FINLAND RETHINKS THE CAR

For years environmentalists and urban planners have been fantasizing about low to no-car city living, in order to make their municipalities easier and safer places to live, while also cutting reducing their carbon footprint.

However although the mayors of a number of cities, such as Paris, Athens, and Mexico City and others have committed their governments to banning the car by 2025 , and others, such as Oslo and London, have imposed partial or fee-based moratoria, in practice such bans are difficult to enforce and politically contentious.

In Helsinki, a city which prides itself on its civic-mindedness, municipal authorities have a different way of looking at the challenge of phasing out the car—by getting its million odd peninsula-bound citizens to look at the private car as a wasteful investment of the entire region’s money and resources.

“It is a fact that on average, a privately owned car is used 4% of the time,” says Ville Lehmuskoski, CEO of Helsinki City Transport, the municipal body which is responsible for the Finnish capital’s tram, metro and city bikes as well as public transport infrastructure. “The other 96%–the 96% of the time when it is parked there sitting around—represents an enormous loss of resources, particularly money and space.”

“If the need for cars in the Helsinki region could be lessened by only 25%, Lehmuskoski continues, “it would mean 100,000 fewer cars. If the average value of the car is 10,000 euros, that would mean one billion euros could be freed to speed up the economy in a more effective way, or otherwise benefit the society.”

The notion of banning cars in the Finnish capital is not a new one. The Green League, which consolidated its foothold as the second largest party in Helsinki in last month’s City Council election, is openly in support of such a ban. However as the preponderance of voters who cast their ballots for the “pro-car” conservative National Coalition party made clear, an outright ban is not on the books, at least for the moment.

That’s fine with Helsinki’s transportation community. “I don’t believe that cars in Finland or Helsinki will be banned,” says Lehmuskoski. “Instead I believe that walking, cycling and public transport will be more and more user friendly so that competitiveness of passenger car will decrease. Pricing of car traffic may also increase attractiveness of sustainable modes in the future.”

“Helsinki has chosen a different strategy from other European cities,” says Marko Forsblom, the head of Intelligent Transport Services, a Helsinki transportation think tank. “It has chosen to create such good alternatives to the private car that people voluntarily choose other modes than owning a car. It has chosen to get people to look and think about their cars differently.”

Perhaps this sort of “alternative” thinking comes easier in the world’s northernmost country, which has a history of marshalling its spatial and economic resources, and thinking out of the box. Witness the way Finland transformed itself from an agricultural society to an industrial-
Sander/Helsinki

based one in virtual real time after the devastation of World War II. Or how the dynamic-thinking Finns, led by Jorma Ollila, the CEO of Nokia, ignited the telecommunications revolution of the 90s—and helped power Finland out of the depression of the 1990s.

Indeed, there is a direct connection between the thinking behind Nokia and the new Mobility as a Service philosophy which Helsinki is trying to bring to the challenge of phasing out the car. As Sampo Hietanen, CEO of Maas Global, points out, “They [transportation and mobility] are commodities that we need to have to be in contact with each other.”

“I would argue that the potential for productivity gains in mobility will be the biggest driver for economic growth in the next few decades,” says Hietanen. “85% of the market value of a single occupancy vehicle that is used 4% of the time.”

The ultimate objective of the Maas “movement” is to provide residents of Helsinki with a range of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership, both on the level of cost as well as convenience. Subscribers to Maas, which promotes itself as a “carefree, environmentally sound alternative to owning a car,” would specify an origin and a destination. The Maas app would then function as both a journey planner and universal payment platform, fusing everything from driverless cars and buses to shared bikes and ferries into a “mesh” of “mobility.”

“It’s a different way of connecting people,” says Hietanen, paraphrasing Nokia’s slogan of “connecting people.”

As far as Anne Berner, the Finnish minister of transport is concerned, this kind of innovative transportation thinking is both a moral imperative for Finland as well as an economic one. With the rapidly expanding capital’s arterials and ring roads congested with traffic, Finnish authorities are willing to try anything that has a realistic prospect of reducing the number of cars, while providing something like the same level of convenience.

To be sure, transport planners already have a good “template” to work with, both in terms of the number of car-owning households, and the quality of the extant public transportation system. As Marko Forsblom points out, “The fact is, today the majority of households in Helsinki—about 55%–are carless.”

Letting go of the idea of owning one’s own car is easier to do in a city which has one of the more efficient and popular metropolitan and regional transport systems in Europe. As any visitor to the Finnish capital can attest, Helsinki’s trams, subways and buses are attractive, well-maintained, efficient and nearly always on time.

