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Cities Reimagined: An Interview with Helsinki’s Cycling Coordinator

By Megan Flottorp

The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have led cities worldwide to rethink their transport strategy. Part of this shift has been a sizable push to reconfigure streets to make walking and cycling more accessible, thus aiding social distancing and reducing air pollution.

According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, the continent’s cities spent €1 billion on Covid-related cycling measures in 2020, creating at least 600 miles of cycle lanes and traffic-calming measures. It seems that the pandemic revealed a latent demand for cycling and walking infrastructure, and offered a chance for places with inadequate amenities to change their tune. Milan, for example, has designated more than 20 miles of cycling lanes, London officials introduced temporary bike lanes and widened pedestrian zones, while Paris and Barcelona have taken similar steps.

A bike lane in Milan
Milan has constructed more than 20 miles of bike lanes. © Profimedia

These trailblazing and ambitious initiatives are clearly led by people who have a genuine desire to make their cities more accessible to all travellers. At the same time, these plans were pushed through quickly, and many are short-term fixes rather than comprehensive overhauls of the transit system. Now, with an end to the lockdowns in sight, it is time to consider whether these measures, which have proved successful so far, have staying power.

To get a better handle on the viability of these projects and to understand what it takes to truly put urban biking at the front and centre of a city’s plan, we spoke with Oskari Kaupinmäki. Oskari is the Cycling Coordinator in Helsinki, where he is pursuing his passion for improving city life by re-introducing the bicycle into the urban environment. We talked to him about the importance of a holistic approach, what European cities can learn from one another, and how to get people who don’t think of themselves as ‘cyclists’ riding bikes.

So Oskari, tell us how you ended up with the awesome (albeit undoubtedly very demanding) job of Cycling Coordinator in Helsinki?

The condensed version is that I initially studied traffic engineering and, somewhat ironically based on what I do now, had ambitions of becoming an airline pilot. Cycling had always been part of my life, though. Growing up in Finland, everyone learns how to ride a bike. Yet as I got older, I noticed how trends were changing. When I was young, it was an anomaly for a kid to be dropped off at school in a car (our neighbourhoods all have schools close by), and yet I started to see this practice becoming more common.

As I gained more professional experience planning traffic strategies, I realised I wanted to focus on bikes. I ultimately did a master’s project focused on cycling transport and was lucky to be part of some EU projects that allowed me to travel to other cycling capitals around Europe and learn from what they’ve accomplished. When the opportunity presented itself to drive cycling policy in the city where I now live—I decided to apply and was happily hired for the position!

It sounds like some formative experiences helped you narrow your focus. What city most inspires what you’re currently trying to accomplish in Helsinki?

A trip to Copenhagen that I took early in my career really expanded my horizons. Their approach to bicycle traffic is so functional. Everywhere you look, there are average women and men using bikes to get around in such a natural and organic way.

I was also influenced by the work of Mikael Colville-Andersen and his concept of ‘bicycle urbanism.’ In his work, Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, he illustrates how planning for the bicycle must not be detached from other ways of using, interpreting and re-designing city landscapes. I believe bikes have a pivotal role to play in improving our cities, and Colville-Andersen’s work helped me see how designing around this is the most efficient way to make our cities life-sized—to scale cities for humans. This strategy is all about allowing people to imagine themselves riding a bike to get around; they don’t necessarily have to think of themselves as a ‘cyclist.’ This was very influential in shaping how I approach my job.

A tram in Copenhagen
Cycling should be an integral part of city planning, not a detached area. © Profimedia

It seems like it is ultimately about changing the mindset, isn’t it?

Definitely. In Finland, many were still stuck in the belief that we couldn’t be a true cycling capital because of the weather—but that just comes from a lack of imagination. People need to be able to visualise themselves doing something. It is not that they are necessarily lazy or aren’t interested in other forms of transport, but of course, we all naturally gravitate towards whatever is most visible and accessible.

