Finland’s revolutionary aim to curb car ownership with driverless cars and MaaS mustn’t evolve into an excuse for not making better cities.
Finland and especially Helsinki have lately received a fair share of global media attention thanks to ambitious plans for bettering urban life by making car ownership obsolete in the next decade. Or “to fill in those gaps in door-to-door mobility which lead us to choose our cars“, like Anne Berner, Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications recently summarized the aim.
The number one avenue for making this vision real is revolutionizing the transportation system through welcoming digitalization and new technology. Going high-tech and getting serious with intelligent mobility.
The timing is certainly ideal. The nation’s youth seem more interested in smartphone ownership than car ownership – or even getting a license in the first place. Furthermore, servicization has changed the way we do business and the more recent phenomenon known as the “sharing economy” is altering the value of ownership. Not to mention that open data platforms are popping up everywhere to fuel the smart city progression.
To get on the intelligent mobility bandwagon, the focus within Finland’s transportation policy circles seems to be buzzing around two main pillars.
First, there’s an idea to transform the way we consume transportation services called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). It was introduced to the wider public in 2014 by Sonja Heikkilä as a new model how Helsinki could upgrade its transportation system. The idea has quickly diffused to other cities around the country, too. And this summer, Finland’s new central government is already thinking about how the state could help with advancing MaaS.
The main idea behind MaaS is to introduce one stop shops for transportation services. For customers, a single interface (an app or website) would thus serve as both travel planner and payment platform, integrating for example the use of public transportation, city bikes, shared rides, rental cars, and long-distance trains to one seamless mobility chain. Moving around could be sold based on usage or in bundles, much like the services on your mobile phone plan. Even delivery services could be included so you wouldn’t need to travel to get something if you didn’t feel like it.
A parallel, but profoundly connected, idea to MaaS is the adoption of autonomous vehicles. In terms of urban transportation, driverless cars are specifically envisioned to be the primary provider of shared rides in the future. These may either come in the form of on-demand public transportation services, such as Helsinki’s already-operating Kutsuplus mini-bus service, or smaller private vehicles like taxis and/or via Uber-like services. Or all of them.
The vision for going “car-free” is based on assumptions that ride-sharing and car sharing could take cars of the streets. And driverless cars could amplify this with their promise of super efficiency. Now our non-autonomous cars are idle for 96% of their time. According to OECD estimates, a scenario like this could result in a 90% reduction in the number of cars on the street. This would leave 80% of the parking space we now need obsolete. An added benefit is that autonomous vehicles are also predicted to decrease the amount of accidents. There would be less human involvement messing things up.
The benefits of Finland’s digitalization plans stretch beyond the issue of car ownership. For people, it could offer seamless multimodal trip-making, better way-finding, and thanks to increased competition between transportation service providers, personalized and more user-friendly services.
ICT companies are looking at opportunities to make big bucks. The value of the Finnish transportation sector is estimated at about 50 billion euros. Digital services have largely yet to enter this market. So figuring out a successful business model can take you to the stars.
For the public sector, new business of course means more resources. But intelligent mobility could also cut costs with more efficient infrastructure usage and better system management. This would enable allocating resources for services that need most support.
The cherry on top of the intelligent mobility vision is the urbanist’s daydream. A city with fewer cars and less traffic opens up avenues for giving more space to people as e.g. valuable urban space needn’t be turned into parking lots anymore.
The transportation people certainly have ambitious plans and with good goals. Digitalization and new technology are definitely one side of going car-free. But just one. There’s a low-tech side, too.
Prioritizing walking to discourage driving
This summer I toured the Philippines and got to experience the streets of Manila. The megacity infamous for its traffic problems. The Lonely Planet puts it well when they warn that “traffic is the big annoyance in Manila: you’ll probably spend half your time either stuck in it or talking about it”.
It’s very hard to walk to many places, because there are cars everywhere. But it’s equally hard to get anywhere by car because there are cars everywhere. If traffic would get any worse, the city would just be one massive outdoor car park. Undeniably, Manila is a prime example of how a city gets completely choked if there is no efficient and comprehensive mass transportation for everyone.
Asking around, the traffic problems also very much irritate locals. Especially the dreadful commutes that mean early mornings, late evenings and a lot of time wasted sitting in vehicles of different sorts. However, at a canyoning adventure in Cebu, I ran into one exception. A woman from Manila told me she is happily free from much of these commuting worries because she has the luxury of being able to walk to work. A privilege she wouldn’t give up for the world.
Indeed, as it was for her, for many people walking is the most convenient form of transportation. Walking is the oldest and most natural way for humans to move around. All you really need is shoes. There is no need to find parking, no schedule to figure out, and no tickets to buy. Walking is true freedom.
