A cycling day in Helsinki

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I made my first visit to Finland last week, spending a day in Helsinki and a day traveling cross country to see Herrmans, an innovative cycling company.

I have no doubt this was just a taster because there are a lot of really interesting things happening in Finnish cycling, especially in Helsinki, so I have lots of excuses to go back.

And who could not be drawn to a city that showed off glorious sunshine, lots of attractive green space and water and the chance to potter about by bike easily and safely? As a refugee from the dreadful June weather that has seen Belgium break all records for rainfall this was just about perfect!

Photo by Kevin Mayne

One of my mental tests for spotting whether cycling is part of the city lifestyle is to see how many people use their bikes just to nip to the parks and waterfronts when the sun comes out – and Helsinki passed that one with flying colours. Every open space seemed to have a few people chilling out in the rays, and beside them their bikes, the best choice for a summer day.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I had a series of meetings around Helsinki that had been arranged for me by Matti Koistinen from Finnish Cyclists’ Federation, so this was a chance to put city mobility to the test, in eight hours I tried rail, tram, cycling and walking and I can say all of them connected up well. Of course my favourite was to get the bike share bikes which we used for our city centre connections. The city bike share is almost brand new but apparently it is already one of the most intensively used systems in Europe with hires up around 9 per bike per day, even though it is only half way through its roll out.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

It worked pretty smoothly, except at the start where the system stubbornly refused to offer the possibility of two bikes on one account costing Matti a good deal of frustration, but once resolved we were away.

The bike rides may have been relatively brief but combined with the walking and contacts made at the meetings I came away with two very strong impressions.

Firstly there is no doubt whatsoever that in cycling terms Helsinki has “something of everything”.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

There are delightful leisure routes in parks, the old railway line Baana provides an incredible car free slice through the city, there are segregated Danish style cycle paths, there is cycling on pavements and there are places where we bumped around on cobbled roads that could have been straight out of Belgium.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

The parks, waterfronts and cafes were busy giving the place a vibrant feel and in cycling terms this was matched by the obvious numbers of city hire bikes in use, often in small groups, and the cycle parking was often full.

I was glad I had Matti as a guide because the cycle path layouts were sometimes a bit confusing and I was told that it is an almost universal problem in Finland that almost nobody knows which pavements are allowed for cycling and which not, so everyone just guesses.

But I never felt unsafe at all and the inner city traffic speeds were mostly 30kmph which is widespread in Helsinki.

Cycling numbers were not overwhelming, I could guess the 10% of traffic that the city claims, so on a level with Stockholm but way behind Copenhagen at the moment. That means there is someone on a bike round every corner, but the bike lanes are not crowded, yet.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Which brings me to my second observation. Ambition.

One of my reasons for coming to Finland was to try and get some insight into why Helsinki seems to have shot into my consciousness in the last two years as a city with big ambitions to change its mobility.

Possibly I am biased, because working with the Finnish Cyclists’ Federation I have been tracking their successes over the same time frame and I have to say Matti and his colleagues are doing a great job as a relatively young organisation, making sure cyclists have a really professional voice in the debates.

But there is certainly more. The city has stated that by 2025 “no citizen should need a car” because of their development of an integrated travel approach called “Mobility as a service” which should combine all travel modes and all tickets in one service. The city and the government hope this will make Finland a world leader in new mobility. There is a city masterplan being developed that has a lot of very ambitious plans for cycling, walking and public transport.

And in cycling terms the money is being spent. Yes new bike share, but also serious cash on new cycle routes like the a flagship route from Töölönlahti Park through past the Finlandia Halls to the Contemporary Art Museum where it also connects up with the Baana and eventually an underpass to the station.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The city is going to bid to host Velo-city 2019 which regular Idonotdespair readers know is my annual cycling highlight with a week spent going mad for cycling with thousands of other policy wonks. I can’t comment on the merits of Helsinki’s bid, but no city ever aims to host Velo-city unless they think they are going to have something special to show by the time we all turn up. If it was held at the Finlandia Hall those new bike lanes will certainly be a great showcase.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I came away with an overwhelming sense of “if”.

If even part the plans in the pipeline really come off Helsinki could be one of the “game-changer” cities in cycling, I suspect growth could be massive. A healthy, outdoors oriented population with a relatively flat and accessible city? Even the early numbers on the bike share and the Baana show the potential is just bursting to break out.

If they sort out the muddled, inconsistent approach to cycle infrastructure and get the whole network to join up effectively. If they double bike share, and maybe double it again to cover the whole city. If the integrated transport planning and “mobility as a service” really drive cars out of the city centre. If they stop road building and recycle the money into public transport and cycling. If the bike lanes are properly cleaned and maintained even in the depth of a Finnish winter, so people don’t forget how to ride for five months every year.

If all the stakeholders really start working together well and join up all their ambitions, because there is a lot of energy, ambition and creativity around.

