‘Oh Lucky Tampere, It Looks Like a Proper City Centre Now’: Reflections on a Visit to a New Tram Network

Interview by Adam Borch

On Wednesday 15 September 2021, PUTSPACE visited to the new tram in Tampere, Finland. The trip was arranged by our PhD student, Aleksandra Ianchenko, and along with her came Jason Finch, Silja Laine, Louise Sträuli, Zeynep Correira and Adam Borch.

Unlike other large Finnish cities such as Helsinki and Turku, Tampere has not previously had a tram so it was an entirely new mode of transport that started operating in the city on 9 August 2021. At present, the network consists of two lines, no.1 from Pyynikintori to Hervantajärvi and no.3 from Sorin aukio to Kaupin kampus, but further lines are already under constructions.

During our visit, we travelled the full length of line 3, but, rather than doing it in one go, we jumped on/off to explore various aspects of the network, especially the numerous artworks that has been constructed along the lines. Among these were of course the two electrical boxes on Itsenäisyydenkatu adorned with Aleksandra’s art. Also on the agenda was a talk with Laura Lehtinen (coordinator of the trams’ art programme).

After our visit, we wanted to collect and share our impressions of the Tampere tram and we did so in the form of the following email interview.

First, was it your first time in Tampere? And your first ride on the city’s new tram?

Jason: Not my first time in Tampere but was my first ride on the Tampere tramway!

Silja: I know Tampere from before and have been following closely the construction of the new tram, but this was my first ride.

Zeynep: Yes, it was my first time in Tampere and first ride on the city’s new tram.

Adam: I have family in nearby Nokia, so I’ve been to Tampere many times. But it was my first time on the tram. Because of the pandemic, it’s been a while since I was in Tampere. Last time, the centre was a big construction site – because of the tram.

Louise: It was actually my first visit to the city of Tampere and thus also the first ride on the city’s new tram. For me, the whole day trip was marked by highly interesting insights into the planning and design of the new tramline. It was impressive because of the surprising simplicity of travel. I left Tallinn in the morning and travelled comfortably via Helsinki to Tampere and from there to Turku. Since the travel restrictions due to COVID-19, this was a surprisingly pleasant and smooth travel experience involving a variety of different modes of public transportation.

Aleksandra: It was my second time in Tampere. I visited the city first in February 2020, specifically to learn more about the tram project and its art program. I met with Antti Hauka, Project Manager of the Tramway Development Program at the Tramway Alliance office which at that time was right next to the railway station. He told me about the tramway art program and gave a short tour along the part of the becoming tram line – from the railway station to the central square. The construction was in full swing – workers and machines were digging the ground, the street was blocked and fenced by construction fences, noises and clouds of dust everywhere. In the midst of this, there were some temporary art pieces – posters on fences, installations from recycled materials and construction wastes, sculptures made from those trees which were fallen in order make way for the tram. It was a part of the tramway art program. It commissioned various art pieces during different phases of the tram project. Antti explained what kind of artworks are planned and where they will be located. As time passes, I am happy to see that all those plans, which existed only as ideas or sketchwa actually come to life. After talking to Antti, I went at my own towards Itsenäisyydenkatu where rails and platforms were already built. Looking at the almost finished tram infrastructure (there were poles but not yet wires), I had a feeling that the tram was just about to arrive.

Of course, knowing about the project and being one of the artists who did artworks for the tramway art program, I was eager to travel to Tampere again and to see and take a ride on the new tram. When I exited the railway station, I immediately noticed the difference: before it had been fences, now it is accurately laid pavement and tram rails. The presence of the tram is evident right away – red tram cars elegantly pass through arcades of black poles stretching along the street.

We met Laura Lehtinen (coordinator of the trams’ art programme). What, in your opinion, particularly stood out from our talk with her?

Silja: How happy she was about the results. And how history, art and politics were in a good balance in the project.
Louise: What impressed me most from the conversation with Laura was the openness and diversity with which the project team incorporated artistic projects into the development of the new tram line, thus creating a unique experience of public space and public art.

Aleksandra: It was striking to hear that the art program has engaged 77 artists. It is impressive! And it is a great opportunity (and support) for artists, because the program initiated not only large (like landmark pieces) but also small commissions (like a poetry on the tram window). And of course, it was interesting to hear stories such as the one about a campaign for the tram to be pink. It actually reminds me of the artwork  Pipilotti Rist did in Geneva.

Zeynep: It was fascinating artists got a chance to engage in different forms and expressions of art within the context of the tram lıne. To me it really stood out how the tram project provided a venue for small projects from emerging artists. I believe this was particularly important for these artists to find a venue for artistic expression during the times of severe isolation and restrictions.

Jason: How well Laura handled the points about there being different stakeholders in Tampere with different points of view on the tramway and, indeed, on the city’s history and how it should develop, present itself in the present day. I was struck by the contrast with Turku where similar discussions seem mired in these ‘I’m in this camp and then there are the enemies in the other camp’ kind of perspective. At least in my own limited point of view, and with my limited knowledge of Finnish, this seemed impressive. Clearly there were different points of view in Tampere, but also, they overcame the differences and achieved things together.

Adam: I can’t help mentioning something only peripherally related to the tram. Laura told that she had lived in the corner building on Hämeenkatu and Aleksis Kiven katu, just next to the tram stop where we met her. In the attic, she told, is a wall filled with bullet holes. A place for executions during the Civil War. We came to talk about it after discussing the colour of the trams – red having a particular resonance in Tampere, one of the headquarters of the communist faction during the Civil War.

What’s your impression of the tram’s artwork? Was there any particular piece of art you liked or disliked?

