Sweden, Land of Bicycle Supremacy? | UVA Student Council

Hej vänner,

Greetings once again from Umeå, Sweden. The weather hasn’t turned just yet, but daylight is disappearing at a pretty good clip. After we all celebrate the equinox on Friday, here we’ll be losing about 45 minutes of daylight each week.

Three weeks into my visit here, I’m still struck by two fairly major differences in everyday life from what I grew used to in Charlottesville: 1) the absolute preponderance of bicycles, and 2) the tangible presence of the country’s efforts for gender equality.

There is no avoiding the pro-bike culture here in Umeå, and it was very evident the one day I spent in Stockholm as well. Seemingly everyone has a bike – and they use it. Students going to and from class, men in coats and ties, women in skirts and dresses, grocery shopping, heading for nightlife, it doesn’t matter. The bike is the way to get around. And something for my colleagues on the Safety and Wellness and Building and Grounds committees to think about (and other dreamers) – the infrastructure here supports and promotes bicycling. I can get everywhere I need to on a wide path specifically for bikers and pedestrians that is not just part of the road or parking spaces. No worries about getting taken out by an opening car door! (Perhaps that’s why no one here wears a helmet, but that’s a different issue…) Tunnels and bridges just for bikers and pedestrians aren’t hard to find either. On the rare occasion that you do need to cross a road, I have yet to see a car not yield to the bicyclist. (I heard a rumor that the auto driver is almost always deemed to be at fault in bike-car collisions here). In Stockholm the infrastructure support was even more evident: separate lanes on the city roads for bicycles separated by concrete medians – complete with their own set of (miniature) traffic lights that were integrated into the overall traffic signal network. There were times for cars to make their turns and other times for bikes to make their turns. Brilliant. Expensive (presumably), but brilliant.

On the gender equality front – I have to admit, first, and regrettably, that gender issues are not my forte. However, in the first 30 minutes I was here I learned from my host professor about the very favorable and equal maternity/paternity leave system that Sweden has where the choice for how parents will take time off of work to raise their newly-born children is completely at the family’s discretion, and the time allotment is very generous. Many couples elect, with no problem from their employer, and continued income (a certain %), for each spouse to take a certain number of months off of work. I don’t know if that is also the case in the U.S., but it sounded like parents here have a great opportunity to be able to be with their children.

In terms of more everyday life, though – I met two surprises that are probably related to gender equality. First, haircuts for men are expensive! Back home, a simple men’s haircut (with short hair like mine, anyway) runs somewhere between $10-$20. Most men’s haircut prices listed on the internet here are 300 Kr or more (about 6.5 kroner per dollar). Wow! A few blogs online speculated that the high prices exist because it wouldn’t be “right” for a man to pay less to get his hair cut than a woman. (Fortunately I was able to find one for 150 Kr after all of this worrying).  Second, and this really caught me off guard the first time – there is no linkage between the gender that is changing in a locker room in the gym here and the gender of the locker room attendant. There is a college-age girl who is regularly cleaning the men’s locker room, and signs on the women’s locker room indicate that they are serviced by both men and women as well. I have not seen that at the AFC (and am not advocating for or against it). Because I only know about 4 words in Swedish so far, I have no concept of how men and women actually speak to or treat each other, but I am a believer of what I’ve read that gender equality is very important to the Swedes.

More to come next post, but I hope you’re all able to enjoy the great weather and outdoor activities Charlottesville brings in the fall! We’ll be stocking our shelves preparing for winter here in Umeå (well, not quite yet).

All the best,