Car traffic on a wide road

Collaborative learning and an updated toolbox: two ideas for cities to make a U-turn on car-centric planning

Helsinki’s feistiest urban policy debate in a while occurred last fall when the city’s councilors were faced with the question of whether or not to clear the way for the 1.6 kilometer, €180 million Sörnäinen car tunnel. The project seeks to make it easier for drivers to bypass the center of Kalasatama, a developing district on the eastern edge of the inner city. Its proponents argued that the tunnel was needed because it would grant more space for a planned tram line and calm traffic in the heart of the district. Of course, the tunnel would, as an additional bonus, also facilitate car traffic flows in the area, the reasoning went. Those in opposition weren’t convinced that digging a tunnel was the only solution for achieving the said aims. Congestion charges, for example, could also do the trick.

More fuel was added to the fire when it became apparent that the “necessity” of the project was on shaky ground. The tunnel plan had been pushed forward without a proper study on whether the tram and tunnel investments were as interlinked as claimed. A shadow of mystery was cast over the process. Ambiguity regarding the prerequisites of the project increased when Reetta Putkonen, Director of the Transportation Planning Division, told the media that the tunnel was the only solution their team could put forward under all the given objectives that would make the wider mobility scheme for the area work.

The tunnel scheme. Each end of the tunnel will have approximately 190 meters-long ramps, which will, together with their safety zones, cause extensive barriers for pedestrians and cyclists. Image: City of Helsinki.

Following many punches back and forth, the council granted the go-ahead for the tunnel.

Unfortunately, so. I belong to the camp that finds the tunnel proposal very foolish. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report once again underscores, cities need to be proactive towards curbing driving if they want to be serious about meeting climate targets. Or to, as a byproduct, deliver the walkable city experience our increasingly urbanizing society needs to enhance people’s quality of life.

In the future, this city scape will be beautified by a tunnel access ramp.

But I’m not going to return to the details of the tunnel fight.

Instead, I want to delve into the urban policy controversy that the tunnel debate demonstrated: Cities are racing to portray how serious they are about turning over a new leaf in the face of the looming climate crisis and other increasingly complex urban problems, but confusion often arises when it’s time to walk that talk.

Helsinki’s move to give the green light to a major car tunnel couldn’t have made it clearer how this policy gap works in the sphere of urban mobility. One moment there appears to be a shared strategic vision of the future of urban mobility, but the next, we’re back to making investments in driving infrastructure.

The same councilors who supported the tunnel, had, just weeks earlier, adopted a new city strategy stacked with ambitious goals to improve the quality of life in Helsinki and pledges to treat the climate emergency with the seriousness it deserves by hastening the city’s climate neutrality target year from 2035 to 2030. The strategy also aims to deliver the 15-minute city experience, which, mobility-wise, means reducing the use of cars and improving everything else.

In reality, these laudable aspirations were, however, no obstacle to moving ahead with the tunnel.

I’m using Helsinki’s tunnel adventure here as an example of a wider pattern. The idea of prioritizing sustainable transport is being challenged in Finland’s other major urban growth centers as well.

In Tampere, for example, there are serious plans to expand the highway junction at Vaitinaro, widen highway 9, and build a colossal new underground parking garage with long access tunnels underneath the city center. In the Turku area, there are plans to “improve” the ring road to accommodate more cars, and an underground parking garage beneath the city’s main square has just been opened.

It’s also important to note that cities are not the only ones to point the finger at. The mentioned projects in Tampere and Turku relate to the national road network and the cities are therefore co-planning them with the local Centers for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment which represent the central government. Needless to say, national climate and environmental conservation principles clash with all the above projects.

Finding a way to let go of the old and embrace the new is the defining issue of our time.

Automobility, stuck at center stage

So, why is it that the decision-makers didn’t allocate the disposable €180 million to something that would move more people and cause less harm to the environment? A big question. And no concise answer.

We’re clearly dealing with a so-called wicked problem that has no straightforward solution. In my mind, I picture the Sörnäinen car tunnel and its peer projects across the country as the gradually surfacing tips of icebergs—the visible outcomes of numerous driving-friendly practices and attitudes that are, to varying degrees, embedded in the organizations and people that shape Finland’s transportation environment. Submerged in the murky waters of the system, they quietly and often unintentionally work together to ensure that automobility remains a high priority in strategic decision-making regardless of what is written down in any policy paper.

Some of these elements can be easily detected in the events and discussions around the Sörnäinen tunnel.

