OSLO, Norway — In the center of Oslo, a man-made cavern rests beneath a hulking stone castle. A winding tunnel leads underground to a large opening, eerily dark and cool, where metal bars block the path to a medieval prison. Inside, you’ll find something out of place for the 17th century: 86 electric cars and charging stations. Once an underground military bunker, the cavern is now a parking garage.
City officials repurposed the fortress, which used to protect the city against war-hungry Swedes and Danes, to guard against a new threat: air pollution.
On a clear Sunday in August, Anna Bistrup, 35, a busy Norwegian mother of two, quickly finds a spot in the garage, where she can charge her Volkswagen E-up for as long as she wants, for free. It’s summer, but Bistrup knows colder weather is coming, bringing with it a resurgence of bad air days. When winter inversions set in and smog clouds the picturesque seaside valley that cradles Oslo, it’s more than a minor inconvenience for Bistrup and her family. It’s a health-threatening situation for her children, both of whom have asthma.
“I think the problem with bad air is that not everybody feels it. And if you don't feel it it's really hard for people to acknowledge it,” says Bistrup. “This is an invisible enemy.”
Like Oslo, Utah has an air quality problem which has created a health crisis for its residents. This year, the American Lung Association ranked the Salt Lake-Provo-Orem area as the eighth most polluted place in the nation in terms of short-term particulate matter and 18th in terms of ozone, two pollutants which have been linked to a myriad of diseases.
I wanted to find out if there were any cities facing challenges similar to Salt Lake's and winning the battle against dirty air. I considered Mexico City, where limiting the number of people who can drive on certain days of the week based on license plate numbers has made little difference. I considered Montreal, Lisbon and Seoul, which have all seen improvements in air quality, but do not have geography like ours which causes winter inversions. Finally, I looked at Oslo. Salt Lake and Oslo are similar in size, both are currently experiencing a population boom and are situated in valleys with cold winters. Of course, there are differences too. People in Oslo pay high taxes and the city is about three times as dense in terms of population. One of the most fascinating differences, however, is the way Oslo is cleaning its air.
In recent years, Oslo’s city leaders have promoted electric car adoption by putting up 1,300 public charging stations around the city (with plans to more than double that number in the next two years) and offering free passage through highway tolls. Officials have also blocked off six major downtown streets to create “car-free zones,” replaced hundreds of parking spots with bike lanes and street furniture and purchased dozens of new electric buses in an effort to curb emissions. There are nearly 500,000 fewer cars entering Oslo each month than there were a year ago. That’s about 20 percent of all the cars in Utah. And for the first time, more people are taking public transit than are driving. In recent years, annual mean values of nitrogen dioxide have improved 10 to 15 percent along major roadways where traffic has been reduced due to city policies, according to city representatives.
With a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, I went to Norway to see if Oslo might hold the key to solving Utah's air quality problem. As our state's population is expected to nearly double by 2050, Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment estimates that between 30,000 and 60,000 people could die prematurely between now and then if nothing changes — based on national studies that measure the association between air pollution and mortality rates.
State officials say even if we do nothing, the air will continue to get better due to stricter federal standards for vehicles and fuel. But clean air advocates say that's not enough. While many on the right are opposed to fixes they feel limit freedom, like requiring automakers to meet a quota of electric car sales (as is the case in California), on the left there’s a frustration that the right isn’t willing to compromise on any changes that will actually make a difference.
Recognizing that air pollution solutions for Utah must be suited to unique political, climate and infrastructural conditions here, I wanted to see if there was anything we could learn from a place like Oslo.
How Oslo is cleaning its air
To understand how Oslo became the 2019 European Green Capital award winner and a model for cities around the world, we have to go back 30 years to the late 1980s when Norway started keeping track of dangerous substances like particulate matter — microscopic pieces of carbon or dust, often with toxic chemicals and heavy metals attached, that can enter your lungs, your bloodstream, even your brain tissue — and nitrogen dioxide, another harmful pollutant that comes from burning fossil fuels. Citizens started growing more concerned about the gray haze that settled in the mountains every winter. To the average person, it looked like fog. But it wasn’t. The scientific term is an inversion — a phenomenon which often occurs in valleys in the wintertime when a layer of cool air filled with pollution gets trapped under a layer of warmer air.
Over the next three decades, air quality in Oslo gradually improved with policies that disincentivized diesel car sales and the use of studded snow tires, which tear up the roads and create dust. But by 2013, green house gas emissions were still the same as they were in 1990, and more days exceeded particulate matter limits in Oslo than any other year in the past decade. Politicians had promised since the '70s to implement a complete bicycle pathway network throughout the city, but little had been done, and environmentally minded citizens were getting frustrated.
