Imaging the future of urban transport
Collective transport to Aalto’s main campus in Otaniemi received a massive boost in November 2017 with the opening of the new Aalto University metro station. Part of the westward extension of Helsinki’s distinctive orange-themed metro system, it’s one of eight new stops that breathe fresh life into the city’s transport network.
The new stations are design and engineering masterpieces; vast caverns of space and light set deep underground and undersea, offering a glimpse into the future of a transport strategy for greater Helsinki that’s grounded in efficiency, sustainability and open mindedness.
“As with many things, a healthy attitude towards moving from A to B begins in childhood,” says Helsinki traffic and street planning director, Reetta Putkonen. “So if we can create an environment where children are able to walk safely to school, and take the bus or train from an early age, then I believe they will carry such behaviour with them as they grow up. This has clear longer-term benefits, both for their own health and in their attitudes towards traffic pollution and congestion.”
People before vehicles
Putkonen’s view exemplifies the holistic perspective that forward-thinking city planners take when it comes to urban mobility. If a transport network is the lifeblood of a city, then the people using that network are part of a larger organism that needs to be viewed in its totality.
When one looks at it this way, designing public transportation becomes about much more than just planning the fastest route from home to work, or embracing the latest in transport technology just because it’s available. When traffic networks are correctly viewed as structures that influence our quality of life, our health and the natural world around us – as systems that are inseparable from the lives of the people that use them – then planning can take place at a level that puts people’s well-being before any single technology or mode of transport.
“I think it’s quite telling that in many artists’ impressions of future cities – where all the cars are self-driving – there are often not many people in the pictures,” says Putkonen. “Cities will always first and foremost be for people; not for some specific style of transport or type of car. It’s easy to forget this when we become excited about technology and the possibilities it offers.”
“The fact is that no city planner knows exactly what transport needs will look like in the future, and I think it would be a mistake to believe we are able to know,” says Putkonen. “What we can do though – as we are doing in Helsinki – is prepare for the future with human-centric planning that doesn’t adhere to any single model at the expense of another. That’s why we are studying and investing in five modes: walking, cycling, public transport, cars, and goods-delivery vehicles.”
Health & safety first
This multimode model seems a prudent approach, especially when looking at cities that have emphasized one mode at the expense of another. For example, people living in vehicle-centric cities – like Jakarta, Istanbul, São Paulo and Los Angeles, to name but a few – are exposed to dangerously high levels of emissions, while drivers must endure congested traffic for many hours each day.
Aside from the respiratory-tract infections and cancers caused by particulate pollution, there are a host of negative mental and physical effects associated with sitting in a vehicle for long periods. These include stress, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and other avoidable conditions.
When confronted by these obvious negative outcomes, we may want to jump entirely in the other direction and go all-in on healthier modes of transport, such as cycling. But an overly bicycle-centric approach in a city can cause problems of its own, as evidence from the Netherlands would suggest. There the sheer volume of cyclists – coupled with the fact that bikeways and walkways are not always adequately separated – means that bicycles are involved in a remarkably high proportion of accidents with pedestrians. Cycling has been over emphasized at the expense of people on foot.
The constraint of space
In the absence of a balanced approach to public transit like Helsinki’s, it’s tempting to believe that new technologies – such as self-driving cars – hold the answers for those cities where vehicle congestion and pollution are such a problem. Emission-free cars that can constantly calculate and re-calculate to find the quickest route, drive closer together for faster traffic flows, and eliminate the need for parking in city centres – these are just some of the oft-touted benefits of autonomous vehicles.
Many such benefits may indeed come to be realized and enjoyed by people in the years to come. But they still fail to adequately address one of the biggest constraints of all in city planning: finite space.
This constraint is among the principal concerns for transport-planning academics like Professor Claudio Roncoli from the Aalto University School of Engineering. He cautions against the widespread belief that new vehicle-based solutions will automatically be the panacea congested cities have been waiting for.
“We seem to have this notion that as soon as we inject self-driving vehicles into traffic, everything will run smoothly,” says Roncoli. “But this is by no means a given. What we are in fact seeing in our studies is that the current technology trajectory may actually just make congestion worse.”
Roncoli makes the point that many new and future transport solutions – including apps for ride or car sharing, and the concept of on-demand autonomous vehicles – have their origins in the IT sector, where the main constraints are bandwidth and connectivity; constraints that are easily addressed by adding more network capacity, as well as by the march of technology itself into the 5G era. Physical space constraints cannot be addressed in the same way.
“When there are relatively few users of these new mobility services, everything will run smoothly. But there will always be structural limitations as to how much traffic can efficiently move within a given area. So how will these solutions scale up?” asks Roncoli. “What happens when everyone wants the same service at the same time? There are not infinite cars. There is not infinite space.”
Tapping into the crowd
What is the best way then to work out a sustainable way forward? How can we address these universal constraints without falling into the trap of believing that technology will automatically be our saving grace?
Claudio Roncoli’s colleague and fellow transport planner, Professor Milos Mladenovic, is challenging city planners – including himself – to recognize that more should be done to tap into the imagination, experiences and needs of the individual, instead of applying a one-size-fits all approach to determining our transport choices.
“Conventional engineering and transport planning follow a utilitarian way of thinking where we plan the city to maximise the sum of benefits, minus the sum of burdens,” says Mladenovic. “This is sometimes very useful – when we are discussing the reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions, for example – but it fails to acknowledge that there is an unequal distribution of these burdens and benefits. When we are reflecting on the common good, we should not forget the experience of the individual.”
“At the end of the day our planning processes are still very centrally driven,” says Mladenovic. “We haven’t been significantly tapping into citizens’ knowledge or citizens’ visions of the future, or even establishing mechanisms that will allow us to start imagining alternative and desirable futures. I believe that in this field we are vastly under-utilizing the wisdom of the crowd.”
Mladenovic says Helsinki is at the forefront of participatory planning practices, with citizens’ input typically taken into account as part of the city’s planning processes. However, he says that efforts to engage people specifically in deliberating about transport technologies have rarely occurred anywhere in the world.
“Technology only gives us opportunities,” he says. “But we still need to imagine those opportunities, so that we avoid just copying solutions from elsewhere that may not be the best ones for a given environment…”
Increased investment, ambitious targets
It’s easy to imagine that Helsinki – with its exemplary public transport network – could be where Milos Mladenovic’s vision of participatory decision-making develops in the coming years, as the city continues to build on its multi-mode transport strategy.
Increased investment in rail travel is central to this strategy, and the construction of a further five metro stations is already well underway, while even faster trams are planned for the inner city.
There will also be additional investment in cycling, with the city’s budget for year-round maintenance of bike lanes and the creation of dedicated bike parking zones set to rise from €10 million to €20 million. Currently, 10% of all trips undertaken in Helsinki are by bicycle. This is already remarkably high compared to many other European cities, especially considering that agreeable biking weather lasts for at most three quarters of the year.
Nevertheless, the city has set extremely ambitious targets on cycling, stating that 15% of all trips are to be by bike in 2020, with the proportion rising to 20% by 2025.
“The most important thing the public sector can do is create a city where you don’t need to use your car if you don’t want to or don’t have one,” says Reetta Putkonen. “This is one of the key principles that guides our thinking, and it will continue to do so for many years to come.”