Helsinki’s new pedestrian plans ‘will bring more cars’ to the capital

While no-car zones would ease congestion, plans to build a tunnel under the city centre would actually increase the volume of traffic on the roads.

File picture of Helsinki street scene, August 2018 / Credit: iStock

Many cities around the world are reducing the number of cars on the roads as a way to improve walkability. Helsinki is also planning to make some parts of the city less congested, but with unconventional plans that don’t involve giving up cars.

Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori (NCP) calls Helsinki “the most functional city in the world” in his strategy plan that proposes seven major projects for 2021 to make the Finnish capital more attractive, more business friendly, functional and secure for all residents.

One of the headline projects on the mayor’s wish list is a plan to extend the city’s pedestrian zone, to make some of the streets in the centre of town entirely car free; with restrictions for cars on some other streets.

While 15 other cities around the world including Oslo and Copenhagen are also trying to make their city centre streets more walkable and open to cycling, by restricting cars, Helsinki is planning something different.

According to Katariina Baarman, Project Director at Helsinki City Executive Office, the capital’s big idea would be to create an underground ‘distributor road’ – a tunnel built to handle 40,000 cars per day, making it possible still to drive around the city even while there are some restrictions in the centre.

“It is intended that this distributor street would allow the pedestrian zone expansion. It would bring the ground-level traffic into the underground and also supports the dock traffic. When the traffic goes underground, the city can build pedestrian streets, spread sidewalks and improve walking conditions and the walking environment as a whole” Baarman tells News Now Finland.

File picture of cyclist in the dark with lights / Credit: iStock

Restricting traffic brings more cars

The plan, however, is not without its complications.

One expert says that an underground distributor street is contradictory in the sense that it would reduce congestion, but at the same time generate more car traffic.

“This has been a reverse development, for example, compared to Copenhagen, where there has been a clear long-term goal that certain routes will be taken out of use” says Kimmo Lapintie, Professor at the Department of Architecture at Aalto University.

“We have also not started to restrict driving by introducing a street toll” – known as a ‘congestion charge’ in other cities, which would charge drivers a fee to enter certain parts of the city, on a sliding scale depending on the vehicle’s emissions.

“Only electric cars are exempt from it and this is specifically aimed at reducing the number of people traveling by car, and not moving the cars to somewhere else” like a tunnel under the city, says Professor Lapintie.

Positive examples across Europe

Professor Lapintie finds that there are already some positive examples of how pedestrian zones can work in practice, across Europe.

When they were first proposed, businesses feared that city centres would die if they weren’t accessible by car. That turned out not to be the case.

“Now, there are many examples that show this did not happen” says Lapintie.

“As a result of urbanization, there is an ongoing change in housing preferences. People want in addition to their traditional preferences, such as calmness and proximity to nature, also better services such as cafes and restaurants. Good traffic connections are also desirable features, which is also evident in several housing surveys” explains the professor.

“A dense center creates a space where a car is no needed. These people are the forces of change that seek and demand walking and cycling-oriented urban space” he says.