An Interview with Stella Aaltonen

September 21, 2021

Stella Aaltonen’s experience in sustainability, project management and stakeholder involvement was gained in several roles, including that of Project Manager for the Union of the Baltic Cities. There, Stella organised the joint Finnish-Russian-Estonian Gulf of Finland Exhibition, and the Nordic Conference on Sustainable Development in the Baltic Sea Region. Today, as Project Manager for the City of Turku, she coordinates all its mobility and transport plans and oversees the development of Mobility as a Service. Stella led the City’s CIVITAS ECCENTRIC project, and she uses the expertise she has gained to provide training and guidance to other cities as they work towards more sustainable transport models.


The secret of Stella’s success? We think it’s the consideration she gives to all stakeholders, so it was a pleasure to talk with her about Turku’s sustainable successes and her future projects.


Stella, thank you for joining us to share your insights. Turku aims to become carbon neutral by 2029, which coincides with the city's 800th anniversary. Can you talk us through some of the key targets and actions set out by the local government?


Yes, absolutely! Carbon neutrality is quite an ambitious target in and of itself. To reach it, we have been doing a lot in the electricity sector and we’re well on our way to reaching our heating and energy use goals. Another step towards carbon neutrality is the model share of sustainable travelling, namely 66% by 2030; we want to increase walking, cycling and public transportation. We’re working closely on that with other local authorities, because of course travel isn’t just limited to one city—it’s regional too. We have several large-scale mobility initiatives, including the ‘one hour train’ from Helsinki to Turku, which is being planned right now. There are plans to bring back trams, too. Our trams were closed down in 1972, but we want to give them a new lease of life. Also, our main train station is moving closer to our bus station, so that we can develop a ‘travel centre’ that combines several modes of transport. That’s a really big initiative that will have a huge impact locally.


As for regional public transportation, we’re planning different routes systems: ring road routes that will make it easier to change from one line to another. That will be starting in 2025. We’re also looking at the electrification of our bus lines and increasing our number of electric buses as we go. We currently have six, with more on the way from this summer.


We have already electrified our transportation ferry, Föri, and we’re planning to electrify a lot of our fleet, while also considering biogas as an option. As part of the CIVITAS ECCENTRIC project, we were working with Gasum on biogas stations, particularly on providing them for larger vehicles.


Excellent. It seems mobility is very important to Turku’s achievement of carbon neutrality. You were leading the CIVITAS ECCENTRIC project run in conjunction with Munich, Madrid, Stockholm and Ruse, focused on sustainable suburban mobility and innovative urban

freight logistics. Can you please tell us more?


Yes. That was a four-year project that finished last autumn and I had the pleasure of running the project on the Turku side. It was a good way of leading new thinking and innovative approaches for our city and its strategic plan. I feel there were three major gains from the project.


First was the all-year-round city bike-share system that we initiated during the project. We often have quite severe winters; last winter, for example, was very snowy, with lots of days below zero degree Celsius. So this was a good time to prove that it’s possible to cycle all year round. We started winter maintenance of the bicycle routes and began extending the pedestrian routes. We had the pilot of 12 kilometres of routes at the beginning, and that’s grown every year as we’ve procured new winter maintenance contracts.


We also developed and improved our regional public transportation ticketing systems. For example, now, if you are organising an event or an exhibition or anything in Turku, you can combine the event ticket with public transportation automatically through QR codes. They basically act as a public transport pass.


What, in your opinion, makes Turku a trendsetter in Smart Mobility?


That is a good question. I would say our willingness to innovate and test different approaches is a key factor. Our regional public transportation system has existed in its current form for more than 5 years. It is branded and very simple, and many new ideas have been initiated. From the beginning of the year we have had EMV payments (card payments) on all our buses, making it easier to travel on them. Also, we were at the forefront of providing mobility as a service, so that any kind of platform can integrate public transportation and the bike-sharing system into their selections. We are always looking into opportunities to work with companies and different stakeholders in innovative ways to improve mobility.


How has the Living Lab district Kupittaa helped to promote sustainable mobility in Turku?


Kupittaa is a growing area of employment and, in the future, more housing—and its streets are quite densely packed.  So we have engaged stakeholders in discussions on our future vision of the area, and in the centre of Turku we’ve had a similar process, organising stakeholder forums to share their opinions. We’ve been working closely with the companies there, too, so that they have a say in how mobility is arranged for their employees and what initiatives they can promote. So the stakeholders’ cooperation there is a good example to follow. Now the Kupittaa area is developing more and more, it ties together the approaches that we had in the city. And this ‘laboratory approach’ we had with CIVITAS ECCENTRIC enabled this process.


What are some of the main ways you feel CIVITAS ECCENTRIC has achieved success in changing local mobility behaviour? Do you feel the good practices learned in Turku can help smart mobility progress at the European level?


That’s a big question! Changing mobility behaviour is a challenge we all share around Europe and it’s not an easy task to tackle. You can only do so much during the span of one project. But I think the main change CIVITAS ECCENTRIC brought was a change in thinking and approaches, and how we actually tie together different approaches. That was a really important one.


The City of Turku's internal structure is changing and one of the key things CIVITAS ECCENTRIC brought to us was the Mobility as a Service approach. We are now more customer-focused and we are going to have a totally new service area in the city thanks to the project’s input. We are going to make it easier on the organisational level for companies and stakeholders to engage with the city.