Now we’re looking to change that and to demonstrate that plenty of people cycle year-round in places with a similar climate—like Copenhagen, for example! For this reason, we’re emphasising winter maintenance procedures and methods to promote year-round cycling further. Whenever people complain that it is too cold or too windy, we can point to other examples where wintery conditions do not deter bicycle users. In fact, all of Europe’s most successful bike countries are found in the northern part of the continent, like Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

In addition to normalising winter riding, what projects have been the most successful in Helsinki?

Overall, cycling in Helsinki is already considered a fast, convenient and safe way to get from A to B. New world-class infrastructure and maintenance practices have been introduced, and the new bike share programme deployed in 2016 has been a major success, inviting new users to make short trips by bicycle. The city council also recently approved an action plan to double the percentage of trips conducted by bike, from the current 9% to 20% by 2035. Increasing the modal share of cycling is an integrated part of the city’s goal to become carbon neutral by the same year.

Our focus is really just on making traversing the city by bike as practical as possible. Currently, the Kaisa tunnel is something we’re really excited about! Already under construction, it is set to be complete by 2023 and will provide a crucial link between the east and west sides of the ‘Baana’ bicycle superhighway network, accommodating estimated daily cycling volumes between 6,000 and 10,000 people. The Baana network plan connects all suburban areas of Helsinki to the urban core and with each other. Currently cyclists travelling east to west past the railway station must take a detour approximately half a kilometre in length, so the Kaisa tunnel is estimated to shorten travel time by at least two minutes for cyclists, though most likely more. Upon its completion, we will be better aligned with the city’s current design principles, which are based on Dutch and Danish best practices.

Baana Helsinki
The Baana bicycle superhighway network. © Profimedia

Clearly cities that have recently invested in infrastructure would do well to look to others for support. What kind of initiatives are in place to promote this kind of mentorship?

Absolutely. Although our approach didn’t really change due to the pandemic, we pushed to accelerate some of our existing initiatives and implement stricter timelines. So far, we’ve been able to make so much progress through initiatives like the EU-funded Handshake project, which strives to create cycling-friendly cities across the EU. Alongside Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Munich are also mentoring Helsinki and nine other EU cities to become Future Cycling Capitals.

This cooperation has resulted in Helsinki’s tailored Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic as well as the Bicycle Strategy. The aim of Handshake is to get an extra push in city development that will expedite change in becoming the best city in sustainable transportation in the world.

Do you think most of the cycling-related projects that have been implemented around Europe over the last year are sustainable?

It remains to be seen. I think it is vital that, going forward, these cycling-focused initiatives are ultimately incorporated as part of an overall coherent traffic strategy—rather than just imposing cycling lanes on top of existing infrastructure. As the Dutch will tell you, if you plan things badly for cars, everyone will suffer. We need to consider how our designs will best serve all road users. We need to find effective ways to filter other kinds of traffic to make room for bicycles. Hopefully, as cycling projects garner more support and are bolstered by facts to back up their viability, there will be more substantial overall consensus going forward.

To conclude then, what advice would you have for your colleagues working in less ‘cycling friendly’ cities or environments?

I always say that it is about implementing a well-developed bicycle strategy at a holistic level, in conjunction with the overall city strategy. This should be done in close and active co-operation internally and with all relevant stakeholders. It is all about collaboration and allowing others to appreciate the benefits that an enhanced bicycle strategy can have. When the share of bike trips in a city goes up, congestion eases, noise and emissions go down, and the inhabitants become healthier. There are also economic savings.

Sometimes tough decisions need to be made, but following the positive example set by others is not impossible. Paris is an interesting example where the dramatic expansion of the cycle-lane network has had an immediate and significant impact. That said, in addition to accessibility, we need to invest in infrastructure design, ensuring there are places to leave your bike safely, and be open-minded enough to rethink the way we use street space.

The best way to implement real, bike-friendly change is for cycling advocates to approach their mission not just out of love for the bike, but love for a livable city.