The Slow Death of Helsinki’s Public Transport

Public transport in the greater metropolitan area in and around Helsinki has been developed over the past decades with big increases in lines for buses, trains, and trams.

It all started with buses and a few trains inside and around Helsinki. Busses were cheap and people could choose between slow or express buses to most destinations for commuting.

Helsinki was full of shops and most suburbs had a reasonable sprinkling of local shops for the daily needs. There were also parks, and sports facilities and theaters also within walking distance. Tapiola Garden City and Arvar Aalto was the top tourist spot for Nordic Sustainable until urban planning by qualified architects became the playground of the construction lobby.

These are the same people who pushed hard for the hugely expensive underground metro network, and not trams or bus networks that are better suited to the then and current spread-out suburbs.

The planning and implementation became a political imperative for those parties on the right that benefited from generous financial support from the construction lobby. It was well known at the time that bus and tram networks are far cheaper and cover surburbia more effectively that costly underground network that relies on the highest possible number of users.

The final costs were double what was originally promised, but the big property developers managed huge land grabs, not available to us low mortals, with their political friends. New apartment blocks, shops, offices and huge underground parking spaces were neatly arranged around underground metro stations. Urban zoning got a whole new meaning without much regard for what locals wanted. Concrete and steel shopping malls are the new catchwords, not green sustainable urban areas with parks, tree and traffic-free zones. Tapiola Garden City became a concrete slum in no time at all…

These new networks of the metro linking Helsinki with Espoo, Vantaa and a few other municipalities brought another source of friction – the sharing of costs between the municipalities for the construction, operation and maintenance these lines. Municipalities are experts at musical chairs when it comes to cost sharing. They want to pay as little as possible and force others to pay more, and since Helsinki is the largest city at the center of the metro, then they ended up with a relatively greater share that they had to cover with increased fares. Fare hikes led to fewer commuters, and distance working along with new shopping malls in the peripheries with free parking meant even more reductions in commuters.

Outlying suburban areas and small municipalities like Kirkkonummi, Inkoo, and Siuntio ended up with fewer trains and even fewer buses to Helsinki. The buses were cut because Helsinki refused to pay for them because there was a train connection, but when too few train commuters the trains were reduced in numbers, so even fewer people used thew trains! Clever!

A further challenge has been that Helsinki many people working there who have what are called “company cars”. These are a tax-driven perks offered and gladly taken by more senior folk and salesmen. They are not the cheapest way to have or use a car, but they are convenient because for a fixed monthly taxable cost the driver can drive as much as he likes with all the gas, parking and service charges, together with the resale price being borne by others – his employer and the leasing company… If you have a company car you have no incentive to use the metro!

It is this last point that stumps most attempts to clear traffic congestion and poor air ´quality in Helsinki, and Helsinki has the country’s worst levels of air quality!

It is well understood today that traffic congestion, poor air quality, and the missing public transport network between the various municipalities in the Helsinki metropolitan region has resulted in new investment projects for electric buses and more trams.

Politicians have now stopped offering metro networks because they are too costly to build. Electric buses, really old hat in many major cities, have become the new flavor of the week, alongside trams. Your correspondent can recall the anger he faced when he proposed to the City of Helsinki that they should change their metro network into trams lines and extend it east, north, and west – the sea is on the south side of Helsinki… the senior civil servant, who shall not be named fumed and shouted that “over my dead body will you make that proposal public!” How wrong he was even though the financial calculations were appealing and showed significant cost savings compared to the final horrible costs Espoo ended up paying for a short and miserable single line of some 20km.

So now, Helsinki is crying about the dramatic fall in commuters using public transport. They demand that the other municipalities pay more and these in turn, as they always do, demand extra cash from the central government. These people are on an austerity spree and will probably refuse to pay up, while hospitals fill up from cancer and lung diseases due to traffic fumes. Roads will become ever more congested, and public transport will not thrive as it should…

Just in case you are wondering about the best cures here they are:

  • A single public company needs to be created for public transport in the metropolitan region by all the participating municipalities and the State Railways with cost sharing based on simple population numbers of residents. The company would invest, operate and maintain the networks in the whole region.
  • Company cars should be stopped – why should senior folk and salesmen get easier access to roads – we are all in a hurry to get to work…
  • Public transport fares should be simplified and reduced to a unified price of €2 for 2 hours or €50 a month for the whole region.
  • More electric buses should be purchased and used for point-to-point express services.
  • People should be fined for not travelling on public transport, not for not having tickets – thus a road toll should be introduced for all when entering Helsinki city Centre.
  • Bike lanes and walk ways should be kept clean and open all years throughout the whole region.

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