Just like apps and self-driving cars, also “walkability” is creating excitement as an idea to curb driving. The walkable city is a strategy where the work of land-use planners, urban designers and transportation planners are integrated to create dense, mixed-use development patterns. For many, car ownership becomes pointless because everything you need is within easy reach.
The benefits of prioritizing walking, cycling and transit over driving are essentially the same as in the intelligent mobility visions: moving more people using less money and less space.
With walkable cities, emphasis is not in the digital but the physical. And that’s a whole art of its own. Because cities are complex, there however is no single blueprint for creating walkable places. Multiple aspects contribute to a great walking experience. In his “General Theory of Walkability”, Jeff Speck tries to crystallize what it’s all about by summing up that walkers are attracted by places which provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.
The walkable city concept is also catching on in Finland. Helsinki for one has ambitious goals in the air for making it possible to reach destinations with just your feet. In its new draft city plan, Helsinki views for expanding the inner city and retrofitting a number of cars-only highways to walkable boulevards.
So all in all, looks like all is well and Finland’s urban landscape has cozy, car-ownership free cities on the horizon. Right?
How high is walking on the intelligent mobility agenda?
I can’t say I’m fully convinced. A massive part of the great visions for making car ownership obsolete is fixing the original problem of why so many need to own – and use – cars in the first place. Otherwise the situation is like Brent Toderian wrote in his open letter to Perth: “It’s kind of a cruel joke to design a suburb for cars and then tell everyone they should be walking, biking and taking public transportation more.”
And there’s work to be done on that side of the field. The truth is that thanks to a long era of making life easy for the automobile, only a tiny fraction of our urban areas constitute as walkable places. And similarly, our planning culture has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to progressing walkable cities – especially for those parties in the planning sphere who deal with mobility.
Just a couple of weeks before taking off for the Philippines I took part in a workshop set up by urban planning activists to generate ideas for designing downtown Helsinki to become more attractive. Even if Helsinki is no Manila, the number one issue that was discussed was the need to prioritize pedestrians over cars.
Many deemed the pedestrian experience unpleasant due to noise resulting from unnecessary through traffic in several places around the center, poor pedestrian access, surface parking lots, and generally, the excess space allocated just for cars.
And it’s not really unclear why. In their study on the utilization of cycling and walking potential in Finnish cities between 2009 and 2013, The Transport Research Centre Verne of Tampere University of Technology notes that: “Yet, even today, walking is not seen as a transport mode in its own right with a legitimate role in modern transport systems and urban planning. Equally surprising is the fact that there is not a lot of support material available for the pedestrian area planners.”
Helsinki’s most recent report analyzing the development of traffic in the city paints a good picture of how close those working with transportation are to the idea of progressing walkable cities: it mentions pedestrians once. There are 52 pages. Cycling gets awarded four pages and the rest is centered around motorized traffic.
Measure what you treasure, the saying goes.
And it certainly doesn’t get any better when you climb up the ladder of transport modes. There’s only one modern-ish bike share system in Finland. The Tampere City Bike system was installed in 2013. Yes, that’s right. Just one emerging system.
Cycling advocates around the country have tirelessly tried to fight against traffic engineers for decent bike lanes and paths. This is especially a problem in denser urban contexts where the conventional suburban style of excessively separating vehicular traffic and walking/cycling to their own roadways can’t be done due to space constraints.
To my experience, despite the pretty outspoken goals of freeing us from the nuisances of needing to own cars, much of the tech visioning within the transportation circles is way too disinterested about integrating the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done with the physical realities of our cities to their future scenarios. Apps are not going to help you ride a bike to the nearest transit stop if the physical infrastructure doesn’t exist.
This also casts a shadow over the walkable city ambitions. We know from the auto-era that transportation policy-makers need to be on board if we are to encourage inwards-directed urban growth. Otherwise things can go very wrong.
Integrating the high-tech with the low-tech
Before moving on, I first must stress that to some extent this whole discussion on technology revolutionizing the transportation sector in the ways described, is theoretical. Who would have guessed we now have smartphones but still don’t have electric cars even though the technology was invented in the 19th century? In the same way, we don’t know what will happen with e.g. the driverless car. But it is nonetheless fun to speculate. And anyways, official policies are already made based on assumptions that all this new transportation-related technology will be ubiquitous sooner than we know it. So we also better be proactive with designing control measures to keep things going so that everyone wins.
So, back to my story. What should we be doing then?