The first and most obvious factor is that the concept of induced demand is ignored —if acknowledged at all. Often, the intuitive opinions of planners and the results of impact assessments assert that tunnels or wider roads can ease traffic flows, mitigating any current or expected congestion problems. Experience and studies have, however, shown that adding more space for cars will eventually lead to more driving and worse congestion problems. The logic behind the idea of induced demand is that at the system-wide level, each car-friendly project makes driving just a little bit easier, which, in turn, encourages the continuation of car-oriented and carbon-intensive urban development patterns.

Much-promising tech innovations tend to gain a lot of traction even though in reality, transportation transforms very slowly. Whimsical ideas can distract cities from focusing on solutions that we know work.

The phenomenon of induced demand is often expedited by tech enthusiasm. With the Helsinki tunnel, some proponents argue that electric vehicles will soon minimize the project’s environmental impacts as driving-related CO2 emissions are slashed. This may be true if only direct vehicle operation-based carbon emissions are taken into consideration. In the bigger picture, however, electric vehicles won’t eradicate the role of cars in exacerbating urban sprawl, and they continue to be linked to environmental problems, just of a different type.

Another factor keeping driving high on the agenda is the deep-rooted perception that transportation planning must equally provide for all modes of transport. The Sörnäinen tunnel investment was often justified by comparing it to Helsinki’s recent spending in public transportation projects, as if it was time for the city to service drivers as well. This idea is in direct conflict with any ambitions for prioritizing sustainable mobility.

Hämeentie street, just a couple of blocks away from the proposed Sörnäinen tunnel, was recently turned into a public transport corridor with limited access for private cars. This advancement for low-carbon mobility is set to be reversed with the introduction of the tunnel.

The “necessity” of the Sörnäinen tunnel was also greatly amplified because it had been circulating in the planning and decision-making systems for at least 16 years. The tunnel’s first appearance was in the mid-2000s when it was included in a local traffic plan. The ability for cities to anchor major infrastructure projects is intrinsically good, but it becomes a problem when applied to car infrastructure. Reserving land for them in city plans, sometimes for decades, excludes the areas from any other development ideas and limits the energy and possibilities for other, cleverer schemes like pedestrianization interventions, shaping better streets, and rapidly expanding public transport and bike lanes.

The Sörnäinen tunnel’s history of jumping on and off the planning agenda is a familiar one in Helsinki. There have been proposals since the mid-20th century to build a tunnel underneath downtown Helsinki to make it easier to enter the city from the suburbs, or to bypass it entirely. To date, the idea has been considered to be so far out that planning has always hit a wall. But it continues to lie dormant in the planning documents, waiting to be resurrected again. Image: City of Helsinki.

Finally, we must not forget the importance of the politicians who steer the direction of transport policy. Political decision-makers are not only affected with some of the beliefs already mentioned but they also complicate the situation with their ever-evolving relationship with the public. Real and perceived reactions from residents, identity politics and imagined voter types, for example, can easily lessen the impetus for decisions that focus on reducing car use. The Sörnäinen tunnel process certainly wasn’t immune to these influences.

The role that mechanisms like these and others play vary in each case, but all result in the same problem—the conclusion that investing in this or that car-friendly project isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Looking ahead

A wicked problem or not, cities need to be more determined to find ways to live up to their sustainable mobility pledges. How? Another complex question.

The quickest solution would be for us voters to fill city councils with politicians that consistently make smart decisions. Well, that’ll be the day. Changes must obviously be made deeper inside the system.

To uncover better ideas, I decided to call Miloš Mladenović, Aalto University’s Assistant Professor in Spatial Planning and Transportation Engineering. After I had finished ranting about the disappointing tunnel decision, we exchanged our thoughts on what we should be paying more attention to if we really want to create positive ripple effects that can nudge the dawning aspirations for a sustainable mobility planning model in our cities an inch further. Two interrelated topics emerged from that conversation.

Expanding the planners’ toolbox

One tangible way to facilitate the deprioritization of driving and achieving a more holistic understanding of mobility is to rethink the toolbox that transportation planners typically rely on. “The tools used today limit planning processes into exercises of studying trips and traffic flows”, Miloš explains. Especially problematic is the widespread love for applying traffic projections that rely on extrapolatory deterministic models.

In simple terms, many planning departments and agencies use specifically designed software for rather simple calculations and tend to treat the results with more enthusiasm than they deserve. The resulting figures are much too often interpreted as knowledge about future travel demands—needs that planners and, ultimately, decision-makers feel they must help satisfy.