That’s when the Green Party showed up on the political stage, promising to help Oslo get over the bad air hump.
Once a fringe group, the Green Party was voted into the city council in 2015 with just 5 out of 59 total members. Though few in numbers, the Green Party found itself in a strong negotiating position because neither the conservative nor liberal party could form a majority without them.
Sirin Stav is a deputy representative to the city council and one of the Green Party members, responsible for implementing big changes in the last few years. She laughs when she admits she is a stereotype of what people think the Green Party is all about. Stav is 30 years old and lives in a shared flat with two roommates. She’s vegan, has an ear piercing and bikes to work. Her disproportionately green wardrobe matches the name of her party and even the color of her eyes.
For Stav, the first problem to tackle was transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oslo.
Today, on her daily 5km bike commute, she passes many evidences of her labors: car free zones, bright red painted bike lanes, public EV charging stations, city bike racks and buses and trams always in view.
After hearing about everything Oslo's leaders had done in just three years and learning how they made it happen, I came away with four lessons that could benefit our state going forward.
Lesson 1: The 'greedy method'
To make change happen faster, the Green Party utilizes something Terje Elvsaas with the Oslo Car Free Program calls the “greedy method.” Instead of waiting for a perfect solution to come along, city officials try and implement whatever small change they can, whenever they can. For example, long term, city officials plan to redesign the once busy road in front of City Hall to make it inaccessible to cars and reduce traffic downtown. But instead of waiting to repave and construct barriers, which might take years, they put up temporary signs blocking traffic and temporary street furniture to make a car-free social space. It took just one day.
While city planners used to build bike lanes based on the minimum width permitted, they now build car lanes at the minimum width and give the rest of the space to cyclists. On particularly narrow streets, they have removed parking on just one side and made bike lanes going one way. And this fall, the city is going to be an early adopter of driverless bus technology, which could save money in the future by making routes more efficient and eliminating the need to pay bus drivers, according to Sture Portvik, project leader for the city's Elctro Mobility Agency. Even though autonomous bus technology isn’t yet advanced enough to pick up riders at any given location, the city is starting with a fixed route alternative.
“We can’t wait around until the solution presents itself,” says Stav. “We have to be part of finding the solution.”
And green transportation is just part of it. After cars, the next priorities for Stav were: making buildings greener, turning away from fossil fuels towards clean energy and reducing emissions from the waste management system.
Landfills are banned in Norway because they are the worst form of waste disposal in terms of air pollution and pollution to the ground, according to Cecilie Bjørnethun, head of communications in Oslo's Waste-to-Energy Agency. Instead, all household waste that can’t be recycled in Oslo is incinerated, and the energy from incineration is used to heat water, which is delivered in pressurized pipes to 160,000 homes in and around the city. From food waste, the city makes biogas for buses and ecological biofertilizer for farmers.
Green advocates are working towards building a carbon capture plant by 2022 that will capture 400,000 tons of carbon each year from the incineration process. The captured CO2 gas will then be pumped under the ocean floor into pores that have been left empty from oil extraction, where it will stay there for more than 1,000 years. "We're literally putting (the carbon) back where it came from," says Bjørnethun.
The city has also banned fossil fuel heating, effective in 2020, and raised the standards for building efficiency. Now, all municipal buildings need to be energy positive, meaning not only do they produce all the energy they need on site with solar panels or geothermal energy units, they actually generate enough electricity to give back to the grid.
According to Stav, these measures are working. Year to year weather trends, including wind and storm patterns, impact air pollution levels more than anything else, so it’s hard to detect the short-term effect of policies meant to improve air quality. Still, there were 60 percent fewer days when particulate matter was measured above the limit last year than when levels peaked in 2013. And scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Air Research estimate that the nitrogen oxide emissions from traffic will be reduced by approximately 60 percent from 2013 to 2020.
The downside to acting fast however is that sometimes there are unanticipated consequences. After downtown streets were closed to traffic, service providers like plumbers and delivery people complained they couldn’t do their jobs. When parking spots were removed, business owners raised concerns that no one would visit their stores, especially in bad weather. And handicapped people worried about getting where they needed to go without convenient parking.
The city has had to backtrack and address each of these concerns one by one, says Elvsaas. There are now exceptions to closed streets for professions that require taking heavy equipment door to door and more handicapped parking spots. While there is still no conclusive evidence that any businesses have been harmed, city officials are working to plan events that will draw people to streets with low car traffic in the winter months.
Stav says the city government is learning as it goes, evaluating the costs and benefits of every action in real-time. While environmentalists have touted the successes of city policies, the changes have not come without costs — some of which have been borne by citizens in the form of taxes and expensive road tolls.
