The latest Helsinki Region Transport System Plan (HLJ) that Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) planners have developed includes a statement “the accessibility of the region improves significantly”, among several other impact assessment statements. This statement is a prime example of transition in the transport planning practice in Finland and in the world.
On the contrary to being concerned with for example average vehicular traffic speeds, the focus is on measuring accessibility. In general, accessibility means focusing on how people reach certain destinations, usually by measuring certain aspects of their journey, such as travel time. Thus, one has to conclude that HLJ is one of the leading examples worldwide of advancement in transport planning practice.
The focus on measuring accessibility impact is important for at least one important reason. By having the freedom to travel, we are able to accomplish many other rights, such as right to work, right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being, or right to education. Thus, by measuring how well people are able to reach certain destinations in time and space, we have at our disposal an important information about the opportunities citizens have in a society.
In relation, information about accessibility is even more important having in mind a dominant value of the Finnish society, which is equal access to opportunities for everyone. However, the idea of absolute equality is often challenged by the basic properties of transport systems. Essentially, the explanation is rather simple – it is rather difficult to have equal travel time to the Helsinki city center for all the citizens across the region.
So, if this type of equality is difficult to achieve, how should we measure improvement to the accessibility across the region? To this end, we might want to think about certain perspectives on social justice. And by doing so, we face a dilemma.
Among many theories of social justice, let us take a look at the two most influential ones. First, classical utilitarianism. Despite its cumbersome name, the central message is quite straightforward – an act is morally right if it maximizes the difference between the total amount of benefits for all and total amount of burdens for all people. Following this idea, we have to be thoughtful about the aggregate effects from our transport systems.
Contrary to this theory, one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls, has proposed an alternative view. Rawls argued that the distribution of effects matters as well, as it is not always desirable to violate the right of one to help the many. However, Rawls recognized that inequalities may exist, as long as the benefits from the inequalities are accessible to all, and are distributed to benefit the least well-off.
Dilemma originates from the fact that even taking into account only the utilitarian and Rawlsian standpoints, planner’s choice is difficult. For example, following the utilitarian idea, a planner might decide to measure average travel time or weight travel time value with the number of people traveling to certain destinations.
This approach sometimes would make complete sense, as for example, in the case of CO2 emissions. We certainly would want that our mobility system results in the lowest possible amount of total CO2 tons emitted.
On the contrary, taking a Rawlsian standpoint, a planner would have to focus on how much accessibility travelling from certain locations implies, or how much accessibility certain societal groups have. Similarly, this approach also makes sense, especially if we recognize that individuals have some inalienable rights.
However, the extent of the dilemma that planner has to face does not end here. Modern transport systems are rather complex, as they operate differently in different times of the day, in different locations, or with different transport modes. For example, we know that traveling with public transport often requires accessing the stop from where the public transport vehicle departs at a certain scheduled point in time.
Let us take a look at an example. The following link provides the travel times and transfers before and after the opening of West Metro in the Helsinki region, between 7 and 8h in the morning (http://westmetro.cs.aalto.fi/). These two parameters are available for every stop in the Helsinki region, assuming travelling from and towards each stop.
Testing out already two or three stops in the Helsinki region using this web tool, one can easily see that there is a (re)distribution in travel time and number of transfers values across the region. This visualization thus highlights the challenging dilemma that HSL and other transport planners face when making decisions about how transport system should function.
One could immediately wonder – how do we resolve such a dilemma if we are to advance planning practice? However, one could also wonder if we actually need to ask some additional questions in order to start resolving this dilemma? Perhaps we might need to ask ourselves how much societal importance we place on citizens’ mobility? Or perhaps we might need to ask ourselves how much societal importance we place on the challenges that built environment planners have to face today?
Ultimately, perhaps we might need to ask ourselves can we avoid asking such challenging questions if such questions are explicitly in front of us?
Kujala, R., Weckström, C., Mladenović, M., Saramäki, J., (2017) Travel times and transfers in public transport: Comprehensive accessibility analysis based on Pareto-optimal journeys, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0198971517300923)
Martens, K., (2012) Justice in transport as justice in accessibility: applying Walzer’s ‘Spheres of Justice’ to the transport sector, Transportation (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11116-012-9388-7)
Coverphoto: Nikodemus Siivola