How Helsinki Became a Public Transporation Paradise

One European city plans to make car ownership obsolete within a decade.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

What if getting from Point A to Point B was as easy as typing a destination into a phone? What if car ownership itself became a thing of the past? A world where urban transportation wouldn’t involve outdated routes, paying exorbitant fares, or putting yourself at risk may seem like a distant, futuristic dream, but one European city hopes to get there in just 10 years time.

Helsinki, Finland, wants to ease congestion and improve quality of life for its 600,000 citizens by dramatically reducing the number of private cars on the road. The city plans to do this by providing a series of distinctly more convenient alternatives, making ditching the car an easy decision for its residents.

The city is developing a seamless smartphone application that would allow individuals to coordinate and combine the use of Helsinki’s various public transportation options based on weather conditions, price, and destination. If your trip is short, and the weather is clear, the app would send you to the nearest public bicycle rack. If it’s raining, buses come into play; in poor traffic conditions, you’d be redirected to a cab. Depending on the specifics of your destination and the route, the different options could be combined for maximum efficiency and convenience. This “route planner” app, which would be manned by the city as a public utility, is currently in the development stages, with plans to test and begin implementation slated for next year, according to the Helsinki Times.

Widely considered one of the most livable cities in the world, Helsinki has already been pushing conventional notions of public transportation with its Kutsuplus buses. The Kutsuplus (Finnish for “call plus”) is a sort of hybrid bus-taxi system, a fleet of blue and white vans that combine the comfort and convenience of a cab with the ubiquity and low cost of a bus ride. These mini-buses set off with one or more paying passengers. Along the way, the driver receives data that identifies other prospective riders heading in the same general direction. If the routes can be combined, Kutsuplus picks up these passengers, modifying the trip to minimize the distance each passenger will have to travel. As an added bonus, the fare decreases as more riders board. Businessweek reports the speed of the service is similar to that of a taxi, but at about a quarter of the cost.

These Finnish transit projects represent a radically different way of thinking about transportation: They aim to reframe mobility as a service rather than a good. The concept builds on transportation innovation happening all over the world, including in the United States, where apps like Uber allow individuals to hail nearby cabs with a smartphone, and car-sharing membership services like Zipcar offer the ease of owning a car without all the overhead—monthly payments, insurance, gas, and parking tickets.

Helsinki’s next generation transportation infrastructure takes this concept—buying mobility by the trip—a whole lot further. Still, city leaders aren’t even sure if it’s going to work. “It is possible that, even in this way, transportation cannot be arranged effectively enough,” said Sonja Heikkilä, the engineer charged with the “route planner” app. But if the city is successful, it could radically change the way Helsinki citizens get around, dramatically improving urban life by reducing noise, pollution, costly collisions, and the overall cost of transportation.

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