City Dive: City of Helsinki Interview

We caught up with Heikki Palomäki and Miikka Kulpakko at the City of Helsinki to discuss their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and how shared and sustainable mobility will get them there.

City Dive: City of Helsinki Interview
Source: Tapio Haaja

Helsinki is one of the 100 cities selected by the EU to participate in the Cities Mission - an initiative to create 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. For the Finnish capital, in the transport sector, this means reducing CO2 emissions by 69% compared to 2005 levels. All actions are being considered to achieve this goal.

This interview with the City of Helsinki will take us through the history of sustainable transport in Helsinki & Espoo, their present progress, and their future plans to reduce the modal share of private cars.


Insert coins to ride (2000-2010)

There’s a stark contrast between the current City Bike scheme and the previous one.

Between 2000 and 2010, citizens could rent clunky, single-speed green bikes with a €2 coin. Many of the GPS-less bikes were stolen or vandalized, and only 150 of the 400 that were initially launched remained in circulation by 2009.

They would be left everywhere, it was a really poor experience for the user, but also a really really poor experience for the city as well. They dropped it and it took a lot of time to build the new system, but they wanted to build it so that people would really want to use it”.

–  Heikki Palomäki, Head of Unit, Transport Systems at City of Helsinki

Back to the drawing board (2016-)

They couldn’t have imagined it any better. After a tender in 2015, a system supplied by Fifteen and operated by CityBike Finland Inurba launched the following year with 500 bikes and 50 stations. Since then the system has grown every year, and successfully expanded to the neighbouring town of Espoo, allowing citizens to move freely between both settlements. The scheme now has 4,500 bikes and 457 stations, and boasts a usage rate of over 6 rides per bike per day - it also has the highest satisfaction rate of any transport service in the city.

Source: Inurba mobility
“I think when the system started in 2016, there weren’t that many like it. It was really compact - there were enough stations to provide a good level of service - it was convenient and accessible. It really supported the city’s public transport system as a first/last mile solution. When it expanded, it was done in a way that kept the quality of service high”.

–  Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer at City of Helsinki

Why City Bike is so successful

The scheme in Helsinki is unique. Every winter, all bikes and stations are removed from the city, only to be redeployed again when the sun reappears in spring. Despite this operational dance, they have found a way to make it work.

Heavy subsidies from the city and advertising revenue keep season passes at a very reasonable €35, ensuring high usage and satisfaction, leading to more feedback about the service.

As every season passes, the system gets better. The city uses the time every winter to analyse the data from trips, find the most popular stations and routes, and define the optimal locations for stations when the service comes out of hibernation for another season. This flexibility also means the city can assess the potential for an expansion and test out station locations without having to commit to one, only to see it not be used.

If a station hasn't worked in a season, we can monitor the situation and move it to a better location. Of course, that happens every season. There are many situations when we have to move the station (e.g. construction works) and, of course, taking into consideration feedback from the public”.

–  Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer at City of Helsinki

New kids on the block

Freebike and Jurobike are two other bike services. Freebike has around 750 electric bikes and operates in the centres of Helsinki and Espoo. They operate on an ‘incentivised parking model’: parking is free when stopping a ride at a virtual station in a ‘green’ zone, but outside virtual stations there is a €1.50 fee. In a ‘red’ zone, you must park at a station, otherwise there will be a fine. “You just have to tap your debit card to unlock a bike, it’s very user-friendly”, says Miikka.

There is also another bike company, Jurobike, that has a slightly different model with a fleet of mechanical bikes.


Let there be… Chaos

Much like the City Bikes, scooters were a real novelty when they arrived - but they came under very different circumstances. Scooters were deployed on the streets without the city’s approval, meaning it was just as new for the city officials as it was for the citizens. Like in many other cities, there was chaos: pavement riding, accidents and bad parking.

It was totally market-orientated, there were no channels to influence the system, making negative impacts very hard to  handle and control. It’s a big issue because that way, we couldn’t make commitments with the operators, how they would deal with the services, parking and safety issues, and things like that”.

–  Heikki Palomäki, Head of Unit, Transport Systems at City of Helsinki

In 2019, there weren’t that many scooters, but in 2021 (after Covid), operators came back in numbers - and with more vehicles. Even now, in 2022, there is a free market: any new operator can decide to launch scooters in the city.

There are (currently) around 15,000 scooters in the Finnish capital.

Source: Reddit 

Legislation preventing progress with scooters in Finland

The lack of legislation is currently making it difficult to control the negative impacts of usage, country-wide.

