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Number of cars growing more rapidly than population

Some 170,000 additional cars were registered for use in 2011-2018 in Finland, compared to a population increase of 120,000.

Liikenneruuhkaa Helsingin Porkkalankadulla.
Rush hour in Helsinki Image: Esko Jämsä / AOP

Despite government plans to discourage the use of passenger cars, the number of motor vehicles is currently growing at a faster clip than the population in almost all of Finland's larger cities, according to the news agency STT.

The agency checked the number of registered cars in active use in each of the country's municipalities with over 20,000 inhabitants and compared the findings with statistics on birth rates from Statistics Finland. In virtually every place examined, the number of cars newly registered beat out the number of new residents being born.

In the southeast city of Kouvola, for example, the population has fallen by 4,000 so far this decade, while the number of cars in use has grown by 1,000. Locals say that cost-cutting has made services harder to reach and slashed public transport budgets, making cars even more necessary as communities shrink.

Government seeks emission reductions

The trend of more cars on the road spells trouble for Finland's government, as Prime Minister Antti Rinne's coalition has set a goal to reduce the number of Finnish traffic emissions by 50 percent before the year 2030. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications says their calculations will focus on emission levels and kilometers driven, not the number of motor vehicles that are registered.

"The goal is to make transport emissions-free, not eliminate transport altogether," says Päivi Antikainen, director of the ministry's climate and environment unit.

"But if we consider the climate goals we have in mind for transport, it is clear that we will need to come up with something more," she concedes.

All in all, STT calculated that over 2.7 million cars were in use in Finland at present, with electric and hybrid vehicles making up only a small fraction of the total at around 15,000.

Ministry figures from last year show that the average Finn drove a car that was 12 years old, yielding 157 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometre. The EU set emission performance standards of 130 grams of CO2 per kilometre for passenger cars in 2015, and starting in 2020, this target will be lowered to 95.

First priority: Renewing Finland's aging fleet of cars

Antikainen says it is crucial that Finland renews its fleet of passenger cars. She predicts that electric cars will soon be available for the same price as cars with a combustion engine.

"We are moving towards lower emissions; the only question is how quickly it will happen," she says.

While falling prices may act as a carrot, significant changes won't happen without sticks as well. Taxation has proven an effective deterrent.

"Environmental policies in the transport sector have relied on the principle of "polluters pay". On the other hand, however, we have to pursue a path that will be socially sustainable. Nevertheless, the general understanding is clear: we have to end our dependence on fossil fuels," Antikainen says.

Urban centres buck the trend

Only three municipalities in Finland were found to have fewer cars being newly registered in proportion to the increase in population. These are the southern cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Tampere. In the southwest hub of Turku, the number of registered cars has stayed largely the same.

STT found that only one in three residents of Helsinki owns a car. Helsinki's traffic researcher Katja Moilainen says that this due to good public transport options and city planning. Recent investments in the Länsimetro underground transport extension and networks of shared city bikes could continue to reduce the need for car ownership in the capital city region, she says.

Helsinki has made even more ambitious plans than Finland's newly-elected government: to cut traffic emissions by approximately 70 percent by the year 2035, by which time it plans to be carbon neutral.

"We have to do more to encourage sustainable transport habits," Moilainen says.

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