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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  • Martin Lacey

    City planners omit one serious issue….

    Our deep rooted desire to get to and from work and all our social and personal engagements under our own steam. The only exceptions are those occasions when we expect some form of inability such as drinking and hospital trips. Media portrayal and historic experience paints public transport as:
    removed from our destination(s)

    Self driving cars may persuade some of us to bypass private ownership and public transport… two issues remain from the above list with self driving car sharing:
    1) Expense – Self driving EV’s should prove to be cheap to run John Voelcker over at Green Car Reports has made the case for very cheap transportation. But we all know that a cheap product can be expensive to the end user as the fleet owner maximises their profit margins once they have priced out all other forms of local public transport.
    2) Cleanliness between passengers – at 2 a.m. you don’t want to be the passenger who hails the auto-cab that some wino just threw up in.

    Then there is the security of a driverless system and the nefarious uses some sectors of society engage in. What happens if you hail a cab with weapons left in the trunk or drugs or a body. Guess who is going to answer some tough questions!

  • Chris O

    Not sure to what extend fully autonomous cars could reduce car ownership as we all need our cars at the same time: when we travel to and from work, which is why we have traffic jams in the first place of course. If anything I see an extra spike in traffic jams as throngs of autonomous cars make their way to office and industrial estates to pick up people going home…

  • BenBrownEA

    When cities become semi-independent villages where the majority of resources and work are within local reach rather than Only reachable by car-bus-train-freight hauler, then car-less regions make sense. I also think civilization will be more resilient. Having said that, employed as a medical support person, I’m required (I think by law, but not sure) to have a vehicle available in the advent of a regional emergency (like tornado, flood, disease outbreak, etc.).

    • Chris O

      That’s why I think a total ban on cars is totally dystopian. Because of course not all cars will be banned, there will be exceptions. because what about those handicapped people, what about those old people, what about medical personnel, doctors etc. what about people with jobs that carry great responsibilities (including all politicians of course…)By the time all is said and done half the population would have wormed its way in some exception category gallivanting around comfortably on empty roads while the rest of the population is crammed in overcrowded public transport. It would be a recipe for civil war really except of course any sort of ban on cars would never stand a chance in any functional democracy.

      Of course functional democracies are on their way out so never say never…