Are the days numbered for cars in Helsinki?

Helsinki has an ambitious plan for its future: eliminating private cars by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, Helsinki has decided to modify its existing public transport network by transforming it into a more extensive and effective “mobility on demand” system. The aim is to create such an innovative network of shared means of transport that car ownership will be pointless in ten years.

For many years the Finnish capital has been implementing sustainable strategies with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions, all the while preserving the city's effective functioning. Today, the most pressing challenge for the municipality is to adapt urban mobility to the needs of its inhabitants through the use of new technologies, smartphones in particular. The local administration is confident about its ability to persuade the new generations into abandoning private means of transport by stressing two main points: cost effectiveness and practicality.

Over the past ten years, Helsinki's population has significantly increased: from 559,000 inhabitants in 2004 to 603,000 in 2013. According to the official statistics issued by the municipality, the population will continue to grow in the coming 8 years: in 2023, Helsinki will be home to 671,000 people. This means that the city – and its metropolitan area as a whole – will have to substantially improve its infrastructure, especially its public transport network. After all, population growth is generally followed by an intensification of activities in the city center, leading to increased mobility.

Helsinki - Tuomiokirkko. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.itHelsinki - Tuomiokirkko. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.it

The evidence is clear: progressive population growth was indeed accompanied by an increase in the number of private motor vehicles. 224,000 vehicles were registered in the Finnish city in 2012; in 1995, they amounted to 157,000. These figures reveal a clear trend and an objective reality: within twenty years, the number of cars in circulation has increased by 93,000 units. This probably explains why the public administration has decided to reverse the trend by promoting more sustainable forms of mobility.

The Kutsuplus project, an innovative on-demand minibus service, is part of this effort. Somewhere in between a taxi and the ordinary public bus, Kutsuplus allows users to book a journey directly from their smartphones specifying every detail in advance (time, pick-up point, destination). The idea of the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority is to enable citizens to travel around the city without giving up the practical benefits of private vehicle use, eliminating at the same time the financial and environmental costs of car travel in the city (e.g. parking fees and traffic congestion during rush hour). The affordable cost of the service (3,50 euros plus 0,45 euros per kilometer) and its technological essence are designed to attract a large portion of the citizenry – suffice it to say that a good 86% of Finland's population between the age of 16 and 89 uses the Internet and there are 172 mobile phones per 100 inhabitants.

Helsinki - Uspenski Cathedral. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.itHelsinki - Uspenski Cathedral. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.it

According to Sonja Heikkilä, a 24 year old transportation engineer, the crux of the matter is how young people approach mobility. In her master's thesis, commissioned by the city of Helsinki, Heikkilä contends that in order to stop car use one must go straight to the root of the problem, i.e. gradually reduce the need for cars. A more flexible approach to public transport adopting new digital technologies to provide a more personalized service is the key: it is the only way to compete with private vehicles. Hikkilä also suggest to leverage young people's desire to be hyperconnected – and it is no coincidence that Kutsuplus minibuses have free wi-fi on board.  

Only time will tell how successful the plan of Helsinki's municipality will be. However, what clearly emerges from this episode is the ascent of the sharing economy (and thus of “shared mobility” as well), a model that is thriving especially in metropolitan areas thanks to its economic as well as purely practical advantages. It seems that the Finnish capital has come to recognize the crucial importance of this “sharing trend” for the development of a successful long-term urban strategy. The target is clear: becoming a more livable city. Which is, by the way, the most difficult and important challenge for the cities of the future.    

Helsinki - Fortress of Suomenlinna. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.itHelsinki - Fortress of Suomenlinna. Photo www.viaggi.nanopress.it

Translation by Teresa Ciuffoletti

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