The story of the Helsinki equity/transport project

Nothing is more attractive to me than a muddled
discussion awaiting its first theory.

- E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, 1984

In the very first days of 2012 and looking to the year ahead  I followed up on a long standing conversation with Mrs. Leena Silfverberg, whom I have known for some years and worked with on several occasions on sustainable transport projects of various sorts in Finland and who in her day job is head of the Regional Planning Unit in the City Planning Department/Transportation of the city of Helsinki.  Our on-going exchanges had to deal with our shared concern that new forms of mobility were coming online in cities across the world and  in the process changing the generally accepted view that transport in cities is provided either by people driving cars or taking public transportation.

We had both argued for some time that some form of new paradigm structure was needed to take into account these realities and challenges of the new mobility scene, and many of the new terms associated with better transport in cities – namely things like sustainable transportation, world government, green transport, clean, soft, human, active, etc.– while each interesting in their own way as concepts and often valuable at the project and program level — had over these years not yet managed to provide a practical foundation structure that would allow us to start to move on all these matters and execute  important policy and investment choices in some kind of more meaningful, consistent and powerful  way.  So we need to look beyond each and all of them, without losing or in any way diminishing their important contributions and support.  This is real team work,  the challenges are enormous  and all hands are needed.  But where to start?

In our exchanges we eventually got round to talking about possibly taking a page out of the book of one of the sectoral programs in Finland that has achieved world of success of the most extraordinary sort, and see if we could apply some of the lessons learned to the transportation sector as the basis for the new and until now missing paradigm.  For starters, we decided to educate ourselves  to understand how the concept of equity-based education had over the years created in Finland one of the world’s most outstanding educational systems.  My point was that if it had worked in education, what might happen if  applied to the transport sector?  Mrs. Silfverberg agreed and asked me to develop a work plan for a first stage enquiry to the test the idea, which I promptly did.

This lead to s small team project which unfolded over the period February though early May, which eventually took the form of an open “conversation” on our topic which finally involved several dozen  meetings, public presentations, media interviews and brainstorming sessions on our topic  of an equity-based transport system (EBT) — all of which eventually involving some two hundred people from quite a range of organizations and backgrounds, most of whom from the Helsinki area.

This project has in the last days lead to the preparation of a draft report which explains the entire program and our main first-stage findings in some detail and which is being circulated in the week ahead to all of the people who participated in the various sessions and events, and others who have expressed interest across Finland and beyond. If you are interested in following the work on this approach, we will be pleased to share a copy of our completed draft against your comments. To receive your copy all you have to do is drop a note with your basic contact info to equity@worldstreets.org and the report will be on its way.

Eric Britton, EcoPlan International, Lyon France

 Executive Summary

Objective:  Working under the leadership of the Department of City Planning/Transportation of the City of Helsinki, the goal of this first phase was to initiate a broad-based public inquiry to introduce the topic and stimulate broad public discussion of the concept of equity as a possible keystone in the creation of a new paradigm for transport policy and investment in Helsinki and beyond  — and to determine if there was support for taking the first round of findings at least one step further.

The Process : This first stage took place over the period February – April 2012 and involved consultations and exchanges with something like two hundred people from a wide variety of institutions and points of view from across the Helsinki region.  At the core of the program was a two-week mission during which meetings and events were scheduled to explain and test the concept: some 20 workshops, three collaboratively organized Master Classes and a final presentation and public discussion were the core of the project. In addition a number of international colleagues participated by following the project and exchanging views, criticism and suggestions as it developed.

Finding: This project succeeded in its first stage objectives as set by the organizers.  To summarize in one sentence, the position that we heard from the great majority of all of those with whom we discussed the concept in all those meetings and events: “The equity concept sounds interesting and possibly promising as a new base for transportation policy — and although we are not at this point quite sure we understand how it is going to work in practical terms, we nonetheless agree that the basic concept is worth giving further attention to in the months ahead”.

Starting Point: We had a significant advantage.  This emphasis on equity – a concept not so widely discussed in the context of public policy in most parts of the world — is something that is well known and widely accepted by people, political parties, and interest groups across Finland.  In part this is a matter of culture (no small thing in itself).  But no less important we had the good fortune to be able to draw on a solid base of world level achievement in the Finnish education sector, in which the equity principle has served as the North Star of the country’s educational reform and management over last decades.  This equity-based approach had achieved world-level results placing Finland consistently at the top of the international list of student performance and preparation for life.

Peer review : This report summarizes the process and the principal findings of this first stage investigation.  However, rather than submitting it as a definitive final report with detailed recommendations to the sponsors at this point, we decided first to put it to work as a base for a collaborative “thinking exercise”, sharing the present draft with as many as people and groups as possible in Helsinki, Finland and abroad for critical comments, suggestions and opinions.

Dates – May/mid-June: The report is now open for review and comment over this six-week period subsequent to which the project team will meet to collect and analyze the results and prepare a definitive report, recommendations  and program statement detailing eventual next steps.

Report Contents

Sample Extract from report

2.3 What is an equity-based transport system ?

We need to be able to answer this question, and the first step in this process has to be to come to a common understanding of the fact that in most cities in the world — probably all of them to be perfectly frank — our transportation arrangements are far from  equitable. There are winners and losers from the present mobility services, worse here, perhaps a bit better there.

In all places, better or worse served, there is a common pattern.  Thus, women are by and large less well served than men.  Non-drivers less well than drivers. The elderly and frail less than the active and healthy.  Children less well than adults, The poor less well than the rich. The unemployed less well than those with jobs.  People in low-density areas less well than those living in the urban core.  And all of those of us  who cannot really  afford to own and operate cars, as opposed to those few who can. And if you care to think about it a bit, you can surely complete this list as well as I.