Oh and if they do, I told the city cycling officer, they have no idea just how much cycle parking they are going to need. Plan now, then double it, and double it again. Because you are going to have a real bike boom. A nice problem to have.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

We ended my day trip round Helsinki at the home store for the Pelago bike company. Achingly cool bikes with a traditional look and feel, perfect for elegant transportation round a vibrant city and feast for my eyes.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

They are a Finnish success story, exporting their bikes throughout Europe.  Perhaps a model for the future of cycling in Helsinki which could also be a European success story of the future.

More reasons not to despair.

11 thoughts on “A cycling day in Helsinki

  1. Gorgeous photos. Helsinki is nice Place for cycling. The best bikeable (and walkable) town in Finland is Oulu, 600 km to the north of Helsinki.

    Happy and safe travels!


    • Thanks for reading, I have heard about Oulu, especially the winter cycling.

      Sounds like a trip I need to make next time – maybe in the depths of winter!


  2. Beautiful scenery and wonderful buildings, made even more exciting by being able to view them whilst riding a bike, I am envious as I doubt that it will ever be possible in the UK.


    • Ah well – now we are leaving the EU we can solve all these problems without the pesky foreigners.


  3. Glad you enjoyed my city. You were lucky with the weather, too. However, you have not taken into consideration the one significant opponent to year-round cykling here, the climate. Do not feel bad about this, for neither have the city planners. Winter being at least the five months you mentioned, there is also much rain and heavy winds throughout the year. -25 C, slippery surfaces, knee deep snow… Who cares, the city is adament on forcing the population on bikes. Blue-eyed idealism, refusal to accept the facts and a strong Green Party will give Helsinki a splendid, expensive biking grounds which a select few, young, sporty and fearless will use – half the year.


    • Thanks for reading Mbl.

      The winter cycling subject came up several times during my visit. Actually many people were convinced that winter cycling should be a subject of Finnish expertise, not concern.

      Oulu is already a world leader on the subject and plenty of other Scandanavian cities keep their bike lanes clear all year round, so it is certainly possible.

      But I did put it in the “if” category – because the city will have to work on it. But no city can switch 20% of its travel capacity on and off without implications and cost, so cycling should be no different to other choices.

      I hope I’ll come back in the winter and see.


      • Granted, if the weather can be worse than in Helsinki, Oulu is the place. What bothers me is the lack of statistics – maybe I have not found them? How many live in Oulu, how many ride their bike, how often, how many ride it year round and how much does biking increase when the infrastructure improves?

        The City of Helsinki is investing a lot of money – I say over investing- in biking, due to a heavy representation of the Greens on the Council. Meanwhile elsewhere. e.g.: our elderly are not getting the care they deserve because there is not enough money allocated for them. I am not saying that bikers take money belonging to the elderly but there should be some notion of proportion among those deciding how to use our common funds. Alas, the elderly do not vote, and the Green Party is in favor among the young. It is still a smallish number of them who are bikers, although many should be, looking at the ever heavier growing youth of ours…


      • Before next winter arrives, I will publish my post presenting winter biking in Oulu. It is ready made already.

        Here is my post from last winter with two cycling photos:

        Arctic beach in winter.

        This post shows how real winter is looking like. Welcome to test next winter. 🙂


    • Oh come on, it’s -25 C like a day per year on average in Helsinki. Knee deep snow? Maybe you’ve heard, maybe not, but they’ve actually invented plows by now.
      You should try riding a bike once, even for a kilometer, it’d do good for you. You’d also see that far from only the young and sporty use bikes to get around in the city.


      • Thks for the advice, but I actually ride my bike a lot.

        We had a few weeks of extremely cold weather in January – not many bikes to been seen in e.g. Baana, despite the quality and maintenance of the stretch. The cost of the construction per biker regularly using it would be nice to know.

        If the intention is to have people ride their bikes to work, the number of ploughs will have to be increased ten fold when there is snow, and they had better have finished their work before 6 a.m. when the traffic begins. One never knows when and for how long the equipment and the drivers will be needed, so how do you plan that? Ploughing is not enough, sand and salt are needed, too. – Expensive to maintain in an age when public funding is in demand in many other worthy endeavors, too.

        Leaving the topic of climate, which is a fact and not Hermanni’s wishful thinking, getting through the city center on a bike is a pain, due to the lack of bike lanes in the more congested streets, and the weird planning logic around the railway station – department store area. One risks one’s life there, also because there is no biking culture/behavior as in e.g. Copenhagen. Pedestrians, bikers, drivers disrespect safety and follow no rules.

        However, I am all for biking provided the cost is in proportion to the number of those actually riding their bikes year round. The introduction of Baana should give an idea of the increase of bikers v. the cost involved. And maybe, just maybe, one of the few upsides of global warming will be the extension of the biking season in a mainly windy, chilly and rainy Helsinki.


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