Along with the obvious must-haves of prioritizing transportation the right way (walking first) and making sure we’re making dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that can support transit and services, here are some ideas of what I gather we should be thinking about when adapting our urban policies towards the walkable city in the new age of transportation:
Overhauling zoning and building regulations
A huge obstacle for creating cities where you don’t need to own a car is a bunch of norms and regulations that make the creation of walkable cities impossible. At the moment it would be illegal to build anything comparable to Helsinki’s most walkable neighborhoods. The national and local regulatory frameworks have been summoned by well-meaning authorities from various departments to solve singular problems in their line of work. But when these regulations are put together, they effectively block all attempts for applying time-tested urbanism. The kind that will attract people to walk.
Cars once took us to our destinations much faster and conveniently, but we took it too far (just ask the folk in Manila) and are now trying to get rid of them. With the advent of autonomous vehicles and more efficient vehicle-based mobility in general, we need to be careful that we’re not repeating the same mistakes again.
We know from experience that more asphalt leads to more cars and traffic. While we’re trying to make today’s traffic flows more efficient by having commuters share rides, there’s a chance we may be making room for other kinds of traffic. Moreover, with driverless cars also those who don’t have a license could theoretically become “drivers”. And as a safety measure, authorities may be inclined to segregate pedestrians and cyclists from the robocars to keep their flow undisturbed.
We know how this ends. Soon we’ll be demanding for new roads and real-estate developers will start taking advantage of easily accessible cheap land. This will all encourage further dispersal and, ultimately, we’ll have even less reasons to walk.
Getting rid of car ownership through digitalization and technology is not enough on its own. We need to couple the vision with a strategy to stop building new road capacity and gradually plan for road diets where it makes sense.
Incentivizing smarter ways of getting around
Besides just making cities denser, we also need to streamline our institutional approach to driving. Key is to incentivize transportation modes based on their cost and space efficiency. Right now there is institutional support for driving in the form of tax breaks, allocation of infrastructure investments and so on. At the same time, driving is causing environmental damage and has negative health impacts. Altogether, driving appears much cheaper than it is. This needs to be reversed.
And while on the topic of public transportation, we should also think where it makes sense to use on-demand public transportation. Here in Helsinki, Kutsuplus is now for the most part servicing the densest and most walkable corners of the city. But only a few use it. This is not because people aren’t fond of the concept. I find that most people don’t use it simply because they don’t need it. I for one never do. All my destinations are within easy reach by either walking or scheduled mass transit. Both options are more convenient than using Kutsuplus. A point-to-point service is inconvenient especially if you want to get a coffee on the way or just experience the city. So maybe we ought to be figuring out what are the geographical areas where the concept is most useful.
Encouraging infill development
For years, there has been a lot of talk about intensifying already built-up areas all around Finnish cities. But in large scale this has never happened and most new construction is still further dispersal to greenfield sites. The promise of fewer cars will however open new avenues and needs for making it happen. There are at least three transportation-related things we could do.
First, since we don’t need to build new roads, cities can let go of old road infrastructure reservations. Every larger city has a road project or two that are freezing attempts for adding density.
Second, we can reduce surface parking. We should start with places that either have most potential for infill purposes or for increasing high-quality open space in the city.
And third, we should uncouple parking from building. Underground parking can cost as much 50 000€ per parking spot in an underground garage. Overall, the math is simple. Building dense is just not possible, because the more you build, the more parking spaces you need to build. And that gets expensive for everyone. Except superficially to those who drive.
Figuring out a model to keep delivery traffic in control
E-commerce is on a path towards creating unnecessary traffic, pollution and nuisance. If we were to have further automation in the delivery process and will continue to have free return policies, the parcel business could boost traffic flows considerably as stuff would move in and out of homes favoring online shopping much more often.
We need to invent and pilot smart models for accommodating this in the walkable city. Maybe bike or other low impact kind of messengers? And of course there’s PiggyBaggy, the Uber of deliveries to help.
Whatever it may be, if the digital vision does in fact create less need for parking facilities, emptying underground parking garages in city centers could connect to the world of delivery traffic.
Getting serious about cycling
This is part incentivizing, but I wanted to give bikes their own point. Because the issue is simple: there is no way out of pulling the brakes on discouraging cycling. If the bicycle is an integral part of multimodal traveling, we need to make them happen. This means bike share systems, building cycling-friendly urban infrastructure; including making all transit stations bike-interchange friendly.
This list could probably go on endlessly, but my point is that the well-known wisdom of the trade is that land-use planning and transportation planning are not different things, but the essence of city planning.
If we want seamless mobility and livable car-free cities on the horizon, we need to be making sure there’s enough brainpower, energy and resources being invested in both the low-tech and high-tech dimensions of those places. That means progressing world-class pedestrian, cycling and transit conditions – not just new apps and driverless vehicles.
I don’t want to see MaaS, driverless cars or any other intelligent mobility vision evolve into another excuse for not making better cities.