The Economics of Change

Swedes call it Öresundsbron. Danes use the spelling Øresundsbroen. Around the world many know it simply as The Bridge, the name of the multi award-winning Nordic Noir drama screened in more than 100 countries that uses the connection as its brooding backdrop.

It is huge. With a mass of 82,000 tonnes, held up by two 204m-long metal pylons and stretching for 16km, including its underground tunnel section, it is one of the longest bridges in Europe. It connects Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö with Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, scrapping the need to take a lengthy ferry or flight across the Oresund strait.

Pontus T. Pagler, a 31-year-old actor from a rural town north of Malmö who appeared in Season Four of The Bridge, recalls how tricky it was to make the journey before it was built. “We travelled to Malmö, but not to Denmark as you do now...it was too far and too long of a ride,” he remembers.

 

As a teenager raised in the 1990s, he was aware that investment in infrastructure was more focused around the larger Swedish cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg. “Growing up, I think we felt neglected in a certain way. It’s just a feeling you had.”

But the opening of the Oresund bridge in 2000 represented a major economic shift, dramatically improving cross-border access and cutting journey times. Instead of queuing for weather-dependent ferries that took around an hour, passengers could drive over the bridge in just 10 minutes or travel between central Malmö and central Copenhagen in just 34 minutes by train. The landmark quickly became one of the best-known symbols of European cross-border collaboration.

“It’s really fast, and you can go there and back in the same day. That’s the biggest impact, I think. And if you want to stay there a weekend or something it’s very, very easy,” says Pagler.

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The body count

In 2017 a record average of 20,361 vehicles passed over the bridge each day and approximately 14,000 commuters took the train, despite temporary identity checks lengthening journey times during the first half of the year. Prior to the bridge opening, around 6,000 people a day commuted by ferry.

“I think my career would have been much slower if we didn’t have the bridge,” says 43-year-old Nichole Friberg, a managing director for an IT company who lives in Malmö but has been working in Copenhagen for 12 years.

“It’s more dynamic and all the companies I have joined have been quite international, and that is quite important to me since I am multicultural myself - half Peruvian, half Swedish,” she explains. “You have the opportunity to spend your day in a larger city that is a little bit more chaotic than Malmö. Then you get to come home to a little bit of peace and quiet.”

While the vast majority of commuters come from Sweden, the bridge also makes it easier for Danish residents to network with their Swedish counterparts.

In Malmö city centre, Neil Murray, 34, who lives in Copenhagen and invests in start-ups across the Nordics, is grabbing a latte in between meetings on both sides of the Oresund strait.

“I can’t really think of any other place in the world where two strong tech ecosystems exist within half an hour of each other, so for me I see it as a competitive advantage that I can see start-ups in two different countries, because of a bridge,” he says.

Worth the wait?

But while the bridge has clearly transformed transport in the area, the project was a long time coming and has faced numerous challenges.

Engineers had been putting forward proposals for a bridge or a tunnel to the Swedish and Danish governments since 1936. They finally signed an agreement to build a bridge between Malmö and Copenhagen in 1991. Sweden’s goal of boosting cooperation with the rest of Europe (it joined the European Union in 1995) was a key catalyst, alongside Denmark’s desire to increase air traffic from Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport.

Both nations supported a stronger regional identity for the Oresund area (home to more than 3.5 million people at that time) by encouraging closer ties between businesses and educational institutions. Locally, there was an urgent need for Malmö to evolve following the collapse of traditional industries such as textiles and shipbuilding.

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“Malmö was regarded as a very dull and grey city and there were lots of pessimistic views among politicians, the business community and also among ordinary people,” remembers Christer Persson, who was director of strategic development in the city between 1989 and 2003 and is currently writing a book about the impact of the Oresund bridge.

“The government made an investigation and they came to the conclusion that ‘this is the time to build a bridge’, because that could make a change,” he explains from a student lounge at Malmö university, where he is a guest lecturer.

“They hoped to accelerate the transformation process of the city, from being a traditional old industrial town to a modern city with small and medium-sized companies in the new modern branches like IT, design, biotechnology for example.”

