Five statements for sustainable urban mobility — learnings from Finland

We are at the crossroads of the future of mobility. For global temperature to not rise by more than 1.5°C, we must reduce traffic emissions radically. Private cars account for about 70% of Finnish mobility and about 80% of the carbon footprint of mobility. Car use also has an effect on the quality, comfort and use of space in the urban environment, as well as on the wellbeing of city dwellers.


Finland’s national goal is to halve traffic emissions by 2030 (using 2005 as a benchmark year). Zero emissions are expected to be achieved by 2045. Significant emission reductions have already been achieved, for example, by improving the energy efficiency of cars and through a distribution obligation, which obliges fuel sellers to increase the supply of biofuels and other alternative energy sources, and. However, halving emissions by 2030 still requires measures to reduce traffic emissions by 1.65 million tonnes.

To reduce private car use in urban areas, numerous changes must be made. Improving transport efficiency and encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation are not enough. We also need to have a wide-ranging discussion on lifestyles and the need to reduce unsustainable mobility. 

To this end, we at Demos Helsinki, Hot or Cool Institute, HSL and ITS Finland brought together key players and influencers in the transport sector to discuss the future of urban mobility. We did this through the Difficult Conversations discussion method developed by the Hot or Cool Institute. This article reveals the findings and outcomes of two discussions. Several different actors from different sectors of society attended the discussions.

In this article, we present five statements that arose from these discussions and five recommendations that shake up our beliefs about urban mobility. Below each statement, we describe what the statement means, its underlying views, and our recommendations for sustainable urban mobility that benefits citizens and the business community. The overall aim is to increase the share of sustainable modes of mobility in urban mobility. To achieve this, clear goals and consistent investments are needed. By sustainable modes of mobility, we refer to walking, cycling, public transportation, multimodal mobility and mobility services.

Traditionally, solutions to the challenges of the mobility system have been sought by increasing traffic routes. However, climate targets and digitalisation are rapidly transforming the entire mobility sector. Solutions that promote efficiency and sustainability, based on digitalisation, sustainable development and user-driven innovation, are now on the rise. User orientation is the most important starting point of an intelligent transport system, sustainability is its main goal and digitalisation is its most important building block.

Here is what we learnt from our Difficult Conversations in Finland. 


Statement 1: The car-free are not unhappy

The opportunity to live close to work, schools, services and leisure activities and get there by walking, cycling and using public transport, increases citizens’ wellbeing. That is why the 15-minute city has emerged: people need an urban environment where they can meet most of their daily needs within a short walk or bike ride from home. Currently, traffic is one of the most frequently cited pain points of urban living.  Car use is an expensive and time-consuming way to get around. Driving in Finland costs an average of 240 to 500 euros a month, and up to 30% of driving in the city is spent in the search for a parking spot. Due to extended car use and the solutions dedicated to it, our cities are unsafe: for example, more than 64% of accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists are caused by a car. 

Based on the discussions we argue that people are willing to choose other modes of mobility than cars more often, as long as options are readily available. According to the Finnish climate barometer, one-fifth of Finns would be willing to give up using a car. In Helsinki, more than half of the households are already car-free.

Recommendation 1: Assess the role of private cars in traffic and the lives of city dwellers from more than one perspective. Car use must be justified not only by environmental arguments but also by health, wellbeing and safety. The mobility ecosystem should strive for the highest possible utilisation rate with the least resources possible. This will be achieved by creating attractive and easy-to-use options to enable sustainable mobility.


Statement 2: Sustainable mobility creates wellbeing for businesses and the economy

A city that is good for people is usually good for business as well. Sustainable mobility—and the urban structure that encourages it—support the development of vibrant cities and the perceived wellbeing of citizens. Moreover, the patterns of trade and consumption are currently changing rapidly, which will also affect future urban mobility needs. Mobility planning and investments in the mobility system must keep pace with these developments. We hope for closer and wider cooperation between the various actors of the mobility sector to increase sustainable mobility and the wellbeing and vitality it brings to cities.

