City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Small vehicles of Sandhamn

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ThA classic of the genre. Wooden tray, with extra front seat attached, to fore; milk-crate to aft.

How a picturesque island setting for a small Swedish follow-up to Small Vehicles of Tokyo is an unlikely contender for a 15-minute city case study. And yet …

Admittedly, it’s drawing a long bow to see anything in common between the megacity sprawled along the Honshu coastline and a tiny island at the outer edge of the Stockholm archipelago. They may as well be the product of entirely different species, despite the allusions to shared sensibilities between Nippon and the Nordics.

Yet on a brief trip to Sandhamn, a day after posting about the Small Vehicles of Tokyo, I found myself reflecting on how another island—albeit one about 27 hectares big with only a few hundred permanent inhabitants—had also produced a fine diversity of small vehicles to get around in the absence of the numbing homogeneity of cars.

Sandhamn is so tiny that it has continued to buck the trend that took hold elsewhere in 1950s Sweden; the bo med bil (‘life with car’) lifestyle that ate up everywhere else. Arriving by the ferries that zig-zag their way through the 30,000 islands in the archipelago, about 90 minutes from Stockholm city centre, the small dock empties visitors out onto a scrubby harbourside thoroughfare, edged by hotels, cafés, stores, and simple houses. And not a car in sight.

Running along and behind the dock are simply sandy ‘streets’, stoney alleys and grassy passageways, that weave their way through the wooden houses, before fading into pine forest. It’s beautifully picturesque; like the setting of a Crimes of Passion episode but without the growling 1940s Volvos. The island itself (Sandön, or Sand Island, so named as it stored sand for use as ballast on passing boats) was mentioned as far back as the 13th century, but one could argue that not much had happened since, until perhaps August Strindberg visited in the 1870s, and then Stieg Larsson located Mikael Blomkvist’s summer cabin there, in his Millennium Trilogy. Now it is simply a hugely popular summer destination for Stockholm establishment—hence the fiction of Blomkvist—sitting pretty as the archipelago fades out into the Baltic, an archetypal Scandinavian island environment, the Scarry-esque feeling typical to many of the smaller places around here.

Nothing special, and utterly special.

Around Sandhamn and Trouville beach on Sandön

But I’m looking at something other than the falu red houses, twisting lodgepole pines, and wind-smoothed rocks. Pulled-up alongside all this picture-book stuff, sidling up to fences or tucked under rafters, are a lovely array of little workhorses, from pushbikes to e-bikes to tricycles and quad bikes. Save a forklift or two, nothing is larger than these human-scale vehicles, as the only job to be done is to pull luggage, boxes of provisions, equipment or trash around, or simply to nip to the beach over the other side of the island.

The island of Sandön may seem like the most unlikely candidate for understanding the future of urban mobility, and clearly, few places are as privileged as Sandhamn. And yet, in essence, this is a 15-minute neighbourhood being served by active transport and micromobility, connected to other local neighbourhoods by mass transit. The archipelago environment, with its concentrations of habitation networked across literal rather than metaphorical islands, is not that different to the distributed polka dot city layout, many of them self-contained 15-minute ‘cities’ with their own identity and character, connected in networks to each other.

There’s a simple dynamic to the mobility here:

  • walking and cycling is the norm;
  • small personal or shared machines are used for local logistics and different kinds of accessibility;
  • large shared machines connect between these neighbourhoods.

That’s not a bad generalisable pattern. Although Sandhamn is not literally replicable, obviously—any more than Tokyo is, actually—the dynamics above can be adopted and adapted elsewhere. Whilst seawater happens to awkwardly separate these particular neighbourhoods, meaning that the mass transit can only be ferries, squint your ‘soft eyes’ and we might learn a bit about our forthcoming slower suburbs without cars, even from places like this. The future is not Sandhamn at all, but given that cars are the new horses, what can an environment that has never been ruined by cars tell us?

How do these places feel? What are their limitations? What are their advantages?

