Ban All Cars: Is Helsinki’s Wish To Ban All Cars By 2025 From Its Roads Utopian or Dystopian?

For as long as we've had cars, we've had traffic jams.

For as long as we’ve had cars, we’ve had traffic jams.

Now this may sound provocative, given the majority of things we cover here at Transport Evolved, but cars don’t work. I say that fully aware that my name is on the ownership document for 3 cars, and that across the Transport Evolved fleet we have a fairly vast number of both evolved, and less evolved, vehicles. I also say that knowing that I love my cars. But loving them doesn’t mean I can’t see their flaws.

And as a means to transport the mass of humanity around either crowded cities, or across the vast distances of the tundra, cars are pretty terrible. While electric cars are more efficient than fossil fuelled vehicles, they still suffer from a really basic design flaw – namely that they spend an awful lot of their time not doing much. Even when they are doing something they’re generally occupying way more space than is theoretically needed to achieve that task. And then there’s induced demand.

From the early days of the Model T Ford through to the latest Tesla Model S however, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that cars are an essential part of our lives. Sometimes, we even proclaim that life without a car is impossible. But just as many other things we may enjoy, things that we like aren’t always good for us — or the world at large.

Which leads us to a series of questions we’ve wanted to ask for a long time. Are cars really necessary? Can we live without them? And is the next logical step from the electric car no car at all? After all, with the overwhelming majority of the world’s population now living in cities or suburbia, living without a car should be easy, right?

In many cities, metro systems should make life without a car possible. Photo by Ralf Roletschek GFDL 1.2

In many cities, metro systems should make life without a car possible. Photo by Ralf Roletschek GFDL 1.2

You may have heard it said that cars fill the available road space. You build more road, and briefly, your congested freeway becomes fast flowing and wonderful. And then it fills up again. And then becomes congested. And then the cycle repeats. The reasons for this are many and subtle. For example, it turns out that if you allow humans to move more quickly, they’ll live further away. And also, if the roads are good businesses hop in to make use of those shiny bands of asphalt. It’s all very frustrating for road planners, and it is (at least partially) why we no longer throw motorways into the center of cities. Of course, we’ve known this for a very long time. Even back in the 1960s, while we were still hurling ring-roads, bypasses, highways and motorways across the world with merry abandon, it was clear freeways and motorways either through or around city centers would never, ever, work long-term.

So it’s not surprising that people are constantly trying to work out solutions to the problems of getting people moved around the urban environment. And to that end Finland is aiming to see the end of car ownership as we know it. In an interview in business insider, back in 2014, Sonja Heikkilä, then a transportation engineer with Helsinki’s City Planning Department, described her vision. It’s a vision that combines city bicycles, ride-sharing, mini-bus services, the metro system and adaptive route planning to enable efficient – and rapid – transport around cities without need for a personally owned vehicle.

The concept involves inverting the traditional urban planning ideas — rather than looking at where everyone is going as a group, you instead look at each individual’s needs.

Perhaps we're being provocative, but in the long run cars don't work. Photo: Tony Webster, CC BY 2.0

We’ve tried public transport based on grouping everyone together, it doesn’t seem popular. So perhaps a better idea is to look at each person’s needs. Photo: Tony Webster, CC BY 2.0

Helsinki then actually put this plan into action – with the desire to essentially reduce car ownership to zero by 2025. Their pilot project – called “Kutsuplus” operated for around a year and a half – utilizing an ‘uber like’ connected minibus fleet – but with paid employees rather than contractors. Unfortunately, the service struggled with its chimerian public-private status and was eventually mothballed in late 2015. Hamstrung by high cost, high end vehicles and technological limitations, it seems the pseudo-uber couldn’t quite make it work. And while Heikkilä may have moved into banking, the concepts she suggested are becoming easier and easier to achieve and the plan appears to have lived on – discussed in a new book: Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government.

With urban planners rapidly trying to grasp the abilities gifted them by modern society’s connected nature, and the increasingly autonomous nature of modern electric vehicles, it looks like Heikkilä’s “Mobility as a Service” concept may well come to pass – and it seems that Helsinki’s got a head-start. So it may be that in just 10 years, as autonomous vehicle technology progresses, Helsinki can wave goodbye to the personal automobile.

Just e-hail a JonnyCab to get home.

Just e-hail a JonnyCab to get home.

Would you give up owning your own vehicle? Do you long for a world where you summon a JonnyCab at the touch of a button? Or would that be impossible for you? Let us know in the Comments below.


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