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Municipalities promote cycling in a bid to save millions

One out of every four car rides in Finland is less than four kilometres long these days, according to a recent assessment by the Finnish Transport Agency. Municipalities have woken up to potential savings involved if they could encourage residents to bike and walk more frequently.

Pyöräilijä ajaa pyöräkaistalla.
Image: Antti Pylväs / Yle

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently named physical inactivity as one of the western world’s largest threats to public health. In 2013 WHO found that less than 34 percent of Finnish adults attain recommended physical activity levels.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications has come up with a ‘National strategy for walking and cycling 2020’ that outlines certain key goals. These include a 20 percent growth in the number of people cycling and walking, increasing motivation for these forms of transport, and making transport distances manageable and journeys safer.

A recent assessment by the Finnish Transport Agency showed that Finnish residents across the country are more and more likely to use their car for short journeys. Close to half of all car trips are made for journeys of less than three kilometres in municipalities of fewer than 45,000 inhabitants.

Municipalities have woken up to the potential savings to be reaped if they could convince their residents to walk and cycle more. Studies that show that investments in public transport don’t necessarily lessen car journeys have strengthened their resolve.

One of these locations in Finland is the southern city of Hyvinkää, population 47,000. Hyvinkää does want to simply increase cycling in its city; it wants the world to recognize it as a cycling capital someday.

Free loaner bikes

Thousands of Hyvinkää residents take the train into Helsinki each working day, a 45-minute trip. The local government of Hyvinkää is encouraging its residents to travel to the train station by bike and not their car. The city is even willing to loan electric and folding bikes to its residents in order to meet the cycling goal.

“We wanted to raise awareness and give people the opportunity to try out different sets of wheels. They are quite expensive, and bikers may not able to buy their own right away,” says Majukka Aronen, Hyvinkää’s traffic planner.

The experiment has proven very popular, and the loaner electric and folding bikes have flown off the shelves. Both are ideal for work commutes: electric bikes mean the cyclist needn’t break a sweat on the trip, and the folding bike is easy to carry along on the train. Many commuter trains in Finland charge passengers to travel with a full-sized bicycle, but this doesn’t apply to their compact equivalents. 

The cities of Kokkola and Tampere have also tried their hands with a similar experiment.

Turning up the HEAT

Spreading the word about the joys of cycling may sound like a lightweight topic, but it is anything but.  WHO has created an online health economic assessment tool (HEAT) for calculating how much municipalities stand to save from reduced mortality if its residents walked and cycled more. Many cities throughout the world are now using it as a part of their comprehensive cost-benefit analyses of transport interventions or infrastructure projects.

Finnish authorities have compiled a recommendation about how much adults should move, advising people over 18 to engage in a minimum of 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, with 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Even small towns can calculate the yearly savings of such exercise in the millions. For example, the 30,000-inhabitant city of Kangasala in southern Finland has done the math: If people increased their daily amount of walking from 16 to 20 percent, the city would gain 1.3 million euros.

If the percentage of cycling rose from 8 to 15 percent, the savings from reduced mortality would be an astounding 3.4 million euros each year, according to the HEAT calculator. 

It's simple really, if taxpayers walk and bike more, they stay healthy and are able to work, which means savings on health expenses and more tax income for local government – a win-win for the city and its residents.

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