The urban bike magazine

Bike Citizens Guide to Helsinki

Who? Where? When and How? – We have all the answers! Just read on to get all the essential information you need to know when cycling in Helsinki.

Markus Seppälä is an invasive species biologist who has lived in Helsinki all his life. He has a burning passion for anything and everything cycling related. He was former project manager and designer for Box Bike Helsinki.
Helsinki's second bike sharing attempt, was better thought through. Photo: Markus Seppäla

Aperitif – Helsinki in General

Ah, Helsinki. The capital of 600,000-plus inhabitants, by far the largest city in Finland. This seaside port city has a beautiful historical centre with classical and neo-classical architecture, and is surrounded by more or less active suburb areas sprawling out in all directions. It is too large to be a village, yet too small to be a metropolis. The good thing is, Helsinki is always trying to be larger than its size, which means it is always a culturally active place to visit. The challenge is to decide what you want to do and where to start. Maybe a tour of its cafés and public saunas? Perhaps you like the seaside? In that case I would definitely pedal along the shoreline from west to east and stop by the numerous beaches for a quick swim and an ice cream before moving on. Many excellent choices waiting for you to make.

Don’t forget we are also part of the chic Scandinavian design collective (a few years back Helsinki was World Design Capital), so there are lots of mainstream and underground design boutiques to visit. Combine this with numerous beautiful parks, the city’s gorgeous shoreline and archipelago with over 300 islands and of course the huge forest area reaching all the way to the very city centre called the Central Park, and you will need days to go through the sights, even if you are riding a bike.

Helsinki has over 1200km of dedicated bike paths, so there is virtually no place where you can’t ride your bike. A recent test showed that, compared with public transport and the car, it is also the quickest way to get around when the distance is between 5-7 km. If you are into figures and numbers, please check out the official Helsinki bicycle account released 2015.

Now, although Helsinki offers you her best during the summer months, it is still very possible to ride a bike also during winter. To illustrate my point, please check out this video on Youtube. I recommend you just put studded tires on your ride.

Unfortunately, the majority of citizens in Helsinki do stop riding their bike from November to April to avoid plowing through snow, ice and watery slush. I believe this is more due to a cultural habit among the Finns, a strongly rooted idea that cycling is considered to be just a fun summer activity and not the clever year-round way to commute to places that you and I know it to be.

This poses difficulties for Helsinki’s official goal to push cycling’s share as a mode of transport up to 15 % by 2020 . Although the share is said to be about 11 % at the time, according to many extensive surveys, the citizens state very clearly that they would ride a bike more often if the cycling infrastructure was done and maintained at a better level. The city officials are trying to address this by building a large network of quality bicycle highways and trying out novel ways to keep at least the key paths in rideable condition and free of snow.

Bike Community Locations in Helsinki

Helsinki’s Pyöräpaja (our local Bike Kitchen) is a community-building run by terrific volunteers who are always ready to dish out some wisdom and good advice to those who need them. They are open Wednesdays from 4.30 pm and Sundays Bike Kitchen holds free DIY events twice a week on Wednesdays and Sundays. They even cook food which they share.

Outside Pyöräpaja, the bike community is not tied to a specific address or place, but to the members of the community themselves. To find them and to learn of all the cool events and community gatherings you need to contact them online.

Bike Community activities and how to find them

The cycling infrastructure in Helsinki is still far from excellent or ready, so the local cycling and environmental NGOs Helsinki Cyclists and Friends of the Earth Helsinki organise Kriittinen Pyöräretki, a Critical Mass-type demonstration ride every second Tuesday of the month. The routes are planned so that the group (sometimes nearly 300 riders strong and with police escort clearing the streets ahead from motorized traffic) crowd the streets and corners of the city that are unsafe to ride at the moment. If you happen to be in town, I would recommend not to miss it. The rides always start with speeches at 5.30 pm in the city centre (Narinkka square) and riding starts at 6 pm.