The most common form you’ll see on Sandhamn, other than the traditional bike, are the carthorses that seem to be sitting outside every other house. I’m not even sure what their official designation is: Mopeds? Motor-trikes?

What’s appealing about these vehicles is their sturdiness and resilience, the rock-solid simplicity of ‘their interface’, and the way they handle the array of simple accoutrements of milkcrates, wooden trays, flatbed, extra seats. In this, they are a poem to adaptive design, with numerous hacks and modifications, organised across shifting pace layers. They’re clearly long-lasting devices, well outside the tides of fashion in the main. They may well also be fun to drive.

I would guess their small engines are rapidly re-orienting towards electric motors, which would fit the setting in every sense, but there is still more than a little diesel around, betraying the place’s boaty sensibilities. In fact, quite a few seem to be made by the Swedish firm Transportel, which now only offers electric work mopeds— “We at Transportel do not believe in noisy and dirty work vehicles, which are also expensive to operate. That is why we only manufacture electric vehicles … solid and trustworthy vehicles.”

Great curving bodywork on this
Second shot of this one (as seen above), because it’s saucy
The ferries arrive bringing provisions and goods, which local shop-keepers and café owners load up onto the mopeds
The angles on the mudguard is very appealing—a clear influence on the Tesla Cybertruck, no doubt.
Very simple steering column, with nice motorbike storage on the back: well-maintained flatbed
Nice simple controls on this moped, probably unlike Tesla Cybertruck: horn, blinkers, battery indicator, lights front and back, and then forward and back
Two moped family; sleek pale blue version (same paint colour as Stockholm public transport, as it happens) on the left; chunky green Transportel on the right
Although the sun barely goes down at all in summer, the headlights here betray the fact that in winter it barely comes up
The popular Transportel, plugged into the house

The ferry stop has a decent-sized concrete apron, not only for the large numbers of tourists that disembark in summer, in pre-Covid times at least, but also as a place to pull-up and load-up.

Waiting for the ferry

As opposed to a house having one or two general-purpose cars as accompaniment—the car as Swiss Army knife, and also used as infrequently as Swiss Army knives actually are—each dwelling tends to have little fleets of smaller specific vehicles scattered outside, their small footprint and simple operations meaning they are easily accessible, easily shared, and thus frequently used.

The bigger quadbike, with larger trailer, counterpointed by the moped. Note the lovely large rock which almost forms a courtyard here

Simple trolley and trailer attachments are seen outside almost every front door or stoop, or lying around backyards and sheds.

OG hand-trolley

There are a few bigger, noisier vehicles kicking around: quad-bikes, forklifts and one large digger down by the dock. But nothing moves particularly quickly.

The simple alleys and ‘streets’ between houses are narrow—for why would they be wide?—and weirdly, almost have the feel of the quietest Kyoto or Tokyo backstreets, with their jumble of plant pots and bike racks.

The Swedish company Rawbike makes this very appealing folding e-bike, increasingly popular in the city, but tailor-made for out here. It’s rough and tough, built for the elements, and can have a trailer attached.

Oh how I covet these bikes from Rawbike

And bikes, in the traditional sense, are everywhere too, in every garden, backyard or alley, usually with the most minimal of locks required.

The ‘main street’ along the dock at Sandhamn is lined by the hotels, shops, cafés and restaurants, and like any street, is a place to meet rather than move.

Here, micromobility can be fairly micro, and starts young around here:

As this post follows Small Vehicles of Tokyo, a Small Vehicles of Venice follow-up also seems appealing, not least as I’d have to visit La Serenissima again, purely for the purposes of documentation of course. I lived in Treviso for a couple of years, down the train-line inland from Venice, and visited often, but save a few handcarts, I don’t recall the same array of vehicles as those seen here on Tokyo. It could be to do with the stones of Venice—those underfoot, rather than Ruskin’s—or the interplay of dense crowds and narrow alleys. But perhaps Venice really is only for moving around on foot, and in water, and sometimes on wet feet. Other suggestions and contributions are welcome!


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