Improving the situation is a challenge. This type of modeling software has, over the years, become a professional cornerstone. If suddenly removed, many organizations would be left with nothing to study traffic flows.

Choosing to develop more sophisticated traffic modeling tools is a solution, but cities are reluctant to explore that territory because they perceive it to be a costly endeavor. Should they, however, factor in the outputs of using outdated tools (like a €180 million tunnel), the cost question becomes more nuanced. But this is just one side of the issue; Miloš says, “Tools give identity. That’s also an important factor to consider. Many people would need to learn a new software.”

The end game should not be to scrap quantitative traffic modeling altogether. “It should be an asset used in relation to many other tools to support decision-making by helping to paint the big picture”, Miloš envisions.

Besides refraining from overusing any of the few tools we like, we should also consider adopting new practical approaches that help make planning processes more people centric. “We still don’t understand how multimodal people are”, Miloš points out.

Developing tools that shed light on the distribution of benefits and burdens associated with transport interventions is one consideration-worthy example. “The tools we use should work towards achieving a higher level of social justice”, Miloš argues. “The biggest burdens shouldn’t fall on the disadvantaged. You want a city where that person whose livelihood is car-dependent is going to be able to keep on doing their thing, but this should not be confused for unfettered automobility for all.”

“Downtown” Kalasatama today. The city of Helsinki sees a car tunnel as the only feasible way to calm car traffic on these streets.

Cultivating learning organizations

An updated toolkit is, however, just one important step. A broader goal should be for transportation planning to be a true collaboration between the various silos of city planning. In other words, to create plans around a shared urban vision.

Ambitious as this may sound, it is already in experimentation. One example is the emergence of the SUMP concept (Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan), which is an EU-instigated planning strategy for providing accessibility to everyone while addressing climate targets and improving quality of life.

Despite the growing enthusiasm, it’s much too early to consider stealing someone else’s winning formula. Miloš cautions, “There is no clear leader in implementation, just some good projects and smart individuals here and there.” What we should be paying attention to is that advancements are usually built on “a good understanding of the problems they’re dealing with”. Here, Miloš is referring to the fact that having the appropriate institutional capacity is the backbone for building a transportation planning culture that can respond to today’s societal complexities.

Globally, the winds are gently blowing in favor of a less infrastructure-centered approach to transport planning than we’ve been accustomed to in the past decades. A growing number of institutions have begun to arm the new generation of transportation planners with a systems thinking skillset. This is an approach where the focus is not on isolated infrastructures but on getting to grips with how the various parts of a system interrelate and how the local transport system works in relation to other, larger systems. The aim is, essentially, to make the domain of transport planning and engineering a place that brings people from different backgrounds together to make informed decisions.

This shift was also initiated in Finland about half a decade ago and the stock of new talent in the field is slowly growing each year. While the future looks bright, it would be a bad idea to just sit back and wait for a new generation of planners to take over the profession to reshape transportation planning. The challenges are already here.

The institutions dealing with transportation planning have every opportunity to fast-track to future right now. Miloš argues, “They can choose to take up strengthening their capacity as learning organizations as a strategic goal.” This means making an effort to reorganize internally in a way that embraces collaborative learning. In other words, to begin building a culture where a strong desire to learn and processing projects through wide-reaching discussions are considered virtues (as opposed to having a top-down hierarchy).

Transitioning to a vision-led planning model obviously has its challenges. And they are definitely not the easy kind. Organizational restructuring and the need to adopt a variety of new tools and processes are dauting tasks for any institution.

But no one’s ever achieved a smooth paradigm change. There will be moments of progress and moments of setbacks. The greatest challenge is starting.

Miloš stresses that it’s important for organizations to recognize that any such process won’t happen in isolation. Far from it. Support will always be available, starting with Miloš’s team in academia: “I am super excited about anyone in the field wanting to co-develop new knowledge.”

A proposition worth exploring, I feel.

These are some thoughts for taking steps towards adopting a planning model that places transportation in a supporting role for achieving the future we would like to see. And at the very least, for scaling down the odds of climate-conscious cities ending up in situations where they have, say, “necessary” car tunnel proposals smoothly slipping through the cracks.

Finally, it must be said that while it’s crucial to jump start systemic changemaking processes, decision-makers are not to be let off the hook. At the end of the day, the delivery of a sustainable urban mobility ecosystem relies on their leadership. The approval of the Sörnäinen car tunnel should be the final sign that it’s truly time for political leaders at all levels of government to have a fundamental conversation on their priorities.

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