Why I hated driving in Helsinki (and love the city because of it)

bike parking car photo
CC BY 2.0 Sami Grover

Like most TreeHuggers, I am somewhat of a hypocrite. So when my wife and I decided to visit Helsinki this week (we are staying at my family's home in rural Finland), we made the decision to drive.

It may not have been the best decision for our carbon footprint. But it did prove to be an interesting first-hand exploration of Helsinki's plans to make car ownership obsolete.

Here's what I learned about how the city is doing.

Mass transit is easy and everywhere
Whether it is trams, busses, boats, the (somewhat limited) metro or on-demand shuttles, Helsinki residents are not short of transit options, and they use them prolifically and interchangeably. Paying is easy. The fairs are cheap. And they run regularly and very late into the night. My one complaint would be that transit maps are not as intuitive as in some cities (the famous London Underground map being a prime example), so I can imagine that some visitors may be a touch put off.

Separated bike lanes are the norm
We are staying in a very rural village about an hour from Helsinki. Even here, many of the rural roads have a physically separated bike lane/footpath running alongside them, a bike lane which people use for both recreation and everyday transport. (My granddad lived in this village until he died at 94, and he never learned to drive.) So it's no surprise that when you get into Helsinki, physically separated bike lanes are everywhere and—at least in the summer sunshine—they are packed with bikers, including a good number of cargo bikes. The city perhaps doesn't have quite as long or prominent a history of promoting biking as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and it's clear that bike lanes sometimes get blocked—but it's also clear that Helsinki is trying hard. If only we could say the same for cities elsewhere.

Taxis get special privileges
Taxis are a strange beast when it comes to public transportation. On the one hand, they are a car. On the other, they provide crucial on-demand, point-to-point services making car ownership less necessary. So on balance, it probably makes sense that they get special privileges, including being allowed to drive on pedestrian and/or mass-transit only streets.

Sami Grover/CC BY 2.0
When this is the mass transit for getting to the zoo, who the heck wants to drive?

The streets are fun and filled with things to see and do
Too often, environmentalists get painted as (and occasionally act like) killjoys. Yet, as I argued in my post about why streets are for people (and water slides), reducing the amount of cars on our streets means more space for people to have fun and be social. In Helsinki streets we saw street artists, we saw pop-up markets and cafes, we saw people sunbathing, we saw a "pub tram" (yes, it's a sightseeing trolley that takes you around the city with beer in hand), and we even saw people sitting around a collective dinner table being hoisted a few hundred feet into the air on a crane to enjoy their meal. (See Dinner In the Sky for more on that experience.)

Driving is a monumental pain in the ass
From giving priority to pedestrians and mass transit to reducing speed limits on many streets to barely above biking pace, once your inside the city center, there are very few advantages to being in a car. We talk a lot about encouraging mass transit and biking, but one of the simplest ways to make driving less popular is to make it less easy. I know that's unpopular in car-centric cultures who elevate "freedom of choice" to a fundamentalist absolute, but freedom of choice doesn't happen in a vacuum. The fact is that cars have dominated the urban environment for so long that they have been negatively impacting every other way to travel, squeezing out the freedom to choose something different and literally killing countless people in the process. Helsinki is simply redressing the balance, and doing so in a way that improves Finn's health, their environment, their pocket books, and even their longevity too.

Driving is astoundingly expensive
The other way to discourage driving is to make it prohibitively expensive, and Helsinki appears to be doing well on that front too. Having driven to our hotel, we left the car in a municipal parking lot underneath the city center. I figured it was going to cost us some money, but I really had no idea how much. A stay of 30 or so hours ended up costing us 50 euros, and that price included a discount as hotel customers!

I hated driving in Helsinki. And from the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank the city planners for making it so expensive.

Now, back to the sauna.

Tags: Car-Free | Cities | Public Transportation

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