“We will continue to discuss with the ministry to make changes to the legislation because the current legislation doesn't allow cities to request a permit or to tender the operators - something that would be welcomed in other cities in Finland.”.

–  Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer

There are also no rules dictating how many vehicles an operator can have. “We discussed having a set number per fleet with the operators, but it's not something that the operators as a whole could agree on”, said Heikki.

Having many operators means that each one must put out as many scooters as the next company to maximise rides. An over-saturation of scooters (too many for the demand) results in a worse conversion of rides per vehicle and less revenue for each individual player.

Of the 15,000 scooters in the city, around 7,000 are concentrated in the centre. “When you walk around, you can see them everywhere. Some riders park badly, so it blocks the way for pedestrians etc.”, says Heikki.  

As a city, many scooters concentrated in the city centre is a big problem. If they were more spread out, it would make for a better system. However, an operator needs to focus on the city centre to generate the revenue required to keep the service running, which is very different to how a subsidised scheme, like City Bike, can serve the whole city. This is especially true when there are many other services that can pick up your demand and revenue if you are not present in key areas.

Getting on good terms

Although it was difficult at the start, relationships with operators are fairly strong. They have bi-weekly or monthly discussions to broach important subjects, and to discuss how to improve issues.

They are very open about giving ideas on how to improve the services and a lot of good things have come from that. There are different rules that every operator here obeys. And it’s crucial that they do because that would look bad in the eyes of citizens and users. You don’t want to be seen to be the operator not following the rules like the others”.

–  Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer at City of Helsinki

Source: Whim

One such example is parking. To solve parking challenges, operators have started to carry out patrols to find badly-parked scooters and put them in the right places. They have also gone one better, encouraging users to park in specific places with their own initiatives:

“We had this parking pilot for this summer just in the city. The operators are investing their money into this parking (docks and painted parking slots) to improve user behaviour”.

–  Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer at City of Helsinki

The future for scooters

Despite the current challenges, Helsinki sees a place for scooters in the future. “The ministry has said that they are starting to study how changes to the legislation could be made if they are needed”, says Heikki.  

It’s hard to say exactly when this new legislation can be expected, but it is estimated to come in at the end of 2023 at the earliest.

The ultimate goal is that shared scooters would work in a similar way to the City Bike system - a first/last mile solution for citizens of Helsinki, as well as a quick way to get around the centre of town. It seems there is an opportunity to unify scooter schemes with public transport options and create mobility hubs:

“The demand is highest in the city centre - where most trips are made - but in a transport system way, the demand could be higher near these public transit hubs and rail stations where the system could really benefit from having these scooters”.

–  Heikki Palomäki, Head of Unit, Transport Systems at City of Helsinki


Room to grow

Shared cars have had a tougher time than scooters or bikes. One of the reasons for this is that the use case is simply very different. Scooters and bikes are ideal for one person to get around but, for longer trips or trips with a family or a group, a car might be necessary.  

Currently, there are several car sharing companies operating in Helsinki, including Green mobility and Omago. “The supply is not very high. At the moment it might be stopping the potential a little bit. If there was a bigger supply then perhaps it would help people move away from their private cars”, says Heikki.

Source: Green mobility

For the supply to rise, the demand must also rise. As with anything, changing people’s mobility preferences will be the key here. It’s not just down to car sharing companies to promote these services, it should also come from a state-backed campaign to raise awareness.

To achieve climate objectives, cities must promote alternatives to the private car, and car sharing has a big role to play.

The Helsinki of tomorrow

“We want to make sure that the modal shift actually happens so we are investing a lot in the light rail network and the bicycle highways. The future looks very sustainable and different services that support that are more than welcome!” - Heikki Palomäki

Helsinki will continue to look for ways to grow the modal share of bikes, and are investing into more protected bike lanes to make cycling safer.

When national legislation is ready, scooter fleets are set to be capped, but there will most likely be fewer players in the market to ensure a sustainable, profitable operation to the services that provide the best quality of service. When it comes to cars, Helsinki will encourage car sharing as a way to cut down the number of private car trips, and improve public transport to reduce the number of cars coming into the city centre from the outskirts.

They are already well on their way to becoming a sustainable and smart city, and we wish them all the best on their mission to become climate-neutral by 2030!

Thanks to: Heikki Palomäki, Head of Unit, Transport Systems; and Miikka Kulpakko, Traffic Engineer at the City of Helsinki.

The latest edition of the European Shared Mobility Index is here! Get your copy here.

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