When cycling is the norm, discovers Phoebe Rountree, a bike is key to fitting in.
The to-do list looped around my jet-lagged brain.
Sign housing contract. Shop for groceries. Buy bedding. Get a bike.
I’d just arrived in Uppsala, Sweden, for a student-exchange semester. This was an unfamiliar, slightly daunting experience, and I wanted to be prepared. This meant completing the essential tasks first. I hoped that, if I stayed organised, I’d quickly come to feel settled here.
Uppsala is a small university town, with a population of around 200,000 people. Coming from Melbourne, it seems tiny. It bursts with students and their bikes.
This in itself makes me feel at home. I’d finished at Bicycle Network shortly before heading overseas, marking the end of three years happily working to get more people on their bikes. Outside work I’d often find myself in conversations about the joys of bike riding. I rode everywhere I could around Melbourne. All the while, though, I was aware that riding could be a battle against traffic, against pedestrians, against aggressive fellow riders, against poor infrastructure, against all those people who think bikes have no place on the roads.
In Uppsala this struggle is non-existent. Bicycles play the crucial role that cars do in Melbourne and in every other major city and town in Australia; they are the key to social mobility. In Uppsala, the bike is freedom and independence—the ability to go where we wish, when we wish. Not owning a bike, or having one that is damaged and out of action, makes life a little—and sometimes a lot—more difficult.
It’s August and it’s Orientation Week. Finding a bike is high on many new students’ to-do lists. Second-hand bikes are posted to ‘Buy and Sell’ Facebook pages and messages flow rapidly back and forth as new students pounce on the offer. Others visit the flea market for incredibly cheap bikes. The quality there is variable, but with attention and a bit of luck you can snare a reliable ride. Other students splash out on shiny new bicycles, confident they’ll be able to sell them on come spring semester, when the next new batch of students arrive.
I am lucky. A friend from Melbourne, who’s already found herself a decent bike, tells me the day after I arrive of another sturdy-looking bike selling online. I message the seller and can soon relax that my transport for the whole semester is sorted. I now own a very robust unisex bike, with slightly squeaky back-pedal brakes, and tough wheels that barely get unsettled by anything.
It’s a delight to transition from my life in Melbourne, where friends that didn’t ride outweighed those that did, to my life in Uppsala where riding is the unquestioned default. As good as riding is for your health, let alone the environment, these issues aren’t at the forefront of many people’s minds. Riding is simply the easiest way, and the cheapest way, to get about town. Besides, everyone is doing it.
I meet exchange students who haven’t ridden a bike since childhood or who tried to but soon neglected it for a car, public transport or whatever was easiest. Within one week of living in Uppsala, these same friends would, upon leaving their house, automatically walk to wherever they’d locked their bike. Grabbing your bike becomes as instinctive as checking you have your keys, wallet and phone with you when leaving the house.
It helps that Uppsala is compact. My housing area is on the outskirts of town, but even then it’s only three kilometres from the centre—a tiny distance when on a bike. Separated bike lanes help too; riding on the roads isn’t a problem on nicer summer and autumn days, but in snowy, rainy winter I feel safer with my own space, away from the cars.
Car drivers show great patience. They are used to the constant stream of people on bikes flowing through the town. While there must still be conflicts between car drivers and bike riders—beeping horns, misunderstandings, dangerous situations—I never experience or witness this.
Riding is so easy, normal and automatic that little deters my friends and me from doing so. We always have the option of walking, or catching the frequent bus into town. But to do so feels more inconvenient than to simply grab our bikes and carry on. Some evenings you find us dressed up for the formal dinners that the university’s ‘Nations’ (similar to clubs or houses) organise. Men wear elegant suits, women in cocktail dresses and heels. Yet, despite the formal clothing, at the start and the end of the night we all unthinkingly throw on warm coats against the Swedish winter, and jump on our bikes.
Weather in itself is rarely an issue. We international students learn quickly from our Swedish peers that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’ With a decent coat, beanie and gloves there are few occasions that we can’t ride our bikes. As winter wears on snow is cleared from the bike paths, and gravel is scattered over it to help tyres grip against the ice. I ride with greater caution, and expect that others do too. But ultimately it’s no more a thing of consequence to jump on your bike in winter as it is during any of the other seasons. This is simply what Uppsala does.
Back home, I attend a university dinner that visiting Uppsala University representatives are hosting for their partners at Melbourne and Monash. I’m glad to have the chance to catch up with another Melbourne student I met briefly while in Sweden. I mention how I love the normalisation of bike riding in our tiny, temporary hometown. My peer replies that he wants to buy a bike now; he enjoyed riding in Uppsala so much that he wants to continue riding here in Melbourne. I smile. It makes me even happier to think there’s a good chance there are other ex-Uppsala students, all over the world, making the same plan.
Photo credit: Amy Luo