The Pyöräpaja (Bike Kitchen) arranges special events like tall bike jousting and monster bike workshops where people are encouraged to go crazy with welding equipment and all the excess frames and parts to create unique and usually quite intimidating-looking vehicles. Participate at your own risk, but you will surely have a fun day doing it. Check their website in Finnish or post a question on their Facebook page to find out about future events.

Helsingin Polkupyöräilijät (Helsinki Cyclists) is an active cycling advocacy organisation representing the needs of all the different cyclist groups. Apart from lobbying  by issuing statements and appeals to the city planning department, they organise road bike club rides, day trips and public events for bike commuters. In short, there is a cycling event somewhere almost every single day during the on-season. Check in into their Facebook group and ask the super-active community what interesting events are coming up during your stay.

Fixie and single speed-riders have an active community called in the Helsinki Metropolitan area, and they sometimes arrange alley cats (street criterium races), velodrome meets and the occasional bike polo bouts. The nice bunch of people they are, Yksivaihde-activists have gathered in english some of the essential places to be and other useful information for your pleasure in one of their massive forum’s threads.

Bicycle repair

In the lively art and bar district of Kallio, along Helsinginkatu street, you can find more bike and repair shops in a square kilometer area than anywhere else in the city, 6 in total. Just take the metro train to Sörnäinen station and start walking Helsinginkatu toward west. You can’t miss, at least not all of them.

One of the shops is Youth Behind Bars, not actually a business but a youth project by a non-government organisation. You can read more about Youth Behind Bars and their quality bike maintenance tips for beginners in another Bike Citizens magazine article.

In case their little shop is already filled-up with bikes, go and check out the rest. And even if you are staying a long way from Sörnäinen, there are still quality bike shops in almost every district of the city with more being established every year to serve the ongoing cycling renaissance.

City bike share system and bicycle rental

How do you get a bike in Helsinki, and how do you get around the city? If you’re staying in a hotel, I would first check if they offer bikes to borrow. If not just use the brand new yellow ‘Alepa’ city bikes which are situated all around the centre and in use from beginning of May till the end of October.

The system launched in May 2016 with 500 bikes in 50 locations. For 2017 the capacity will be tripled to 1500 bikes in 150 locations. Once you have registered as a user and paid for your pass for day, week or the whole season the bikes are free to use for 30 minute rides at a time.

If yellow just isn’t your colour, or you wish your ride to have more or less gears than three, please check out the following rental businesses. It is a good idea to email well beforehand to make sure they are open, especially during the period considered as “off-season”, roughly September – April.

Bicycle paths and trails

All you need to navigate in Helsinki is the Bike Citizens navigation app which you can set to take you to see many of the city’s foremost sights.

The best cycling infrastructure in Helsinki can be found in the centre area. There you can spot the “Baana”-bicycle and pedestrian highways, of which the first and the most well-known was built in an old freight railway canyon in the middle of the centre. Even though the more recent additions are one-way bike lanes in inviting bright red, most of the bike paths are two-way, and more often than not, shared with pedestrians on the pavement. Some of the paths are just mysterious and make you wonder what might have been the logic behind their design. These paths make you change from one side of the street to the other for no clear reason, and some just appear and disappear out of nowhere.

Keep your eyes open

There are also streets where there is no cycling path available, and the pavement is for pedestrians only. If you are over 12 years old, then your options are to walk your bike on the pavement or ride the roadway with cars and buses. So here’s the thing; if you ride with the cars, some may give you a honk to inform you they think you are somewhere you’re not supposed to be. This is partly due to a very long history of car-oriented traffic planning culture in Helsinki (and everywhere else in Finland) and partly because the traffic laws concerning cycling in Helsinki are confusing to both car drivers and cyclists. So just keep your eyes open out there and you’ll be fine.

This will get you started, the rest is up to you to discover your Helsinki

I hope the article has given you some insight and inspiration to give Helsinki a go, and that you will have a wonderful time on your bike during your present or future stay. The people here are really friendly and happy to help you to find your way and what cool things might be happening just around the next corner. Enjoy your rides!

Markus Seppälä is an invasive species biologist who has lived in Helsinki all his life. He has a burning passion for anything and everything cycling related. He was former project manager and designer for Box Bike Helsinki.
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