The proportion of Helsinki’s population using public transport reached a peak in 1966, when two thirds of all Helsinkians’ journeys within the metropolitan area were via public transport. That share declined during the 1970s and 1980s as Finland rebounded from the war and more Finns were able to buy cars. Public transport’s share of total journeys bottomed out in 2008 at 42%.
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However since its slice of the public transportation pie has been rising again, a trend which the city fathers are happy to encourage.

“I’m very satisfied with the quality of public transport,” says Heidi Silvennoinen, a 25 year old architect who lives in Otaniemi, a suburb of Helsinki. “I mostly travel from Otaniemi, which is 15 minutes away. Buses run every ten minutes during rush hours and every half an hour during the rest of the day and until 5 in the morning.”

“With that level of convenience why would I need to buy a car?” “On the rare occasion when I need a car, say to visit someone’s summer cottage,” “I can always borrow my parents.’” (Indeed, one of the main reasons why Helsinkians resist the idea of swearing off the car is to so that they can get to their summer cottages, which tend to be located far into the interior.)

*“Public transport is very popular in Helsinki,” says Lehmuskoski, of Helsinki City Transport. That doesn’t mean that he or his colleagues are resting on their laurels.

“The importance of public transport has steadily grown in city planning,” says Helsinki’s deputy mayor. As proof of the city’s commitment to public transport, Sauri cites the new multi-billion light rail line being built to connect several urban centers of Helsinki with the neighboring city of Espoo, as well as a fast bus line to connect the two.

At the same time, officials are working to make it easier to “let go” of their cars—or at least their second cars—and switch to public transport by converting a number of the traffic congested mains roads leading into the center into “city boulevards,” with lower speed limits, high speed trams as well as widening walking areas in the city.

Sauri, the deputy mayor, admits that enabling car mobility is low on his list of city mobility priorities. “The mobility priorities in city planning are, in descending order, walking, cycling, public transport, deliveries, and private cars,” says the long-time city manager.

Surprisingly, car dealers are open to the government’s push to phase out, or at least de-emphasize the car. “I think it’s understandable that the government would wish to restrict or phase out the car if it is fulfill its environmental directives,” says Tomi Rihimaki, CEO of Autocompany, a private car dealership which specializes in selling high end cars.

Rihimaki, who has been in the car business since the 1980s, confirms that attitudes towards car ownership amongst Helsinkians have changed, particularly amongst young people. “Many young people have given up driving he says.” Nevertheless he says business is good.

One thing he notices is that people are thinking more about what kind of car they want. He notes that “there has been a growing interest towards old classic cars as well as towards luxury cars that don’t pollute as much as electric cars do.”

Riihimaki, who lives in Katanajokka, on the edge of the Helsinki peninsula, notes that he is an avid user of Helsinki’s public transport system. “I use public transport every time I can,” he says. If anything I would like to see the city institute more ferries to make better use of our waterlines. After all, we are located on a cape.”

To be sure, Helsinki’s progress towards the brave new digitalized transport millennium has not been a straight line. Witness the city government’s decision last year to pull the plug on Kutsuplus, its much heralded scheme which mixed tax and public transport services. For a year and a half the pioneering on-demand minibus service, which was run by Helsinki transport, allowed riders to choose their own route and summon a trip in real time with their smart phone.

Ajelo, a local tech start up developed the dispatch system, which was able to constantly adapt routes for each bus, aggregating user requests in real time and calculating journeys in order to accommodate every passenger—in a sense, what Maas purports to do. Helsinki Region Transport Authority managed the vehicles. However at the end of 2015, the new system, which charged more than a normal bus but less than a taxi, was abandoned because it required too much of a subsidy.

“It’s unfortunate that Kutsuplus didn’t pan out,” says Marko Forsblom. “Nevertheless it was a valuable experiment which resulted in a lot of new know how and changed our thinking about the possibilities of on-demand driven transportation.”

Significantly, Ajelo has been acquired by the US-based company Split, a car-pooling company, and is now running a service based on the Finnish model in Washington.

That’s suits Minister Berner just fine. If Finland can serve as a laboratory and testing ground for new ideas in transportation for other countries to use, just as it did with telecommunications in the 90s, so much the better. In fact, the government sees the possibility of leveraging Finnish expertise in transportation into an exportable product, as well as one which can help lift the country out of its current economic doldrums—just as Nokia did.

As Forsblom puts it, “Our own domestic problems are rather small, but we’d like to use our experience and ideas to help other cities and societies find a better and more rational way of using their resources.”

After all, Finns figure, if they’ve shown the world how to connect one way, why not the other?

This is the original draft of an article which appeared in the June 23, 2017 issue of the weekly magazine of The Christian Science Monitor.

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