Summer streets in Helsinki – calming traffic for safer walking and cycling
When the warmer months arrive in Helsinki, selected downtown residential streets are transformed into spaces where cars are less dominant, and greenery and people move into the spotlight. This is the Summer Streets initiative.
The idea behind the initiative is to create streets that encourage people to imagine what urban streets could be like if space is redistributed in a way that prioritises safety, quality and comfort for those who move by foot or by bike in the urban environment.
The four streets selected to participate in the initiative this year are not major traffic routes for cars, but rather residential streets located in the densely built downtown area, where many services are found on the street level. These streets are also very car-dominant, albeit their residential street classification. The street is wide and offers plenty of curb side parking, while the sidewalks are narrow. Cars tend to move along the streets quickly, making them unpleasant and unsafe for on-street cycling, and crowded and noisy for pedestrians.
This year, the Summer Streets feature lush greenery with trees, flowers and wide variety of different plants. Children were one of the focus group contributors during the planning process, meaning that the furniture and designs on the streets are planned so that they encourage kids to explore and use their imagination while visiting the streets. There is even a sandbox and materials to make cone animals.
Additionally, the city has worked in close collaboration with its cultural department and other key actors to contribute to the initiative. Local entrepreneurs, like restaurants owners, museum coordinators, gallerists, etc., are a part of this group, and it is hoped that this opportunity will spark further collaboration.
The streets are not supposed to be full of festivities throughout the summer, but rather the idea is to create a lively atmosphere that invites visitors to spontaneously perform and connect. There is also an opportunity for anybody to reserve a space on the street to organise yoga, book club gatherings, or other small events. Familiar Helsinki summer happenings, like Pride and the samba parade, will be taking place in the area around the streets.
In the short term, the Summer Streets aim to temporarily slow down traffic in order to make urban streets safer and more pleasant for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as use greenery and seating places to bring relief during the hot summer months. Also, the initiative seeks to draw more people to use the services and public space in Helsinki during the short, Nordic summer, when there are more people out and about.
In the long term, the initiative is closely linked to Helsinki’s traffic hierarchy plan, which determines the classification of streets (residential, collector and main). The City is working to decrease and slow the drive-through traffic in the residential street network. The Summer Street experiments offer the City tools to evaluate the solutions that could work in achieving a behavioural change among car drivers.
Before and after the Summer Streets are implemented, traffic counts are performed, as well as behavioural observations and interviews on the street twice during the summer. With these follow up methods and by analysing the data, the City is able to learn from different types of street geometries that work in slowing down the speed of cars, while evaluating what could be done better (or differently) by observing and interviewing pedestrians, cyclists and business owners.
Ultimately, the City aims to increase the acceptance and demand for calmer and more liveable streets while at the same time learn which measures are suited to permanent application, and which have more of a seasonal effect.
The Handshake project has provided inspiration in the development of the Summer Streets. One of the measures Helsinki was committed to perform during the project was the use of pilots in accelerating the development of its cycling network. Residential streets do not require separate cycling infrastructure, however, they are an essential part in the trips that take people to and from services, offices and homes. In their current state – influenced by traffic speeds, wide street geometries and cobble stones – the streets are not pleasant for cyclists. This reality makes them an ideal pilot target for traffic calming solutions, which are integral part in the city’s cycling development and traffic safety measures.
During the Helsinki Summit, an immersive event held within the scope of Handshake, the City led workshops where participants from a range of sectors came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of cycling planning in Helsinki. The discussion shed light on the biggest issues in Helsinki when it comes to developing cycling – the fact that people have reservations on the economic effects of reallocating street space from cars to bicycles, and that car owners often have the loudest voices which have the power to slow down or compromise cycling projects. In addition, it was widely recognised during the Summit that it is necessary to find parallels between the development of walkable environments and cycling conditions, with the goal of achieving more liveable urban space. These realisations and reflections have helped inform goal setting and defining of the follow-up methods for the Summer Streets.
By implementing Summer Streets, we can show people the benefits of calmer streets and get the voices of the local business owners and the silent majority heard.
Image by: Susa Junnola, City of Helsinki