Tram Life

December 17, 2014

Before I’ve completely alienated my normal readership with largely ignorable drivel about a weird passion for public transport, I’m going to post one last analysis tying the Tram Life series together. Over the past few months the most dedicated of you learned about the different lines that comprise the tram network here in my new home of Helsinki. You’ve likely gleaned that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it as well. There are aspects of it that are very well-maintained and -designed, but there is also a lot of it that could use some work. If there’s one thing more upsetting than a poorly-functioning public transport system, it’s a system whose great potential is squandered by poor design.

Coming from Seattle, I’m no stranger to the difficulties of a transit system struggling to meet the demands of a rapidly-growing population. It’s common for smaller transit systems to allocate all their service hours into lines that go straight into the city center. However, the larger the system (and city) becomes, the less likely it is for everybody to want to go straight to the center and the more unwieldy such a radial system becomes. New areas outside the core of the city will pop up offering not only new residential and employment areas but also social venues and cultural amenities. These new neighborhoods will need transit access not only to the city center, but also to the other neighborhoods. Without forcing people to travel through the city center to get from one neighborhood to an adjacent neighborhood, the only way to solve this problem is with a grid. Replacing a radial network with a grid network brings about all sorts of benefits, but it also takes a tremendous amount of political will in that it requires making a lot of people temporarily upset (until they learn the power and pleasure of grids, of course) that they no longer have a one-seat-ride to the city center. Making a transfer isn’t the end of the world, and in many ways, doing so is the only way to improve the system as a whole. The more frequent your lines run the less of a pain making a transfer is, but this is a bit of a catch-22 since you can’t make your lines more frequent without forcing people to make a transfer first. In a way it requires telling your ridership to trust in the agency; even though change is scary, things will be better. This leap of faith is the hard part, but things get better once the grid is in place. Look at any of the top transit systems in the world and you’ll see grids: The Paris Metro (arguably the best-designed metro system in the world), the New York Subway, the London Underground, the Vancouver bus system.

It’s with this principle in mind that I’ve made my proposed changes to Helsinki’s tram system. By redesigning the lines such that they don’t all feed directly into the center, we’re able to reuse those service hours by increasing frequency in the rest of the system (thereby easing the transfers that need to be made) to improve overall accessibility dramatically.



The map above is the system as it currently is. There’s clearly a strong focus on the city center (the mess of lines between Rautatieasema and Hakaniemi) and a whole lot of overlapping service (the multiple lines stacked next to each other pretty much everywhere else). In fact, there’s only one route in the entire system which doesn’t get close to the city center for any of its alignment, and that’s the 8 (no wonder it’s my favorite route). The next map is the redesigned network taking into account the proposed changes I’ve made over the course of this series.



As you can see, a lot fewer lines in the center and a lot fewer lines stacked next to each other overall. Impressionistically we begin to see the emergence of more of a grid too, with lines crossing over each other at high angles in more places. It’s telling that we end up with fewer lines while still maintaining service on all currently-serviced corridors. Following is a list of the proposed changes ordered by line:

1) In addition to doing away with the 1/1A distinction and changing the line from peak-only to all-day, the 1 follows the currently-unused right-of-way from Hakaniemi through the west side of Kallio (requiring a couple hundred meters of new track) after which it meets up with its existing alignment near Alppila. The north end of the line is extended several hundred meters to Käpylan Asema to provide a transfer point with long-distance and commuter trains.

2) Axed.

3) The 2 and 3 have been liberated from their heinous figure-8 over the city center. The 2 is no more and the 3 starts at Kaivopuisto but instead of turning right onto Bulevardi toward the city center it runs along new rails on Frederikinkatu to Kamppi before meeting up with the 2’s previous alignment. Instead of proceeding back toward the city center through Kallio the 3 terminates at the Sörnäinen Metro Station.

4) Largely in-tact, but live-looped in Katajanokka via several hundred meters of new track to serve both the ferry terminal and the residential areas. This allows us to get rid of the 4/4T distinction.

6) The 6/6T distinction is done away with and the terminal is moved from Länsiterminaali to Hernesaari in the south.

7) The 7 has been freed from its infernal loop. Its northern segment is largely the same, now terminating at Meilahti in the west and Sörnäinen Metro Station in the east.

8) The 8 now serves Kalasatama instead of Arabia via several hundred meters of new track.

9) The 9, in its sanctified harmony, is completely unchanged.

10) The 10 in the south is extended to cross the 1/3 alignment on Tehtaankatu towards the shore. In the north it is extended a few hundred meters to Huopalahti for a transfer point with long-distance and commuter trains.

In addition to the architectural changes to the tram network, some easy branding changes could be done to better integrate the commuter trains with the urban transport system. The commuter trains are super frequent all day and provide a very quick and easy trip from the city center to Pasila and beyond. Advertising them as such and making it very easy to find out which platform the next train is leaving from could make this a much more user-friendly experience. Providing an additional heavy (commuter) rail service that doesn’t go to the city center (oh, the humanity!) following the heavy rail alignment west from somewhere before Huopalahti to east beyond Käpyla would really fill out the grid in the northern portion of the city as well.

It’s unfortunate that the city’s need for better mobility often comes second to maintaining the status quo for lack of political and social wherewithal, but that seems to be the reality in most cities. Perhaps somewhere down the line Helsinki will be able to better-utilize its current infrastructure and unify, rather than divide, its different modes into a cohesive transport solution.

Tram Life 1
Tram Life 2/3
Tram Life 4
Tram Life 6
Tram Life 7
Tram Life 8
Tram Life 9
Tram Life 10
Tram Life

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