While the idea of a Car Free Helsinki might be a little ambitious, there seems to me to be a growing sense that we have let cars dominate our cities and town planning for too long, and that this acquiescence to the cult of the car should end.
Correspondent to any change in the level of cars on our roads must come innovation in public transport, or Mass Transit as the Americans like to call it.
A great slideshow in BusinessWeek magazine shows a selection of recent innovations in transport alternatives, from an automated metro for Dubai to Personal Rapid Transport at Heathrow, and the new Fastech 360 Shinkansen which are expected to travel at 360 kph.
Meanwhile, Good magazine unveils "Five innovations in urban transportation that you won’t find in America, yet". Most of the ideas presented there are as much about thinking laterally as any technological fix.
"Subways are expensive—in fact, an 11-mile, 21-station addition to Athens’s subway system, opened in 2000, cost more than $3.6 billion. As a result, subways are often limited to high-density areas in order to recover their costs; even then, most systems require a substantial subsidy."
(I took this quote to heart when thinking about the plan to create a new Metro line to the East of Helsinki, joining up the chain of islands. Bridges would be a much beeter idea).
Most of these ideas are a long way away from traditional transport policy. In NYC, Mayor Bloomberg famously said: "We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here."
Resisting the power of the automobile creates new design opportunities for urban areas. An article at Celsias.org, Designing Cities for People, Rather than Cars…, looks at the example of Bogata Columbia:
"In response to these conditions, we are seeing the emergence of a new urbanism. One of the most remarkable modern urban transformations has occurred in Bogotá, Colombia, where Enrique Peñalosa served as Mayor for three years, beginning in 1998. When he took office he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30 percent who owned cars; he wanted to know what could be done for the 70 percent–the majority–who did not own cars.
Peñalosa realized that a city that is a pleasant environment for children and the elderly would work for everyone. In just a few years, he transformed the quality of urban life with his vision of a city designed for people. Under his leadership, the city banned the parking of cars on sidewalks, created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40 percent, planted 100,000 trees, and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods. In doing this, he created a sense of civic pride among the city’s 8 million residents, making the streets of Bogotá in strife-torn Colombia safer than those in Washington, D.C."
Perhaps by 2050 we'll look back and see the domination of our cities by private automobiles as a peculiar aberration, or will we still be in love with the car, and continue to let it dictate the shape of our urban future?