Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 1 of 3)

That’s what I said on Twitter when I was there, and a few times after I returned. “Every” is perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but certainly anyone involved in transportation planning in a US metropolitan area of a similar population and density really ought to spend a week traveling without a car in Finland’s capital region. That’s particularly so if the metro area in question is one with a recalcitrant transit agency that seems forever stuck in the 1970s. It is of course true that in many ways it’s hard to compare Finland with the United States — for one thing, Finland like most of Europe has long favored transit over private cars as a matter of official public policy, under all political parties; regular unleaded gas was selling for EUR 1.444/L ($5.81 per gallon) when I was there, and other auto-related taxes are high as well. And Helsinki proper has a higher population density than many American cities (although only about half Boston’s, and far less than San Francisco or Manhattan). There’s still a lot that’s done very well there, and plenty of counterexamples to the “that will never work” defeatism seen in many US transit agencies. The rest of this post will describe some of the interesting features of public transportation in Helsinki that I saw and used on my trip.

A few words about the structure of transportation in greater Helsinki. A coordinating role is held by HSL (Helsingin seudun liikenne -kuntayhtym√§, Helsinki Regional Transport Authority — HRT does double duty as a Swedish and English initialism), which is structured like a municipal union district or joint-powers board in the U.S., and controlled by its member municipalities (unlike, for example, the MBTA in Boston or the MTA in New York, which are agencies of the state government, but similar to BART and Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area). HSL is responsible for scheduling, fare collection, and route coordination for all of the region’s transportation modes — commuter rail, metro, tram, bus, and ferry — but does not operate any of them. HSL also manages the bike-share program, although when I was there (in late March) the bikes were still in winter storage. HSL does not operate any of the services: the agency handles tendering for bus services (which are run by private carriers and by the state-owned Pohjolan Liikenne), commuter rail is operated by the national monopoly railway company VR Group, and the Helsinki metro, trams, and ferries are all operated by HKL (Helsingin kaupungin liikenne, Helsinki City Transport).


Fare collection in Helsinki is barrier-free, with a combination of on-vehicle ticket sales, mobile phone ticketing, and ticket vending machines; paper tickets are issued for single-trip fares and short-term passes (up to 168 hours). Two different contactless travel cards are available, one for individual residents only and a multi-user card for families, companies, and non-residents — both of which can store both prepaid fares and season passes, used with on-vehicle validators. The fine for being caught without valid fare media is 80 euros, but in my week in Helsinki, taking multiple modes every day, I never once saw a fare inspector. The barrier-free access extends to the Helsinki metro, where a sign next to the escalators down to the platforms simply indicates that travelers are entering the fare-paid zone.

The fare system is zone-based, with primary zones being “single city”, “regional”, and “extended regional”, with some variation depending on mode, time of day, and where and how the fare is paid. Individual fares are cheapest when paid on a stored-value travel card: EUR 1.64 for a tram fare, EUR 2.18 for all other modes, and double that at night. Within the City of Helsinki, cash fares from a ticket vending machine vary from EUR 2.50 for a tram ticket to EUR 5.00 for the Suomenlinna ferry; a three-zone fare purchased by mobile phone or vending machine is EUR 7.20 except overnight when it’s EUR 12. Multi-day passes are priced very attractively: a one-week single-zone ticket, intended for visitors, costs only EUR 36.00, and personal travel cards may be loaded with a season ticket ranging from 14 days (EUR 28.70) to one year (EUR 602.40 or about 1.65 a day — at today’s exchange rates, about 37% cheaper than buying 12 monthly MBTA “LinkPass”es). Season tickets for a shared-use/non-resident card are about double — HSL’s Web site does not say, but apparently the personal travel cards are subsidized by the participating municipalities, which is why they’re limited to residents only. The travel card is also used as identification for concessionary fares offered to seniors and the disabled.

Network structure

The Helsinki transit network has three major components: the commuter rail system serves provides high-frequency, high-capacity service to inland parts of the region to the west, north, and east, with trains departing Helsinki Central Station every five minutes or less during daylight hours; in HSL’s current graphic identity, commuter rail is associated with the color purple, and since the current route structure was adopted in the 1970s, commuter rail routes have been identified by single letters. Some of the commuter rail routes extended outside HSL’s service area; these are operated by VR Group under its own (uncoordinated) fare structure, and these are shown in VR’s logo color of light green on the commuter-rail map.

Trams and diesel buses provide the primary intra-city transit service, with express buses supplementing the commuter rail with service to areas (especially west of downtown Helsinki) that the mainline railway network doesn’t reach. Trunk-line buses are identified with an orange color on maps, as is the Helsinki Metro, which is a two-branch heavy-rail subway connecting the downtown area with suburbs to the east (a western extension is under construction which will result in the elimination or truncation of many bus routes that currently terminate at the Central Railway Station). Trams and buses share a numbering scheme, with trams numbered 1 through 10 and assigned different colors on the map; three high-frequency local bus routes are also shown on the tram map and have their own color — there is, however, no corresponding color-coding to vehicles, just changeable headsigns indicating the route number and destination. All of the trams are street-running for most of their length, with some sections of private right-of-way (usually in the median of a wide boulevard like Mannerheimintie). Where the trams do not have private RoW, they generally share stops with local buses, and signs list all routes without distinguishing buses and trams. The tram network, which is owned by the City of Helsinki, does not extend outside city limits.

As for the maps themselves, there is a map for the commuter rail, a line diagram for the Metro, a schematic map of the tram network, and a geographically accurate map showing trams and three key bus routes. However, there do not appear to be any maps for the vast majority of bus routes: instead, the timetables for each route list all of the bus stops served by the route by name (in both Finnish and Swedish) — this means that there also is no unified map showing all bus routes. One might suppose that Finland is an advanced economy and most Helsinki residents and visitors have access to online mapping and routing services; of course HSL offers its own journey planner, which includes all of the bus routes. During my time in Helsinki, I never used the buses, and only used the Metro once; I used both trams and the commuter rail every single day, from the time I arrived at the airport on Monday until the time I departed eight days later. I’ll start my discussion of the individual services with the commuter rail, then move on to the trams; I don’t have any pictures or anything really to say about the Metro.

This post has already gotten too long, so I’m splitting it into three parts. The next post will discuss the commuter rail (and have some actual pictures!) and the following one will talk about the Helsinki trams.

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