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Part 1: The 15-Minute Neighbourhood & Transit - What We Can Learn From Helsinki

By Rhys Phillips

It is not an oxymoron to say strong 15-minute communities require an extensive city-wide public transit system. No walkable community will ever be fully self-sufficient; so, citizens’ ability to move inexpensively and with ease across the city without relying on the car is crucial. A strong 15-minute neighbourhood requires connectivity to all parts of the metropole and excellent public transit is the optimum solution.     

Finland’s capital Helsinki is in many core aspects a "twin" for Ottawa in terms of size, economy, real income, problematic Nordic weather as well as a beautiful but challenging geography. Even its age is similar to Ottawa’s. But it is also a leader in both public transit and 15-minute neighbourhoods. In this first of two blogs, we outline its public transit system, rated recently as the world’s best in the fifth Urban Mobility Readiness Index conducted by the respected Oliver Wyman Forum and the University of California, Berkeley. (A second blog will look at Helsinki’s five decades of building communities that bear similarities to the more recently articulated 15-minute neighbourhood concept.) 

Helsinki's Transit System Offers a Model for Ottawa

The city now has two core LRT lines. The Metro LRT, (43 kilometers,) runs under the city out to the east and west with split into two branches in the eastern most part of the city. This compares to Ottawa's east/west line but only if its phase three is ever fully completed. The Metro line, however, is currently being extended even further west. The second line is the Jokeri LRT (25.1 kilometers), originally a BRT that re-opened as an LRT this summer. This would be like having a line bending from Kanata to Barrhaven to South Ottawa to Orleans. The Jokeri conversion was completed both on budget and early! 

Image retrieved from

Augmenting these two LRT lines are a whopping 265 Kilometers of commuter rail lines. This includes a long loop serving the airport. All extend out from the city’s wonderful Saarinen-designed train station in the heart of the city under which runs the Metro LRT. 

In addition, there are 10 tramlines (13 counting spurs) that currently add 39 kilometers of more localized service focusing on the area surrounding the central city (think Ottawa inside the Greenbelt). Expansion of new lines underway means the length served by tram service will be doubled by the early 2030s. The spectacular Crown Bridge dual line will open in 2027. The LRT, commuter rail and trams are all electric.  

Map of Helsinki's Tram Lines

Image retrieved from Wikipedia

Helsinki also has an extensive bus system being converted to electric with sub-arctic tested buses from two Chinese leaders, Volvo and BYD. Two GOCHA autonomous driver shuttles (16 riders) are in testing and are designed to handle the “last mile” issue. The self-driving software was developed by Helsinki startup Sensible4 with the Japanese firm MUJI providing the physical unit designs. Prototypes were tested in Lapland for winter performance.  Add to this bike and electric scooter rental systems and a two-ferry system serving the islands. 

Helsinki Public Embraces Digital-based Mobility as a Service (MaaS)

Two locally developed smart phone apps allow one to map out, schedule and pay for a trip before leaving. The WHIM app includes all the above public transit services as well as taxis, rental vehicles and shared cars. The transit company's own app, HSL, is slightly more limited (LRT, Trains, Trams, Buses and Ferries). 

Finally, the city is in the process of converting six freeways that feed into (unlike the Queensway, not through) the city to mixed-use boulevards with trams. Active transit and trams will be prioritized on these boulevards.

Helsinki’s Investment in Public Transit Has Changed the Landscape

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and perhaps no better metric is the level of car ownership per household unit. In Helsinki it is .54 cars per household compared to approximately 1.5 for Ottawa (1.9 for North America). Between 75-80% of daily trips in Helsinki are by public transit, bikes or on foot.  The city has even set 2025 for the city to be largely car-free.

If household members work outside their home neighbourhood, if major entertainment and sports venues are in other parts of the city, if specialized services like medical care require travel, and so on, a strong public transit system partners with good active travel infrastructure to reduce dependency on car ownership while further strengthening 15-minute neighbourhoods.


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