The shift to cycles

The shift to cycles
© Michael W Andersen

Samuli Mäkinen discusses Helsinki’s cycle sharing programme and the impact it has had on the city’s transport.

When it comes to decarbonisation efforts in cities, encouraging people to switch to carbon-neutral modes of transportation is vital. One solution has been the introduction of city bike sharing programmes, where bicycle stations are installed around a city allowing travellers to easily rent and replace a bicycle at any station for either a subscription or single-use fee. Such systems are now available in most major cities and continue to expand, encouraging more people than ever to cycle rather than taking other, more environmentally harmful modes of transportation.

PEN spoke to Samuli Mäkinen, a project engineer responsible for the bike sharing system in Helsinki, Finland, who said that in the years it has been operating, the city bike system has proved popular with both the city’s residents and tourists, and has already had a big impact on shifting the ways that people decide to travel.

“We did a customer survey to find out how people actually use the bikes, and how they were travelling before the bikes were available,” Mäkinen explained. “14% of customers said that the city bikes have replaced car trips, 63% said they had replaced tram trips, and 54% said they were previously travelling on the bus.” The fact that 40% of customers had begun using the city bikes on trips where they would usually have taken a car is significant not only because it likely means a reduction in traffic, and therefore emissions, but because it means that the city bike system has had better results so far in Helsinki than in other cities, a fact of which the city is particularly proud.

Changing the commute

One surprising outcome is the number of people using the city bikes for journeys to and from work, which Mäkinen said became clear from looking at the customer data: “The fact that people were using the bikes the most during the rush hours and week days told us that people are using them to get to work. This is a big part of the overall use; the highest peaks are in the morning between 8am and 9am, and in the afternoon.”

According to the customer survey data, there is almost an even split between those primarily using the bikes for commuting and those using them for leisure and daily activities, with 51% of respondents saying that the bikes were used for work trips, and 48% answering that they use them during their free time.

Naturally, to some extent the reasons for using the bikes are determined by which area of the city they are used in, and with 150 bike stations across Helsinki, there is also a breadth of possibilities. In areas with tourist attractions, the bikes might be a convenient way for tourists to travel from a metro station to a destination, while in areas surrounded by office buildings, the cycles might be mostly used by commuters. Again, Mäkinen was able to establish this by referring to the data: “In some parts of the city, the bikes may only move during the rush hours, while in other parts they’re moving throughout the day and during the night, too. In some parts of the city, there are more tourists, and in other parts, something like 97% of the users are subscribers for the whole season, local people who use the bikes all the time.”

A data-led approach

It’s clear that providing the best possible service is important, as the city bike project feeds into the city of Helsinki’s overall goal of increasing the number of trips made by bicycle to at least 20% of all journeys. For Mäkinen, the reasonable pricing and good service provided by the city bike programme is the key to encouraging greater uptake. In trying to improve the service, the use of passenger data to determine when, how and by whom the bikes are used may prove vital, and could also be used in the wider traffic system in Helsinki, helping to inform the design of cycling lanes and improve safety, for example.

When it comes to improvements to the city bike system, the data is also extremely valuable. Due to a number of factors – including challenging weather conditions during the winter – the bicycle system is currently seasonal, operating for six months out of the year. 2017’s season concluded in October, and Mäkinen is already discussing a number of potential improvements for when 2018’s season begins in May: “We are planning to optimise the station locations and capacity for next year, so we’re going through the data on how people are using the bikes, which stations are the most active and where people are travelling with the bikes, their starting and destination stations, to improve the locations and enhance capacity.” This also means that some additional stations may be added to busy areas, he continued: “We have an overflow feature in the system so that the stations are in fact never too full to return a bike, as you can also return it to the next station, all without placing it to the dock. That was, you can always return your bike to the station. We’ll add some new stations to the busiest areas, so that there is always enough space, and they’re in the exact locations where we think they’re needed.”

In the future, this may also include an expansion of the programme, which currently primarily serves the population-dense, metropolitan centre of Helsinki into the suburbs, and to the metro stations further to the east of the city. Potentially, there may be additional uses for the service that the team had not previously considered, and improving the ways that the service benefits tourists and casual users, as well as those full-season subscribers, could lead to broader overhauls of how the programme operates. However, the current station network has enough stations within the area, and effectively the area is large enough to serve well, whereby there is always a station nearby.

As well as expanding the number of bikes and stations available, the project team also hopes to potentially extend the operating period beyond its current six-month window. Mäkinen elaborated: “The system is rather quickly built in the spring, after the snow has melted, and so we could probably get the city bike stations onto the streets and working earlier than we have in previous years. We want to publicly test out starting at least a month earlier.”

There are additional challenges with operating the city bike programme in the early spring and late autumn, beyond potentially adverse weather conditions. For example, the stations operate using solar energy, but during the autumn Helsinki receives only a few hours of sunlight per day, and so a technological solution will need to be developed to facilitate this type of expansion.

All of this ultimately boils down to providing the best possible service for city bike users in order to attract more people than ever, and to increase the share of total journeys made by bicycle. Mäkinen feels that the biggest advantage that city bikes have over other modes of transportation is that they are affordable, and the service is fairly and transparently priced, making it an easy choice for users to make: “The system costs €25 for the whole season, and that includes as many trips as you can do that are under 30 minutes. If one trip is longer than 30 minutes, the next 30 minutes costs €1, and so on. After you have paid that €25 seasonal fee once, it doesn’t cost anything more to make short trips. This pricing model encourages people to use the bikes more often.”

Because of this, the scheme has been a success, and Mäkinen concluded that he and his team have been very pleased with the uptake: “We’ve had around 34,000 users subscribed for the whole season, and lots more users who are weekly or daily subscribers. They are big numbers compared even to other cities in Europe. We’re really pleased that the system can provide a service that people need.” Certainly, with improvements and expansions planned for next year’s season, the Helsinki city bike programme will continue to innovate to provide the best possible service in the future.


This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 24, which will be published in January, 2018.


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