“Becoming a green city requires investments from the government and from citizens,” Stav says. “That’s what it takes.”
The long list of initiatives Stav told me about was impressive, but it got me thinking, which of these measures could actually work in Utah? What would people in Salt Lake do if parking was limited downtown? If lawmakers invested more in public transit and bike lanes, would people actually use them? To find out, I went to talk to families living in and around Oslo to see how these policies are affecting their daily lives, for better or for worse.
Lesson 2: Cost and convenience is key
On his train ride home, Martin Carlberg pulls out a laptop to get a little extra work done. The train is almost silent, and there’s plenty of room for the fit 35-year-old salesman and his gym bag.
Carlberg’s home in a town called Svelvik, 32 miles outside Oslo, overlooks a gorgeous fjord where swans glide over reflections of the sinking sun as he returns home each day. He has chosen to live in the suburbs for many of the same reasons Utahns choose to do so: he and his wife wanted to build their own house, be surrounded by nature, have space for a yard where their two kids could play and avoid the crime and high cost of real estate in the city.
But Carlberg still has to go to Oslo for his job. And he is impacted in a big way by measures that discourage car use. If he drives, he passes a toll which charges him $7.50. Nearly ninety-five percent of the revenue from these tolls goes towards public transit and city officials keep raising the price. Last year, they added a charge for driving during rush hour. And then there’s the price of gasoline, which at close to $8 a gallon, is a deterrent in itself.
As a result, Carlberg has been forced to find an alternative way to commute. On a daily basis, he catches the local bus — which only comes once an hour — and then takes the train into the city. In total, it takes him about 50 minutes, compared to a 40-minute drive and costs nearly half as much — not because public transport is cheap, but because driving is so expensive.
“This is what I do because it is the most convenient and the cheapest way to go,” says Carlberg.
Carlberg has also decided to invest in an electric car. It’s a smart choice because the government gives him huge tax incentives, which save him about $10,000. He gets free passage through the tolls and free parking near the train station. Electricity from hydropower sources is plentiful and inexpensive in Norway, which makes the cost of charging at home infinitesimal compared to the price of gas.
Because of these benefits, Norway has more electric cars per capita than any other nation. Tesla taxis are common. Fifty-eight percent of all new cars sold in Oslo are electric. And by 2025, the sale of gasoline vehicles will be banned in Norway altogether.
Carlberg thinks the new electric car will be a game-changer for him and his family. He’ll still take the train to work, but will skip the local bus. And weekend trips with the kids will become a lot easier.
But Carlberg is one of the begrudging participants in Oslo’s green initiatives. While he thinks it’s important to protect the environment, he would rather enjoy the freedom of driving his gasoline car to work everyday. He’s not sure all the measures that make it hard for him to do so are really worth it.
“I don’t think the city’s policies are well thought through,” says Carlberg. “It’s good for the environment, but there are mainly only negative effects for us citizens.”
Talking frankly with Carlberg in his kitchen while he waited for his wife and kids to get home made it clear that people in Norway are just like people everywhere else. They are motivated primarily by cost and convenience. While incentives like tax breaks and benefits for electric car drivers are welcomed, disincentives like tolls and restrictions are lamented for the impact they have on suburban families. But city leaders say it’s a mix of these policies that has been so effective at changing the behavior of people in Oslo, whether they’re trying to save the earth or just trying to make the most cost-efficient choice for their family.
Lesson 3: Citizens don't have to sacrifice quality of life for green living
After seeing how the Carlbergs live in the suburbs, I wanted to know what life is like for a family in the city. I showed up at Kari Anne Solfjeld Eid’s home on a Tuesday morning as she was scrambling together breakfast for her three youngest kids. She and her husband have five kids total, ages 3 to 18, and live together in a fourth-floor apartment near the city center, situated between medieval ruins and a graffiti-covered skate park.
Solfjeld Eid’s husband searches frantically for his wallet, amidst the sound of spoons clanging against cereal bowls and frequent pleas of “Mama!” (one Norwegian word I don’t need Google translate to understand). Moa, 11, plucks the wallet from a bookshelf and raises it proudly.
Her stepfather laughs, “That’s where it usually is.”
Then they’re out the door. But instead of loading into a car, the family heads to the gravel bike yard behind their building. It’s Solfjeld Eid’s turn to deliver the youngest kids to day care, so her husband hops on his road bike and heads straight to work. The mother bends to buckle helmets under the chins of Ragnar, 5, and Barbro, 3. Then she loads them into the electric cargo bike. The bike has an elongated frame with a large compartment that rests between the pedaler’s bike seat and the front wheel and an additional child's seat balanced above the back wheel. Electric capacity helps Solfjeld Eid propel the hefty load.
