Sweden Is So Serious About Reducing Pollution, It's Giving People Bike Coaches

The city of Gothenburg plans to mentor a test group so that any mental block to urban cycling gets squashed.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Maybe it’s the recently released (and 100 percent apocalyptic-sounding) National Climate Assessment report, or maybe it’s seeing what my house will look like underwater owing to rising sea levels, but figuring out what else I can do to reduce my carbon footprint has been on my mind. The obvious answer: stop driving my car and start riding my bike to work.

Except I live in Los Angeles, which, like most American cities, revolves around cars. I’m convinced (perhaps irrationally so) that if I ride my bike to work, a Mercedes zooming down Melrose Avenue will flatten me. That kind of mental block to cycling is what Testcyklisterna, an experimental program run by the local government in Gothenburg, Sweden, is trying to overcome. The program is not only giving people a bike if they agree not to drive three days a week; it is also baby-stepping them through the process of becoming an urban cyclist.

Given that air quality is so bad in Europe that it’s the leading environment-related cause of premature death, planting the seeds of a cycling culture is a smart environmental move. After all, in March when poor air quality led Paris to ban half of drivers from getting behind the wheel for a few days, scientists found that fine particle emissions dropped by 6 percent.

About 500,000 people live in Gothenburg, which is on Sweden’s west coast and is no hotbed of bike lanes. Like cyclists everywhere, those in the Swedish city have to figure out the safest routes to travel and acclimate themselves to a biking lifestyle. In April, the program selected 35 people from various backgrounds—students, business commuters, the elderly, and parents with young children—to teach them how to be cyclists.

“In some cases, it can be challenging to use a bike to, for example, do your shopping, or take your children to preschool and then get to your workplace in the morning,” Rickard Waern, a project manager for the Energy Agency of West Sweden, which is collaborating on the project, told FastCoExist. “And while this is absolutely true in some cases, the fact of the matter is that this can be more a mental barrier than an actual one. Most people can, with the right bike and a bit of planning, manage to do all these things and more." 

The project’s support group helps the novice riders select a suitable bike; then they get a transport coach who gives them personal guidance and support. The coaches help the newbies figure out all those details that are mentally overwhelming to a new biker. Testcyklisterna is no weeklong project either. The participants will have their coaches through October—plenty of time to make biking a habit.

The hope is that this test group will have such a positive experience that they’ll become like ambassadors of urban cycling—living proof that it is possible to ride a bike in a big city, run all your errands, and come home safely at night. 

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