‘A fantastic adventure’

These were ambitious goals that came with a price tag. The cost of building the bridge and related essential infrastructure like roads and stations was 30bn Danish krone ($4.3bn; £3bn).

But both governments sought to secure public engagement by minimising the impact for taxpayers. The main bridge structure was paid for by loans shared between the Swedish and Danish states, to be paid back over 30 years using toll fees.

For Kim Smedegaard Andersson, a Danish engineer fresh out of university who was hired by an engineering firm working on the assignment, the excitement was palpable. “It was a fantastic adventure to go into a project like this,” he says.

But he also remembers his whole team feeling the weight of responsibility. They had to overcome logistical issues like making sure the bridge wasn’t too high to pose a threat to landing planes or too low, which could have blocked shipping.

“No-one had constructed a project like this before, in such close proximity to an airport and a busy navigation channel, and in-between two Scandinavian countries.”

There were unexpected setbacks too, including the discovery of 16 unexploded World War Two bombs and two unusually icy winters which made it difficult to transport materials.

Sustainability was also controversial: green campaigners protested and Sweden’s Environment Minister Olof Johansson resigned because of his concerns.

“The whole ecobalance in the Baltics was debated,” remembers Smedegaard Andersson. “There were challenges to solve every day.”

Detailed efforts were made to satisfy critics, including a campaign to encourage travellers to use the train rather than their cars. Motorway lights were positioned to avoid disturbing eels and pylon lighting switched off in fog to limit bird collisions.

The construction ended up being completed with stereotypical Scandinavian efficiency in just five years, several months ahead of schedule.

There were celebratory activities such as special runs and cycle rides for members of the public and an inauguration ceremony attended by the Swedish and Danish royal families.

Smedegaard Andersson recalls being asked to provide commentary for Danish television network TV2. “I was speaking when the first cars and motorcyclists were using the link. That was an amazing experience,” he smiles.

Not enough traffic

Early on, Christer Persson remembers, there were concerns that “there just wasn’t enough traffic” and that this could hamper debt repayment by the two governments.

During the autumn of 2000 there was a daily flow of between 7,000 and 10,000 vehicles compared to a peak of around 14,000 during the summer holiday season.

“Some of us said: ‘If you are investing in such a large project that is going to stand for like 100 years, do you really have to have a payback time of 30 years?’ Because if you choose to have a longer payback time, you can of course lower the prices,” he says.

Later that year the cost of a single car trip, then priced at 255 Swedish kronor (around £17 at the time) was temporarily cut by almost half to 140 kronor to encourage more people to try the journey.

Prices rose again as public interest increased. The current cost of a single trip is 515 kronor per car (£45.78; $56.88) although there are major discounts for frequent travellers and advance online purchase. Earlier this year Oresundsbro Konsortiet, the Danish-Swedish organisation that owns and runs the bridge, predicted that all debts would be to be repaid by 2033, four years ahead of earlier estimates. Train prices today start from 111 kronor (£9.60; $12.28).

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Border scuffles

By far the biggest challenge since the bridge opened has been the Swedish government’s temporary reintroduction of photo identity checks for travellers between January 2016 and May 2017, as Sweden sought to limit the flow of asylum seekers. More than 163,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden in 2015, falling to 29,000 in 2016.

The additional controls increased journey times by around 30 minutes and led to service cuts. The number of rail passengers dropped by 13% in 2016, according to Danish train operating company DSB.

Sweden’s transport authority Länsstyrelsen released a survey suggesting two out of three Swedish commuters were experiencing higher levels of stress and had considered either changing jobs or moving to Denmark.

“It was impossible not knowing what time you were going to get to work or what time you were going to get back from work,” laments Nichole Friberg.

She initiated sharing a minibus with colleagues so they could drive to work in Copenhagen instead of going by train, a system which they still use despite the abolition of the ID checks in May 2017.

But the latest ticket sales statistics from Swedish regional rail company Skånetraffiken suggest that most passengers who sought alternative transport have now returned to the tracks. By October 2018, the number of rail commuters had rebounded to 2015 levels.

Swede success?

