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Helsinki and The Problem with Too Much Choice

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A few years ago, a fellow transport planning student was speaking on whether choice of travel modes is always a good thing, and made this assertion: “It is good to have a choice of travel modes, because it allows everyone to make the most rational choice for the journey they’re making”.

There are a lot of problems there. Firstly and most obviously, in that people’s choice to use a car, back in pre-congestion days when cars were a liberating, slightly faster alternative to the abundant public transport, doesn’t seem to have in the long run to have helped anyone get anywhere quicker – just lengthened distances travelled and made conditions markedly worse for public transport users.

But secondly, in that when we’re considering only public transport, the more modes of transport you have competing for the same market, the less frequently each can operate, and the less investment in speed, through priorities, exclusive space and so on, each can merit.

One sees an extreme example of this on the 2.6km of the main road (Kaisaniemenkatu, then Unioninkatu, then Hämeentie) running north-west from central Helsinki, between the central railway station and Sörnäinen Metro Station – following the metro stations in the centre of this map.

On that stretch of road, you can choose between very frequent metro, bus and tram services to make a trip. The metro makes two intermediate stops, while buses and trams make local stops about every 400 metres. The buses extend further into the suburbs while the trams serve more of central Helsinki, but buses and trams offer completely duplicative local service for about the first 4km of their routes.

Unlike some cities, trams and buses don’t run in the same space, serving the same stops, but rather trams in the middle of the road and buses in the kerb lane. That’s pretty necessary with services as they’re presently configured, because there are too many vehicles to fit in a single lane.

Among the effects of this situation is the need to physically accommodate both bus and tram lanes, along with one general traffic lane in a not very wide space.

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For length of the road there are commercial buildings and commercial uses of ground floors, generating a lot of pedestrian activity. This has to squeeze into very sidewalks, which are often blocked by delivery vehicles which aren’t permitted to block the bus lanes. Pedestrians have a long way to go to cross the road, and there often isn’t space for pedestrian refuges.

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Buses being in the kerb lane, they’re frequently stuck behind right-turning cars, which have to yield to that heavy pedestrian traffic.

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Where the road narrows from three lanes to two on the Pitkä Bridge, to accommodate the bus lane general traffic merges into the tram lanes. This noticeably disrupts trams at peak times.

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Finally, in a city that is quite aggressive with transit signal priority, it all seems to make any meaningful priority impossible. Priority for one mode might well disrupt the other; buses and trams come often enough that cross-traffic would never have a turn if every bus and tram got a green.

Of course, having so much public transport that it merits two-thirds of road space is a very good starting point for any city to be at. So is being able to duplicate service without waits being more than about five minutes as a consequence. Still, the whole thing could work better, and in a further post I’ll be explaining how that could happen.

The real time cost of fast trains and advance booking

ImageOn board one of France’s remaining regular intercity trains. Photo by self.

In introducing a post on The Transport Politic on France’s new low-cost TGV service (named OuiGo in some truly horrible Franglais), Yonah Freemark writes this of France’s High Speed TGV trains in general:

France’s SNCF national rail service has, since the introduction of the TGV in 1981, held to the belief that fast trains should not be segregated to serve only higher-paying passengers. As a result, fast trains have replaced all slow-speed service on most long-distance travel throughout the country; passengers are able to take advantage of fare deals that allow them to journey between cities hundreds of miles apart at €25 or less, as long as they book in advance.

“As long as they book in advance” is the key phrase here. Note also that “fast trains have replaced all slow-speed service on most long-distance travel throughout the country”. This is largely true; while other intercity trains continue to operate unreserved service on regular lines, their frequencies are typically poor and service patterns irregular, and often changes are required where one-seat TGV rides are available.

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