Dire Straits

Intended to foster Scandinavia’s growth as an economic super-region, the new Oresund bridge appears to be a flop. Nicholas Adams jaunts between Sweden and Denmark to find out why.

Last July, the Oresund Fixed Link, or Oresundbron, connecting Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, and Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city, opened to much fanfare. Designed to heal the 10-million-year-old rift in the earth’s surface that placed Denmark on one side a five-mile strait of water and Sweden on the other, the bridge has been praised as both visionary and expeditious: The big idea behind the Oresundbron–a $2 billion venture funded by both the Danish and Swedish governments, completed on time and under budget–was to stitch together a new super-region that would be able to compete with Europe’s economic powerhouses. You could almost hear Mother Europe’s corsets pop. Small and Medium had become Large and Xtra-Large almost overnight!

Yet every bridge has its share of potholes. Oresundbron’s became apparent when road traffic plummeted from more than 15,000 a day in its opening months to barely 6,000 this fall. Summer travelers melted away with the colder weather, and as the novelty of the bridge wore off, the hard truth of it high tolls hit the pavement. One-way fares of about $27 have deterred many; even companies with business in both countries have gone so far as to ban employees from using the bridge, instructing them to use the cheaper, if slower, ferries.

The 10-mile link was intended to unify the Scandinavian countries economically–as well as culturally and symbolically. Its planners envisioned Swedes munching pastries in Copenhagen cafes, and Danes taking in art exhibitions across the strait. They also hoped that the “Noridc Chunnel” would boost and spread foreign tourism in the region. But the jaunt is not as easy as it should be. I recently qualified as a perfect candidate for the cultural tourist anticipated by bridge backers: Finding myself free in Lund (north of Malmo), I decided to spend an afternoon sightseeing in Copenhagen. Though admittedly a nervous driver and an English speaker with minimal Swedish, I had difficulty finding the entrance to the bridge! I never saw the word “Oresundbron” or even a bridge symbol. Here I was, eager to experience the new Europe, armed with platinum cards and curiosity, and I couldn’t find the onramp. Eventually I was set right, but the high tolls persuaded me to make the crossing by the much cheaper train on the brid ge’s lower deck.

Access to the bridge seems more an insider’s backway than a transnational junction, perhaps because the management of auto traffic has been a touchy issue since the project began. With Scandinavia’s strong green movement, environmental issues have occupied a significant part of the bridge debate from the outset and played a role in mapping the routes. Environmentalists have acknowledged that engineers did an excellent job of protecting wildlife during the bridge’s construction on land and over water. Still, auto traffic is auto traffic, and it spells pollution. Further, the new access roads and entry exchanges have brought–along with office parks for the relatively eco-friendly high-tech firms that every city seems to want–American-style shopping centers and vast asphalt parking lots.

“It is a catch-22,” says Anders Roth, formerly a traffic analyst for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. “Without more cars, the bridge will not pay for itself and taxes will have to be raised; with more cars they will violate environmental standards and create more pollution.” The Oresundbron authorities know on which side its crisp bread is buttered. With a massive debt and pledges to make the bridge entirely self-sufficient, they are now pushing a discount plan for frequent users (the more you travel, the more you save). What all this means, of course, is more cars and more pollution.

Environmentalists and skeptics challenged the bridge for these very reasons all along. Early on, some advocated a shorter link between the Swedish town of Helsingborg and the Danish burg of Helsingor (north of the current bridge). “It would have been cheaper and more efficient,” says urban historian Thomas Hall of Stockholm University. But local politicians in Malmo and Copenhagen favored the fixed link for obvious reasons–more commercial and cultural opportunities. The current site is also more southerly; in other words, closer to Europe. “The goal is to tie the countries to Europe with a modern road system,” says Copenhagen architect and journalist Allan de Waal. “Their next project is the cross-Zealand motorway and bridge which will make it possible to drive directly from Copenhagen to Hamburg or Berlin.” To American ears it all sounds very familiar. (Is Robert Moses smiling?)

Oresundbron’s achievements, so far, are slight. Newspapers have had their fun with stories of Swedes dashing off to Denmark for cheap beer, and Danes going to Sweden for cheap building materials. “The truth is,” says de Waal, “while Malmo has many appealing things, I have only been there twice in the last 20 years. And even with the bridge, I am probably not going to change my habits. The Oresundbron is a very long-term proposal.” That’s exactly what its builders have banked on.

For his sabbatical from Vassar College, where he has taught architectural history and theory since 1989, Nicholas Adams is studying contemporary Swedish architecture. “The last time America was really interested in Swedish architecture,” Adams says, “was 50 years ago. It’s probably the Scandinavian country whose architecture we know the least about.” Adams recently edited The Architectural Drawings of Antonio da Samgallo the Younger and His Circle (MIT Press, 2000). He also coedited the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Casabella. For this issue, Adams writes for our Culture section on the new bridge connecting Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmo, Sweden

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