of
door-to-door, cheap, and easy to park. Cold weather and rain do not
the bike parking lot, although I'll admit to seeing fewer bikes in the
Saab-Ericsson bicycle barn during rainy weather. (But, interestingly,
more cars in the parking lot. Apparently many bikers don't ride in the
rain, but instead take public transportation. Or bum a ride with
The people who didn't forsake their bikes because of a little rain were
a mixed lot; some were prepared for the weather and some weren't. Most
of the latter probably just didn't give a damn about a little rain.
Because bicycles are real transportation, the city is
designed for bike access. Virtually all major streets have bike lanes
dedicated bike paths. Bicycles have their own traffic lights, and the
push-buttons are within reach of a cyclist. The button boxes have
and reflectors on them, so you can see them easily at night and know if
the button has been pushed. Bike routes through town are marked with
signs, and passages through complex intersections are marked with
painted on the pavement.
Because bikes are genuinely tools for transportation,
not toys, people don't treat them like toys. Gone with the spandex
are the expensive, show-off bikes so common in the US. (Have you
that these pricey toys are usually ridden by people whose tails are so
bloated that they probably need to call the fire department to extract
their bike-seats from their asses? These characters like to brag that
bikes are eight ounces lighter than mine, but most of them could easily
afford to reduce their own weight by about 800 ounces.) Most bikes in
are, frankly, in pretty bad shape. And no wonder: they are subjected to
heavy use, parking in the rain, and more time spent riding them than
with them in the garage.
The types of bikes used here are different from those
in the US. Here the most common bike is a "city bike," similar to a US
three-speed, with comfortable, upright seating, a rear luggage rack,
a seven-speed, coaster-brake rear hub. I've never seen anything
like them in the US, and no wonder: they'd probably sell like pet
The next most common type is a mountain bike, and these are similar to
the less expensive mountain bikes in the US. Silly things like shock
and other design affectations are virtually nonexistent here.
The use of more rational types bicycles in Sweden
not imply that all Swedes are rational cyclists. Probably the opposite
is closer to the truth. I suspect that the average Swedish cyclist is
soul mate of the average Italian driver. Some of these guys (and gals)
ride like the headless horseman were after them. Especially in a city
lots of hills (which means, of course, lots of steep downgrades), this
can make it exciting and difficult to stay alive. When riding in
especially downhill, you must never let your attention wander. In an
a wheeled cruise missile, flying under your radar, will sail past you
if it doesn't hit anything (or maybe even if it does), disappear over
horizon with pieces of its latest kill dangling from its jaws. Your
depends on making sure that the "anything" it doesn't hit is you.
In Sweden, bicycles are at the top of the
food chain. We bikers rule the streets: drivers respect us and
fear us. Both get out of our way, and fast. Yes, both pedestrians and
stop for bikes. (There are invariably traffic lights wherever trolleys
and busses might compete with bikes, so this is not an issue.) Cars
for pedestrians, but pedestrians stop for bikes. In view of the way
people ride, they all damn well better.
But the greatest advantage of bicycling in Sweden,
a foreigner, is that it is a way of joining the real life of the city.
Riding along a narrow bike path in a cloud of bikes, surrounded by
rusted frames and wobbly, half-flat tires, you get a real sense of
there. The experience affirms that you are part of the local reality,
distances you from the busloads of spoiled American tourists that
all corners of Europe every summer. There's nothing like the feeling of
going somewhere, seeing it, and being part of it as well. Nothing.