One of the city’s roles is to act as a platform for future developments, and we’ve learned that when we look at mobility and changing behaviours, they shouldn’t be looked at separately from the services. Thanks to CIVITAS ECCENTRIC, our organisation structure is ready to answer this big demand for mobility services and create different, new solutions. For example, when we bring different options to users and try to influence their choices, we know we need to ensure that the most sustainable choices we offer are also the easiest and most accessible. So, this is our approach for the future.


The second part of your electromobility pilot, launched last year, was focused on the shared use of electric cars. As I understand it, the public could hire the cars in the evenings and at weekends. Can you envisage a wider rollout of the initiative whereby private companies could also use the vehicles?


Yes, absolutely! That was a testing phase that we had, and we also continued the service on a market basis after the test. But then, unfortunately, the company involved decided to give up the car-sharing business. So this is important to remember: any company can make independent choices about their focus areas and as a city, we need to be aware that it’s risky for us to rely on only one company. We will need to provide different opportunities for several companies.


We have just agreed on putting new parking permissions into place. These ‘Z permissions’ will allow car-sharing companies to park their cars on the citizens’ areas that have those permissions. Also, we have dedicated separate parking spots for car-sharing companies, so we are hoping that in June we will get car-sharing companies operating. I already know of a few companies coming to our market now these improved permissions are in place. Creating the parking guidelines was a long process. It was partly helped by CIVITAS ECCENTRIC and by little these actions that are taking place.


Another positive measure is that we have finally managed to lower the speed limit in the city centre to 30 kilometres per hour, which is really important for safer walking and cycling. In several locations, the limit has reduced down to 20 kilometres per hour, and we’re testing this first on so-called ‘summer streets’ in Turku. We are going to have one test this summer where we will be blocking off part of the street, with no access for cars. This will allow more space for companies and leisure, and for walking and cycling. These steps are pilot schemes, and we can scale them up based on the results.


You’ve talked a lot about stakeholder engagement. Can you tell us more about the local community’s involvement?


We are starting a new project on the 1st of June. It’s a Horizon 2020 SCALE UP initiative, and together with Madrid and Antwerp, we are going to focus on matching and changing behaviours and mobilising resources to marketing and tailor-made choices. This is a quite important approach that we’re taking further, looking into different service options we can offer various target groups. In a city, there’s a variety of customers and citizens: so for example, we need to provide services for the daycare situation all the way up to the elderly. This is an important thing that we’re focusing on for the next few years: how we are reaching the target groups, what appeals to them and how we’re enabling them to make the most sustainable choices. Changing repetitive behaviours in society takes a lot longer than just a couple of months, so it is these daily routines that we are trying to influence.


On that note, are you confident you will see a successful wider rollout of the initiative in future, both in Turku and other cities?


I am quite confident, bearing in mind that we’ve made quite major decisions that will have a big impact on mobility in Turku. But change will come through the smaller-scale approaches too: we are developing programmes on promoting walking, not just as a modality but also as a way to spend time. So, we’re working on what makes surroundings more appealing and pleasant for walkers. Some people will prefer more silent routes or more pleasurable routes, while others will want a speedier route. Turku is a really compact city. You can reach everywhere by walking or cycling, and you can organise conferences in the city all within walking distance, even for thousands of visitors.


Many of our hotels are tackling sustainability issues. Several new hotels have been built and others have been retrofitted to be more sustainable. The City works closely with hotel companies to provide them with sustainability options and many of them have worked to gain sustainability certifications like Green Key. It’s also important that sectors work together, such as the tourism sector and service providers.


It looks like Turku has a holistic approach to the issue, which is great to see. Smart and Wise Turku is one of Turku's spearhead projects combining the goal of regional carbon neutrality in 2029 with the Smart City concept. Can you tell us more about this project and give us some examples of Turku companies helping to drive innovation?


That is also a good question! We have a climate plan as noted before, and part of the Smart and Wise project is a circular economy plan. Circular economy is also a way of thinking: a way of approaching issues. Mobility also plays an important role and we started holding company forums with the mobility service providers. We’ve had two this year, looking into the use of the streets and how we can enable companies to have better services in Turku, bearing in mind the safety, atmosphere, cooperation and travel chain thinking. We are also testing a lot of innovative parking measures together with companies. We have nine different parking measures operating this summer, involving different ways of finding or sharing parking or of making it more efficient. We’re not just focusing on car parking but bicycle parking too.


We are also digitalising many of our basic services so that more people can use them and benefit from them. It’s one thing to digitalise services, but we also need physical services on the ground and we need to be happy we are providing them. The city of Turku has the river Aura that crosses the city too, creating a really special atmosphere, and we’re using waterways as well as roads as a service. Maybe one day we might also see air services like drones.


And I couldn’t name one company, as there are so many of them! For example, we are getting several new service providers this summer. So many people are involved, all working together.


What does the future of sustainability in Turku look like for you?


I mentioned earlier about the walkability of our city, and organising events that are within walking distance is vital. We’ve been working a lot on greening the catering side, using local food providers and encouraging them to work together. Mobility is connected to all the different services. On one hand, we need to focus on providing the infrastructure and all the key factors needed, but we also need to focus on the digital layers in terms of how we can combine and enable them.


The City of Turku is also an ideal size for cycling, and 90% of our citizens live within 30 minutes’ biking distance to the city centre. So I think cycling is an area where there is still more potential, and where we will see even more benefits in the future.


I read somewhere that cycling is hugely popular with Turku’s residents, and that around 96% of people are in support of cycling, so I think you will get a lot of local support with that strategy! Thank you so much for your time today, Stella, it was a pleasure interviewing you!


It was a pleasure for me too. Thank you!


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