In a word, in most cities on this planet for the great majority the present transportation arrangements today are inequitable. The basically (a) all-car (b) basically no-choice (or let us say rather, not good enough choices) mobility arrangements of the 20th century are not doing the job for the majority. They are, to be brutally frank,  unfair, inefficient and uneconomic.

So what if we were to turn the situation around and take as a starting point for public policy and investments not so much the old twentieth century values of speed and distance (and indifference) — but instead 21st-century values of equity , social justice, participation and deep democracy?

One of the key pillars behind this program is a belief that, properly engaged, the move to equity-based transport can lead to greater efficiency and economy both for the specific groups and individuals targeted, but  also for the city and its region as a whole. That it is to say that the move to EBT is going to be a step up, and not a step down.

At the end of the day, once you understand and accept the basic principle of equity, a huge number of other good things follow directly. And you have only to look in one place to see if you have it — and that is on the streets of your city. If once you get your program launched and in gear,  the mayor, all public servants, and the top economic 20% of your community travel by the same means as the other 80%, you have an equitable system. If not, not!  It is that simple.

And why do they do it? Quite simply because it is the best way to get around.

Easy enough to say, hard to do — but still do-able. And that’s our target.

SAMPLE EXTRACT FROM Annexes

Annex J:   Collective memo by Dodo: Basics of Environmental Activism (Course) [1]

Eric Britton, a renowned environmentalist, shared some of his ideas and insights with us on Tuesday 20.3. He’s in Helsinki to work on a project on an equity-based transportation system. The notes made by listeners highlighted the importance of a “social brain”.  In this context the concept of a social brain can facilitate the inclusion of citizens in the different stages of decision-making process. Kaupunkifillari, a Helsinki-based bicycle blog that asked its readers for comments on an at the time incomplete plan on public bikes in Helsinki, was brought up as an example of such an approach.

Here are some comments from our notes:

  • Social brain rules!
  • Change through positive thinking. On the other hand, at times it is necessary to highlight the risks in order to make people understand how serious issues they are dealing with.
  • As an environmentalist you have to be cool, considerate and dangerous.
  • The recipe how to make a difference: You have to be mentally strong, brave, dangerous, focused, cool,  surveillant and a bit of a dickhead too.
  • KISS – keep it simple, stupid!
  • Focusing on small things.
  • Crowd-sourcing.
  • Equity leads to excellence.
  • Find out each time what’s the simplest, quickest and most efficient thing we can do?
  • Simple traffic engineers could use some help from a social brain. It’s City Planning Departments job to make it possible and after that wait for the success.
  • Successful environmentalism many times starts from small actions. The successful small actions encourage people to be ready to start with bigger ones.
  • Environmentalism is about small things. We got to have more fantasy, inventing  new ways to move and do. We got to be open minded!
  • You have to wake up happy every morning!
  • Although local projects are important, global processes too have their value in offering a platform for environmental debate at political and academic levels.
  • The Equity-Based Transport project in Helsinki is extremely interesting!
  • An efficient way to have an influence on environmental issues is doing it discretely without forcing anyone to do the “right thing” — but instead making it possible to live in an environment-friendly manner.
  • The best ideas can come unexpectedly and from surprising sources.
  • KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), happy excellence & information equity to social brain.
  • Using cars could be reduced by improving other means of transport.
  • Creative sustainability!
  • A seamless transport system with a lot of alternatives for commuting.
  • Small things are behind everything.
  • Working ideas start from equity and listening to small things.

Another idea mentioned more than once was the importance of small things and actions. Britton criticized the UN programs for focusing too much effort and resources on grandiose global scale processes (such as the Kyoto Protocol) and ignoring smaller-scale initiatives and projects. The equity-based transportation project taking place in Helsinki should be seen as an example of a local project that can have a global influence if it is capable of being replicated in other metropolises.

The project currently underway in Helsinki aims to create an equity-based transportation concept. The idea of equity stresses fairness and equal opportunities, and should therefore not be confused with the concept of equality. The projects seeks to find creative solutions and combine different means of transport.

Key is the concept of equity: the system should be fair, efficient and safe. The current “many cars – few alternatives”-situation should be replaced by a “some cars – multiple alternatives”-one.

I’m sure we’re all looking forward to the outcomes of the project.


[1] Dodo is an environmental organisation for urban folk which relies on the power of knowledge and argument. Dodo is about talking and doing. It organises public events, discussion groups, projects and more. Dodo brings together people from different backgrounds to exchange expertise, experiences and ideas. We work out ideas and then we work on some of them to carry out experiments that might improve things.

Dodo has a flexible and open ethos which makes it easy for talk to lead to action. Many of its important projects started out as ideas or visions developed in small discussion groups. The offspring of Dodo include the wind power company Lumituuli Ltd, Manombo Rain Forest Conservation Project and Dodona Combo Discussion Forum Project.

The dodo, our namesake, disappeared long ago, one of the first species known to have become extinct as the result of human activity. But where there’s hope, there’s life. Come and join Dodo and help make the future a living future. For contact details scroll down a bit further – we’re flexible about language as well, so if your Finnish isn’t brilliant, don’t let it put you off.

Your review copy:

Drop a  line with your contact info to eric.britton@worldstreets.org and you will hear from us pronto.

One response to “The story of the Helsinki equity/transport project

  1. Very interesting post, Eric. This is going to be good to follow.

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