Economic geographer Magnus Andersson says the impressive commuting figures are largely a result of Swedes helping to “plug gaps in the Danish service sector” as well as professional roles in niche industries.

He says there are two other key indicators that highlight the huge economic impact of the bridge.

Firstly, more than 60 companies from a wide range of industries have moved their Nordic headquarters or specialist offices to Malmö since 2000, helping to fulfil the city transformation goals that Swedish government set in the 1990s.

It was impossible not knowing what time you were going to get to work or what time you were going to get back from work - Friberg

Secondly, he says that the bridge has “improved individual livelihoods” by offering locals subtle changes. Danes can access more affordable housing in southern Sweden, cheaper shopping due to currency differences and can enjoy southern Sweden’s coastline and forests.

Swedes have the chance to experience the food and design industries that the Danish capital is globally famous for and make the most of Copenhagen’s large international airport, Kastrup.

“Malmö is not only linking up to Copenhagen, but it also links (Sweden) to a global network of cities. When I think about the future for Malmö, that link is of utmost importance,” Andersson says.

Nordic Noir tourism

From a global perspective, both the bridge and the airport have been instrumental in foreign visitors to the region too. In Copenhagen there were around 3.6m overnight stays from international visitors in 2000, the year the bridge was completed, rising to 7m 2017, according to figures shared by Oresundsinstitutet, a Danish-Swedish regional research hub. Malmö has also experienced a boost, especially in more recent years. There were 480,000 overnight visits from foreigners in 2008, increasing to 820,000 in 2017.

It’s weird when people exotify your own culture or your own environment - Pagler

Jonas Løvschall-Wedel, a spokesperson for the Danish capital’s official tourist board, Wonderful Copenhagen, says it is hard to quantify how much of this tourism is connected to the popularity of The Bridge television series. However the emergence of Nordic Noir day tours and the fact that Wonderful Copenhagen now uses the slogan ‘one trip – two countries’ in its branding are clear signs that it has had an impact.

“It’s weird when people exotify your own culture or your own environment,” laughs The Bridge actor Pontus T. Pagler, who says he was shocked to meet fans from as far away as Australia at the Scandinavian premiere of the fourth season.

“But I think it’s cool...The southern part of Sweden has gotten a boost now, which we haven’t had before.”

The Oresund bridge has also offered inspiration for similar engineering projects in South Korea and China as well as plans for the so-called Femern tunnel, designed to connect the Danish island of Lolland with the German island of Fehmarn by 2028, pending German approval.

Kim Smedegaard Andersson, no longer a fresh-faced engineer, is deputy technical director for the tunnel, and is one of several senior managers who previously worked on the Oresund link or the Great Belt Bridge that connects the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen.

“We know what it takes to get approval, because we have learnt the lessons from the Great Belt and the Oresund project,” he says. “We have a good understanding of what happens with the environment and we have utilised that in the development of our project.”

 

Identity crisis

But despite its inspirational economic success, many observers agree that the Oresund bridge has had a much more limited impact in terms of forging a new regional identity.

Christer Persson argues that it was a case of “too much, too soon” when it came to initiating cross-border projects between companies and institutions after the bridge opened, many of which “faded out” after a couple of years.

These included plans for closer links between Malmö and Copenhagen universities, allowing students to study on both sides of the strait.

“The expectations were very big, but it was difficult to fulfil them,” he says, citing differences between the education systems alongside the rapid pace of globalisation.

“It became less interesting for many to collaborate across the border instead of with actors in other parts of the world.”

More recent initiatives have involved controversial efforts to rebrand the whole Oresund region as Greater Copenhagen, which marketeers have argued is an easier identity for international visitors to grasp.

But Magnus Andersson says it’s been challenging to get residents to think beyond their existing labels.

“Copenhagen people are very proud of being Danish and living in a capital, and on the Swedish side people have quite a strong regional identity, so merging these two identities has not proven to be easy.”

That said, he believes you’d struggle to find anyone in the region who doesn’t feel closer to their Scandinavian neighbours than they did before the bridge was built.

“In senior high school some of my friends were actually demonstrating against the bridge and today we are making fun of them… We laugh because today we cannot imagine life without the bridge”.

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