My Block

July 24, 2014

I’m finally settled into my place in Helsinki after a hectic past few months. This condition certainly won’t be permanent though, as it goes I’ve already got some upcoming travel plans. Most importantly, I’ll be heading back to Seattle for a couple of weeks in August for a dear friend’s wedding. I’m looking forward to that quite a bit, but not so much the long plane trip.

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Kallion Kirkko

I had the good fortune of securing a flat in Helsinki before I even arrived. I had been keeping a close eye on the postings of such things while I was traveling a found a good spot whose renter was quite responsive. We agreed to have my friend Anne, my original Finnish confidante, come check the place out. Anne picked up the keys and had them waiting for me until I arrived. The downside to this was paying a month of so of rent without actually living in the place, but it certainly beats trying not to overstay my welcome anywhere.

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Porthaninkatu

The pad is pretty dope. It’s a studio on the 6th floor of a building in one of Helsinki’s densest neighborhoods, Sörnäinen [ˈsørnæɪnen]. It’s facing away from the street and has a nice balcony that overlooks a park. I never really thought of myself as a Kallio [ˈkɑlːio] dweller, Punavuori [ˈpunɑʋuori] or Töölö [ˈtøːlø] always seemed more fitting for me, but the transit connectivity here is pretty unbeatable. The flat is a couple meters from the Sörnäinen Metro station, the 615 airport bus stops right across the street, and a major tram stop is less than a block away. Since the Metro provides such quick and easy service to the center of town I haven’t been taking the trams much, but the #8 provides easy access to Töölö and the west side of town where the Metro is lacking.

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Too Finnish for words

I have a love/hate relationship with the Helsinki Metro; it’s a great mobility asset for the city, but it’s crippled in a lot of ways. The city refuses to run it past 23:30, which is pretty pathetic for any transit system, let alone the supposed transit backbone of a city (there has been a recent trial on extending the operating hours until 01:30 on Friday and Saturday, which certainly helps). They’re extending it west into Espoo [ˈespoː], this will undoubtedly ease the commute from Espoo to Helsinki, but there are a handful of corridors inside the city which need this more. Unfortunately none of these in-city corridors will be getting such treatment in the near future, and the system will likely continue operating in stasis once the western extension is complete. At least they’re working on automating it, so we may see some improvements after that’s complete.

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Looking towards the main station

The trams here are done quite well. Implementing useful surface rail in mixed traffic is a difficult task, but where many American cities fail (I’m looking at you, Seattle and Portland) many European cities excel. The trams in Helsinki run at-grade with a mix of dedicated- and shared-right-of-way. Compared to most European cities, Helsinki (unfortunately) sees a lot of car traffic, but the trams are given pretty good signal priority and can make it through fairly congested stretches without much issue. Many of the busiest corridors have dedicated right-of-way and are able to skip the traffic, which results in a quick and high-capacity line, typically operating at 10-minute headways throughout the day. Architecturally, however, the tram system could use a bit of work. Reorganizing current service into a more frequent grid and doing away with some of the radial and silly-shaped lines would yield wonderful results. Also with the trams, unfortunately, late-night service fails to deliver. 24/7 service is not required (or warranted) in most transit systems, but the occasional run along familiar routes between 01:30 and 03:00 would be tremendously useful. As it is now only a few lines (2, 3, and 4) run up until about 01:30 (the others heading back to base at around 00:00). Middle-of-the-night service is a bit of a point of contention, and it’s hard to weigh the demand against the expenditure. However, the ridership on the scattered and disorganized late-night bus service indicates that the demand is certainly there.

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In front of the Hakaniemi metro station

While I’m writing this post it occurs to me that Seattle and Helsinki have a lot in common, maybe that’s why I’m drawn to both. I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve rarely (if ever) had a desire to move to a city that’s perfect. New York? Paris? Copenhagen? Stockholm? They won’t do… their transit is too good, their laws too sensible, they’re already dense and urban. Instead I’m drawn to living in the smaller, more backward neighbors of these cities. Cities where the transit is good, but needs work. Cities where proposals for increased density are projects that supporters can get behind, and indeed are combated by equally zealous opponents. Cities where arcane laws (alcohol sales in Finland, for example) still need public outcry to be overturned. While the transit situation is arguably a lot better in Helsinki than it is in my hometown of Seattle, both are facing their issues which require support from the public. Both cities are not as dense as their comparable neighbors, and they both have small and somewhat-organized groups of people pushing for a more urban fabric. Essentially, both cities are teetering on the edge; one bad decision away from utter calamity. A constant uphill battle to maintain the relative utopia. One lapse in concentration and the city you know and love will be destroyed forever. The opulence and prosperity of places like New York and Stockholm puts them square in the not-worried-about-it category; they don’t need my help. I’d rather stay somewhere like Seattle or Helsinki and fight, however futilely, for the things that I think the city would benefit from.

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Possibly the most legit living situation I’ve ever been in…

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