Inspiration From Helsinki: Car-Free Living That Really Works

Image courtesy of Flickr user Frikjan.

Is the transportation always greener on the other side of the fence? Helsinki, Finland, has been making waves recently in transportation circles after the city announced a plan for a transit system that would make car ownership a thing of the past within the next 10 years.

Helsinki’s vision is the brainchild of master’s student Sonja Heikkilä, whose thesis, commissioned by the city, painted the picture of what a transportation network should feel like: integrated mobility on demand, with a single payment. Users would be able to compare real-time information about different road conditions and routes with the touch of a button, then reserve a rideshare, rent a bike or book a combination of these plus transit before paying one single fee for the whole trip.

If you are familiar with transportation in the Bay Area, you can see what’s appealing to us about this:

Mobility on demand. The quick of rise of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, as well as Bay Area Bike Share, highlights the fact that scheduled transit isn’t the best solution for every person who chooses not to drive. While we have a few dense urban centers with good transit access, the majority of our region isn’t well-connected with scheduled transit. Helsinki’s most recent on-demand transit venture, Kutsuplus (Finnish for “call plus”), resonates because it’s publicly run, integrated with other transit services and priced logically: It costs more than a bus or tram but less than a taxi. You can schedule a Kutsuplus minibus pickup on your smartphone, and share the ride and the costs. The minibuses have Wi-Fi and room for a baby stroller.

Unified trip planning and a single-payment network. Helsinki’s vision is to give travelers a way to easily make a multi-leg trip, pay for all kinds of modes and operators at once, and do it in real-time. Payment using a mobile phone or a single monthly bill would streamline the trip and allow you to hop on the bus, then pedal away on bikeshare with a smooth transition. The Clipper Card has simplified paying for different transit operators in the Bay Area, but each transit agency is still priced separately, and you can only use the card for transit (and for parking in a few places). Helsinki already has an integrated zone-based ticketing system for transit across the region, something we are still working toward.

The option to live car free. The main focus of Helsinki’s current transportation policy is improving transit efficiency and increasing the options available to citizens. The reasoning is clear: Obviating the need for a private car helps us make better-designed cities and improve mobility. In addition to reducing the transportation sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, Helsinki’s plan also emphasizes the simplicity of living without a car. It eliminates the cost and hassle involved with personal car maintenance and upkeep, while reducing traffic and congestion — making the city’s streets safer for everyone.

Design based on real customer needs. No one form of transit fits every user’s needs. While one person may feel unsafe waiting outside at night for a Muni bus, another may hate sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge. The integrated design of this system makes all transit options clear and accessible to users so they can make the best choice for their needs. Additionally, Helsinki’s vision includes transportation not just of people but of goods: If you’re going to the gym after work, for example, you can send your gym bag ahead, so it’s waiting for you at the gym. Or, you can store it in a public locker that you can bike past on your way.

Moving From Vision to Implementation

From 5,400 miles away, Helsinki’s plan appears bold, innovative and potentially game changing. It has a lot of hurdles to jump to make the systematic change it envisions, but Heikkilä’s thesis lays a clear roadmap for the vision to become a reality. Successful implementation of this groundbreaking transit system could inspire transit operators and cities across the Bay Area to rethink their own approach to transit. In time, our transit system could be the envy of the world.