Recommendation 2: Establish a permanent forum for cooperation that develops sustainable mobility solutions for retail customers and city dwellers. The forum would bring together actors from cities to retail, real estate and construction, as well as the mobility sector. Together, the group would develop solutions that support sustainable mobility of citizens and vibrant urban development of the future. For example, retail locations should be accessible also by other modes of transport than cars. 


Statement 3: A dense and green environment gets people moving

Increasing sustainable mobility in cities requires not only customer-oriented services and solutions but also delivers more comfort and safety in all areas of urban life. Urban development can have a significant impact on how people live, move and consume. For example, moving to a different urban environment changes how people act and with it their attitudes: nudging works better than marketing in changing habits. In addition, greener mobility lanes attract sustainable mobility.

Recommendation 3: The urban structure of cities should be made more compact and walking and bike lanes made more safe, smooth to use and pleasant. This increases both the vitality of the city and the residents’ wellbeing. We endorse allocating urban space from cars to people and urban life, walking, biking and other sustainable modes of mobility, as well as for brick-and-mortar services. The safety, smoothness of use, attractiveness and greenness of walking and cycling routes must be radically improved. We favour a gradual and deliberate transition to market-based parking and more flexible parking standards.


Statement 4: Common rules are needed to transition from unsmart carbon-based mobility to smart low-carbon mobility. 

Everything that can be digitised will be digitised. However, merely collecting data does not guarantee high-quality knowledge. For sustainable modes of mobility to become more widespread, data must be shared between mobility operators and other sectors. Mobility development and planning must be knowledge-based. Common rules for sharing data makes developing customer-oriented services that combine different modes of mobility easier.

Recommendation 4: The rules for a fair data economy should be implemented in the mobility sector and all the data produced from traffic should be in digital, machine-readable form. Digitalisation is the key to a smooth and interoperable mobility system. Common rules make it easier for actors that facilitate sustainable urban mobility to enter the market and help redeem the societal benefits of sustainable mobility, such as clean air, health and wellbeing. The principles of knowledge-based planning must be introduced in traffic planning.


Statement 5: Orienting regulation improves sustainability

Versatile mobility solutions must be readily available for various short and long-distance mobility needs at affordable prices. For example, many options for sustainable mobility are currently only available in parts of urban areas, which means that not all citizens have equal access to them. Increasing the share of sustainable modes of mobility in urban mobility requires a wide range of measures in regulation, administration, finance and cooperation between different actors. Regulation should ensure that options that reduce emissions are always more lucrative than those that increase emissions. For example, the tax benefit from transportation-related fringe benefits should also be directed to encourage bike use and mobility services in commuting.

Recommendation 5: Public authorities should resolutely pursue a radical increase in the share of sustainable modes of mobility in urban mobility. This transition must be supported by regulation and taxation. Promoting urban development that pursues creating a 15-minute city requires the cooperation of several actors across sectors and city borders. This requires setting clear, publicly stated targets and developing plans following said targets. The long-term goal must be to significantly reduce the total amount of unsustainable mobility.




Aleksi Neuvonen

Otso Sillanaukee


Discussion partners:

Mari Flink HSL

Sini Puntanen HSL

Marko Forsblom ITS Finland

Eemil Rauma ITS Finland


Participants in the discussion

Ellen Ojala Allianssi 

Hanna Kalenoja The Finnish Information Centre of Automobile Sector 

Jarkko Jaakkola MaaS Global

Pia Sjöroos City of Kerava

Karri Salminen CGI

Marketta Kyttä Aalto university

Mika Nykänen HSL

Mikko Ampuja Vapaus

Mikko Saariaho Fintraffic

Olli Tiainen Greenpeace

Patrick Holm VEHO

Rikhard Manninen City of Helsinki


Summary of Difficult Conversations discussions on the near-term future of urban mobility 06/2021. Organisers: Demos Helsinki, HSL and ITS Finland, with the support of Hot or Cool Institute.

Difficult Conversations: Empowering Solutions is a new method developed by Hot or Cool Insitute and Demos Helsinki to outline solutions to the important but complex challenges of behaviour change for the 1.5° climate goal. This conversation series discussed the role of cars in future urban mobility and solutions to the sustainability challenges of mobility. The conversations were founded on the 1.5° climate target and the Finnish Government resolution on reducing domestic transport-related greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030.