Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
But Helsinki isn’t on board yet.
Finland is the latest country to introduce a transit pass that can be used not just in one place, but throughout many of its cities. After a single-city trial in Joensuu that started in January, the Waltti card was rolled out across six additional Finnish towns on August 3rd. The number of cities where the card is valid for use will rise to eight when Lahti joins in the autumn. Ultimately, it will go on to be used in both larger and smaller cities across the whole country.
While Waltti plans to expand to Finland’s second and third largest metros, Tampere and Turku, Helsinki has said it will not as yet be signing up to the scheme. Apparently, the technology isn’t compatible with the city’s ticket barriers.
None of the eight cities included in the scheme so far is especially big by global standards—the largest are Finland’s fourth and fifth largest cities, Oulu and Jyväskylä— but the scheme is nonetheless groundbreaking. Even before reaching its full extent, the single payment card pieces together an urban transit zone that contains more than 700,000 people, a substantial number in a country of less than 5.5 million inhabitants. In a world where universal fare cards are creeping into service across the globe, Waltti is an example of the sort of seamless payment system that may well become an international standard in the future.
The card works in a way that will already be familiar to many transit users. Much like Transport for London’s touch-in, touch-out Oyster Card, it can be loaded online either with a flat-rate season ticket or with a sum of money, part of which is deducted from the card each time a passenger passes through a barrier. The plan streamlines payment by obviating the need for different cards for different cities, making it far easier for Finns to hop from town to town without bothering with lines at ticket machines.
Finland’s universal fare card plans place it somewhat ahead of the game globally, but that should come as no surprise. The country has long been a trailblazer in using technology to streamline transit. Helsinki, for example, has long allowed passengers to buy transit tickets by SMS (a system also available in Denmark, Geneva, and Prague, among other places). More groundbreaking still is Finland’s brilliant Kutsuplus system, which allows users to utilize their phones to summon a nine-seater minibus to a stop, pay for a ticket, and choose a route, all for a little more than a regular bus fare but less than a taxi. Furthermore, Helsinki plans to make planning and paying for journeys by smartphone so easy and flexible that car ownership will become pointless within 10 years.
So far, so impressive. But the fact that trailblazing Helsinki hasn’t signed up for the Waltti card shows the growing pains of creating new transit systems. It’s all very well to try making things simpler through central organization, but there has to be mutual agreement on where that center lies and whose operational modes it will follow. Helsinki’s rejection of the card scheme highlights the difficulties of harmonizing infrastructure across a whole nation. Still, with Finns starting to use the same fare card, the idea that different cities once insisted on maintaining their own separate ticketing systems may soon seem ludicrous.