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Electric Currents

How Helsinki Plans to Make Cars Redundant by 2025

Helsinki's Kutsuplus On-Demand Shuttle Bus service
Helsinki's Kutsuplus On-Demand Shuttle Service

Last week, I was invited to sit in on a meeting involving representatives from Omaha's public transit agency and various community planners. The purpose of the meeting, held on the University of Nebraska Omaha campus, was to discuss what steps our metro bus service should take to better inform, not just its regular transit riders, but the larger community on impending route restructuring.

Omaha, Nebraska is, like most American cities, car-dependent. People who ride the bus are either students or low-income individuals who can't afford the costs of owning and operating an automobile. This isn't an entirely accurate characterization, since for many years, my father, a bank employee, daily commuted to work by bus, leaving his personal car siting in the driveway.

What transit management is about to implement is a 'straightening' of bus routes, meaning fewer bus stops and longer walking distances for passengers. The trade-off is more frequent and, hopefully, faster service. I also learned that the city is close to having the funds to install GPS bus tracking, something I have been agitating for years now since I first saw it in operation in Portland, Oregon. Not only will this allow the city to show arrival times of buses at its most important terminals, but riders will be able to call up bus ETA's on their smart phones.

Finally, I learned that the city thinks it has a good chance of getting federal TIGER grant funds to begin development of our own Bus Rapid Transit system. Curt Simon, the Metro Transit chief, thinks the city should know something on the status of the grant by late this year or early next. Hopefully, if the grant is funded, it won't be torpedoed like Nashville's. [See: "Why Are the Koch Brothers Messing With Nashville?"

This is all great news for Omaha and positive steps towards creating a resilient public transit system. We'll still be car-dependent, but a little less so. However, compared to Helsinki, Finland, we'll still be in the dark ages.

According to July 10, 2014 article in The Guardian , the Finish capital is planning to make car ownership essentially pointless. You'll still be able to own one, but like collecting a piece of post-modernist art, it will have little practical value beyond aesthetics.

Instead, the city's point-to-point 'mobility on demand' vision basically will eliminate the need to own your motor vehicle. Writes Adam Greenfield for The Guardian:

The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.

One piece of the system is already in place. It's an on-demand shuttle-bus service called "Kutsuplus", which in Finnish means 'Call Plus.' The nine-passenger bus can be summoned to an existing bus stop by smart phone, into which you've also input your destination. The ride costs the equivalent of $4.75USD plus 60ยข per kilometer. Pricing puts it between regular bus service and Helsinki's taxi fares. Fares, which are paid through the smart phone, fluctuate somewhat based on the number of riders. There are currently 10 buses in the system and some 4,500 subscribers, according to Wired.

As The Guardian notes," Kutsuplus comes very close to delivering the best of both worlds: the convenient point-to-point freedom that a car affords, yet without the onerous environmental and financial costs of ownership (or even a Zipcar membership)."

And Helsinki, isn't alone in its aspirations to make private car ownership a relic of a soon-to-be bygone era of cheap petroleum. Urban Times reports that Hamburg, Germany is thinking along very similar lines, proposing a 'Green Network' of pedestrian and cycle paths "to connect green spaces that cover roughly 40% of the city, including parks, playgrounds, sports fields, gardens, and cemeteries." The idea being that with so many places to go within Hamburg, the less need there will be to drive outside the city. The city already operates an all-electric S-Bahn commuter rail network that daily carries some 590,000 passengers over a 91-mile (147 km) system serving 68 stations. The city also operates the StadtRAD bicycle share system.

Both Helsinki and Hamburg are relatively compact cities, built centuries before the advent of the automobile. Omaha was incorporated in 1857 and came of age along with the automobile, but before it did, we already had an operating electric trolley system, built in 1887. The last trolley was removed from service some 60 years ago.

Interestingly, one of the topics tantalizing touched on during that meeting last week was a proposed Phase Three. Phase One is the soon to be implemented bus route restructuring. Phase Two will be the development of the BRT system offering even faster, more frequent service along a designated, high traffic route, presumably Dodge Street. If all the financial and political stars align, Phase Three will see the return of the trolley.

I wonder, will the next generation of city planners also be talking about a carless Omaha? It could happen; and it probably should happen. I only hope I am around to see it.

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