The Car-Free City: A Future Trend For Transportation?

In the fourth part of our series, International Transportation and Michigan, we focus on Helsinki, Finland, where public transportation options are eliminating the need to own a vehicle.

The city of Helsinki, Finland aims to be car-free by 2025. Instead of outlawing or taking away cars, the city hopes to prove car ownership to be an unnecessary expense through the creation of a comprehensive, on-demand network of transportation options which relies on new technology. This car-free stance is still a radical one, despite massive technological innovations in most other aspects of modern life.

In Helsinki, the Kutsuplus Bus System allows riders to use a smartphone to tailor a route directly to their needs for “mobility on demand.” The fare is slightly higher than a regular bus ride, but significantly less than a taxi. Kutsuplus encourages the use of public transit by making it even more convenient than having a car in the city, and for multiple riders it is the most efficient way to get everyone to their destination with minimal delays and headaches for all involved. Operations are almost entirely subsidized by rider fees.

The city established the service to meet demand and gaps in current service routes, though for many riders the original public transit routes are already convenient and economically sound. It also alleviates the high cost of parking in Helsinki, often reaching as much as $5 per hour.

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A rider of the Kutsuplus uses his smart phone. Photo courtesy of Helsinki Transit Authority

Helsinki is taking cues from millennials who choose to live in the urban environment with easy access to public transit. To better understand this trend, the city commissioned a master’s thesis by transportation engineering student Sonja Heikkilä.  The Helsinki Times, in an article aptly titled “The Future Resident of Helsinki Will Not Own A Car,” quoted Heikkilä, who said “a car is no longer a status symbol for young people. On the other hand, they are more adamant in demanding simple, flexible and inexpensive transportation.”

A recent study by Transportation for America and the Rockefeller Foundation showed that four in five millennials, surveyed in ten major U.S. cities, want to live in a place where they have a variety of transportation options available to them. Additionally, three in four also said they will not likely live in a place where they need a car to get around. It’s not a secret that many recent graduates of Michigan universities are leaving the state, with many ending up in transit-rich places like Chicago or New York City. According to the Detroit Free Press, the last time Michigan experienced a net gain of youthful (18 to 24 year old) college-educated individuals was in 2004.

Trans4M - Millennial+Transit

The freedom and flexibility of owning a car is slowly being replaced by the ease of choosing from a myriad of transportation options at one’s fingertips. A recent City Lab article pegged the smartphone as the latest transportation innovation that the United States has yet to embrace: “The result is a huge missed opportunity to upgrade urban transportation networks by making them more unified.”

A single app could map a route integrating transit stops, bike share points, pleasant walking paths, and even taxis or cars. No U.S. city has pursued a simple smartphone app that can track, book, and accept pay for an entire trip.

So how can Michigan tap into this trend and attract and retain the talent of millennials, now the largest demographic group? Diversifying transportation options is an important and obvious place to start. Our college cities, such as Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and East Lansing seem to be on board with expanding bus services and implementing new transit solutions such as Bus Rapid Transit and nonmotorized options. And with Michael Ford heading the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA), Detroit has a chance to make transit a priority for the region.

While most cities correctly realize cars are not going to disappear forever any time soon, seeking to reduce car presence and to make driving seem redundant, expensive, or frivolous are underway in many European countries. With cities like Helsinki setting the example, we may finally begin to see a new attitude towards transportation and the car.

Written by Elle Getschman, Trans4M Fall Fellow

3 Comments on “The Car-Free City: A Future Trend For Transportation?

  1. There are dreams and realities. Helsinki is Helsinki and outside of it is Finland. We have so long distances on countryside that man needs cars. On countryside there are no pharmacies, hospitals, shops, there are only forests and bears, elks, reindeers, lynxes, swamps, and wolves. In winter the length of day varies from zero hours to five hours depending where man lives.

    All the people cannot live in Helsinki due to high prices. This means that man must move outside Helsinki. There are no bus connections if man has his job in Helsinki, no transportation if the work start at 5 o’clock in the morning. For example my work trip to the airport was 43km / 27mi. This meant that no possibilities to use public transport. What about people working at night? No hope to use buses if man is forced to move outside Helsinki due to high prices. Some people have children. Before going to the work children must be transferred to kindergartens and after it man can travel to work. We have snow and cold in winter, all the people need winter clothes and children especially. They do not love sitting long time in busses, if there are any. What about returning from the work to kindergartens? Man must be fetching children in due time regardless the weather is – cold snowstorms, rains.

    Some have dreams it is good, but also man must be realist also.

  2. Living in a small town in the American Midwest, public transit in my part of the country is practically nonexistent. No passenger trains, regular buses, etc. here. Yet when my grandparents were growing up in the 1930s, it was not uncommon for them and their friends to take passenger trains from their village to a movie theatre in a town 40 miles away and go back to their village on the same night. So I don’t buy the idea that public transit in rural areas or small towns is unfeasible. I actually would travel more except I don’t like driving in big cities and air travel is uncomfortable (and really, I don’t like dealing with the TSA). Public transit in USA is an absolute joke in modern times.

  3. Pingback: The new trend of going Car Free

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