Why is urban water transport used as a mode of transport around the world, but not in Helsinki or Tallinn?
Cities are always built by the water – usually along the river on both sides, or and even on an island. It is therefore natural that water transport is part of the public transport in many cities.
Why is this not the case in Helsinki or Tallinn? In Helsinki, the only water transport that runs as part of public transport goes to Suomenlinna, where almost 1,000 people live and to which there is no other connection – such as a bridge.
When considering enabling urban water transport in Helsinki or Tallinn, the following aspects must be taken into account:
- passenger potential: pleasure or business travelers
- the competitive situation with land transport
- economic viability for the shipping company
- year-round or only summer time
- tightening environmental regulation of shipping
It is best to start thinking about whether the traffic is for pleasure or leisure travelers or business travelers. With the exception of Suomenlinna traffic, there is no water transport for commuters in Helsinki, but water transport offers connections to recreational islands during the summer. The number of users varies according to the weather, and the equipment does not have to take into account special winter conditions such as the ice situation. On the other hand, traffic revenues only comes in a few summer months.
Traveling by water is slow, usually water buses run at about a bicycle speed of 15 to 25 km / h. The same journey therefore takes more time by water than by land. Indeed, water transport is at its best when it is able to cross a river or other “water barrier” and thus, measured on a map, the distance is much shorter than along another route. There are only a few such connections in Helsinki or Tallinn, while in Stockholm, for example, in the estuary of the river, there are many.
As in any business, the profitability of a shipping company comes from the difference between revenues and costs. The cost depends largely on how big the capital is and how much the ships are driven. Revenue from the number of customers and ticket prices.
In urban water transport, it is impossible to raise fares very high – people perceive the price of a ticket to be commensurate with other modes of local transport, so the shipping company tries to maximize passenger numbers. This is best done if the sea voyage is short, so the ship has time to make many voyages a day and serve a lot of customers during the day, like even Turku Föri. For this reason, long routes, for example along the coast, are usually not economically viable because the journey is long and there are relatively few passengers during the day. And those who use the trip on their commute tend to get there along the country faster.
At present, public transport in Helsinki is managed by the Helsinki Region Transport (HSL), in which each municipality pays and receives its share of transport system and which is built on land traffic. It is difficult to include only one or a few municipalities operating water transport in this equation. Therefore, measures to develop waterborne transport should be carried out at the municipality’s own risk, which of course makes it difficult for the systems to be compatible, for example with the use of common tickets.
It should also be noted that water transport only works by water, ie the ferry does not go from door to door for anyone. Therefore, traffic planning should take into account where people come from and where they are going. For example, locating city bike stations near ferry piers would certainly increase the user base and allow door-to-door travel.
While automation will one day bring relief to the cost of shipping, that day is still a long way off. Technology for automation exists, but an adequate level of safety and thus the approval of the authorities for unmanned traffic has not yet been achieved and there is no information as to when this will happen. However, it can be assumed that the same cost savings brought by unmanned traffic will also occur on the land transport side at the same time.
The fleet in Helsinki today is on average 50 years old, and only 3 vessels have been completed in this millennium. Since the 1990s, shipping has been the subject of ever-tightening environmental legislation. Upgrading the urban water transport fleet to meet the tightening climate goals of cities will require a lot of investment. The question is, therefore, does the current operators have the economic opportunity to renew their fleet when the traffic is operating only on summer? On the other hand, does the municipal body want to support this reform once the transport system is built on land transport? It is easy to increase the capacity of existing public transport based on buses, trams and metros, but in order to be able to compete with a similar level of service, ferries would need considerable resources.
However, after all this has been written, waterborne transport is a mode of transport that has a place in urban transport, as long as it takes into account the type of user groups for which the transport is intended and whether it is competitive – both economically and in terms of service – with other modes of urban transport.
Photo: Visit Copenhagen