“We prefer the car-less lifestyle because it lets us be active and enjoy life more,” says Solfjeld Eid. “We feel like we have more quality time with our children, more chances to interact with our neighbors."
“Every day is an adventure because we can easily stop to look at something interesting as we pass by,” she adds.
Whereas the car used to be the ultimate symbol of freedom, Solfjeld Eid says more and more people in Oslo are starting to see the bicycle as that symbol. Cargo compartments make it possible for parents to move children around and carry things like groceries, and electric bikes allow even elderly people to get around with ease.
Electric cargo bikes like the one Solfjeld Eid has can cost anywhere between $2,500 and $8,000. But thanks to government subsidies, Oslo residents have been able to get them at a discounted rate. “When people ask how much the bike costs, we just say ‘it’s a cheap car,’” Solfjeld Eid says.
Solfjeld Eid is happy to see the changes the city is making. The city’s goal is to get 25 percent of the population to use a bike every day by 2025. With new bike lanes, bike parking and improvements that include raised bike paths and partitions, which keep cyclists from veering into traffic (or traffic from veering into cyclists), footrests at stoplights so cyclists don’t have to unclip or hop off their bikes when stopped, and painted reserved space for bikes to stop ahead of cars at intersections, life is easier for Solfjeld Eid and her family. The biggest difference, she says, is fewer cars on the road.
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t feel it was safe for my kids,” she says.
Solfjeld Eid, who is the leader of the Oslo chapter of the Norwegian Cyclists' Association, traces the beginning of the car-centric city to the World’s Fair in 1939 when car manufacturers like Ford and General Motors captured the world’s attention with their models of futuristic cities full of cars.
“After years of being planned around cars, finally Oslo is being redesigned for people,” says Solfjeld Eid, who adds that cars stand still 95 percent of the time and take up valuable public space and resources.
Not even the minus 15 degree Fahrenheit winter temperatures prevent the family from cycling. Last winter, they felt secure enough with studded tires to bike over packed ice to pick up a Christmas tree. A couple of modifications, including hand guards that attach to the handle bars and a cover for the cargo compartment where the kids sit, make the cold manageable.
“Oslo has small streets, it’s hilly and we have cold winters. We’re proving to the world that if this can be a bikeable city, anywhere can be,” she says.
Lesson 4: Make health the priority
Back at home, Anna Bistrup’s kids Erik, 10, and Knut, 8, play together in an upstairs bedroom. Knut takes a break from building a Lego house for zombie-catchers to show off his sleep apnea machine, a mask with a thick plastic tube that connects to an electric motor to pump air in and out of his lungs at night. He playfully pulls the elastic straps over his head and curls up in bed pretending to be asleep. Knut has a serious lung condition called tracheobronchomalacia, and if he doesn’t wear the mask, his lungs could collapse in the middle of the night and he could die.
On bad air days, Knut has to stay inside at recess. With the English he’s practiced at school, he talks about what it feels like to breathe on those days.
“I can’t breathe so good in the winter,” he says shyly. “It feels like I want to be inside, not outside.”
Oslo undoubtedly still has work to do. Close to 20 percent of kids in Oslo have asthma, according to Norway's Asthma and Allergy Association, where Bistrup works as a health adviser. The city still exceeds limit values set by the European Commission for annual mean levels of nitrogen dioxide. It still gets foggy in winter, and even with all the city’s green mobility policies, most people haven’t been able to detect the gradual improvements in the air quality. For the Bistrup family though, the difference is a significant one.
“Nothing is more important to me than the health of my children,” Bistrup says. “I definitely think the city is on the right track; the changes that are being made, the way politicians are taking action, gives me hope.”
Some of the most effective policies, according to Bistrup, have been short-term measures that can be implemented with a day's notice in the middle of a winter inversion. These short-term measures include cheaper public transport rates on bad air days, barring diesel vehicles from entering the city, parking restrictions, information campaigns and wood burning bans.
Still, some ask why should we change all of society to benefit the health of just a few?68 comments on this story
According to Bistrup, evidence shows that bad air might affect more people than we think. Research suggests air quality is linked with a long list of health conditions, including everything from Alzheimer’s to stillbirths to cancer. Environmental health experts have estimated that nine million premature deaths worldwide were caused in part by pollution in 2015, with the majority of those deaths coming from dirty air.
“For the first time, we’re saying the health of people — children, sick people, elderly people — should come first, and not the convenience of car drivers,” says Stav.
“This is not a problem for some other time, it’s not a problem for somebody else,” she adds. “It’s our job to fix it.”