Silja: Loved it!!! We didn’t get the chance to see them all, but I particularly liked the end stop and writings in the windows. The overall thing about doing many small projects instead of a single monumental one is a great thing. It goes well with the tram and with Finnish culture.

Adam: I think it’s impressive how much art has been incorporated into the tram network. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t to my taste, I’d say. I like Aleksandra’s work. And I think the specially-designed stop at Pyynikintori was cool. I would have liked to take a closer look there.

Zeynep: I particularly loved the texts that framed the tram’s windows. I even joked that there is no longer a need to bring your own book to the tram, you can continue reading the text the next day from where you left when you get on the tram. Laura has mentioned children were also involved in the “text frame”  project and have composed texts that took inspiration from the tram.

Jason: Apart from the obvious (I liked Aleksandra’s pieces very much), I very much liked the look of the box near the railway station containing images of Tampere. There was nothing I objected to but I felt that the artwork around stops (Pyynikintori and then the place were the mosaic was) seemed a bit isolated. That was my perspective in general: the art around the tramway could keep developing rather than just be ‘done’ when the technical side is done. This might require more freedom for artists to ‘do their thing’ rather than go through long approval processes.

Louise: I would say that overall, I found the approach of incorporating a broad variety of artistic works to the construction sites, stations and trams themselves very impressive as a whole. I would have found it helpful – as Laura mentioned, this is also being planned – to have a booklet or online guide that helps one locate the artworks and visit them deliberately. I really liked the different graphics on the electric boxes, especially Aleksandra’s of course, as they playfully add colour to the grey urban environment. However, although I found the artwork spreading literature snippets on the tram windows interesting as a concept, I found it rather difficult to read due to the language and the arrangement on the edges of the windows.

Aleksandra: Here I have to switch identities and speak as an artist who takes part in the project and then as a researcher who studies tramways as a space for art.

As an artist, I am very happy to be part of such a big project and have my art in the city. It is a big honor and responsibility. It was a great pleasure to work on this commission first, because the process was very nicely coordinated, and second, because I had a chance to exercise my skills on creating a visual art piece (basically, a large painting) for public space. This is precisely what I studied at my first education at Irkutsk University.

As a researcher, I see the Tampere case as an embodiment of my hypothesis that tramway infrastructure is a unique and very promising space for art. First, tramcars and tram platforms offer a space for visual (for instance, sculptures and installations) as well as for performative art. Furthermore, tramcars are painted or wrapped over as large mobile paintings. Second, tram art (if we may label it in this way) is accessible by a very broad audience because public transport in itself is a place which is used by a great diversity of people. Third, art in public spaces may pursue different aims, but there is always a moment of surprise and spontaneity. Although not everyone would pay attention to artistic or decorative elements on public transport, but for some encountering art in the midst of their everyday activities might be insightful, as art evokes emotions and provokes thoughts.

In this sense, the Tampere art program is an excellent example of a tram network that becomes an open air art space filled with artworks in various media. And the program works in both directions: it provides passengers with a great opportunity to see art and artists – to make art.  Furthermore, the works of art placed everywhere along the route make traveling on the tram a unique aesthetic experience and makes it feel like play. I felt it when we were, so to say, spotting for art while looking out of the tram window. It is interesting to see how artistic ideas come to life, and I am looking forward to the new creative works which are planned for the future extension of the tram line.

We paid a lot of attention to trams’ artwork, but what about other aspects of the network?

Louise: Indeed, our visit was mainly focused on the artwork, which of course also makes the planning, design and character of the tram in Tampere unique. Beyond the artwork I was intrigued by the way the local authorities decided to restructure the public transport network within the city. Several central bus lines were cancelled and organised in a way that they feed into the main axis served by the tram. Without knowing much more about the effects of this restructuring yet, I hope this increases the accessibility to public transport for most of Trampere’s inhabitants. While riding on the tram, I noticed that the tramline was running at a high frequency, was well frequented and used by a wide variety of population groups during different hours of the day. The tram itself seems to me to be designed in an exemplary accessible way, with deep-floor entrances and plenty of space to move around and rest in the entrance areas. This was also confirmed by numerous people with walking aids and prams who used the tram during the observed period.
 Jason: The stops and the vehicles themselves were very impressive. I’ve seen the green grass under the tram thing elsewhere (Paris’s new tramway in the area south/east of the centre, I think) and it works very well.

Zeynep: For me it felt like the tram has always been there. It is a very natural fit to the city. When we consider the high number of riders, we can assume it is also a fit for denizens’ daily commuting needs. The tram line felt almost like a “desire line”.

Silja: The overall design was also very stylish. I would need more material to make up my mind about the network. It seemed that the end stop at Hervantajärvi was empty.

Adam: At the moment, it all looks so new and fresh. I thought it looked really good in the city’s environment. It moves on streets which are really wide and doesn’t appear to hinder other kinds of traffic too much. There’s room for it. I think the tram wagons are very nice. They’re smooth and run fairly quiet. But also with a decent speed on the longer stretches. I was also surprised how full it was most of the time.

One thing I wasn’t too impressed with were the new bicycle paths. They were newly constructed in connection with the tram, but I thought they were really poorly marked, difficult to see where they stopped and started on the street. And oddity considering how much attention has been paid to details elsewhere on the network.

How do you think it compares to trams you’ve tried elsewhere in the world?

Louise: The tram itself and the stations reminded me strongly of other modern trams in European cities. The tram interior seems to me to be more spacious and modern, equipped with many small additions such as USB charging ports.

Adam: I come from Denmark where there weren’t any trams when I grew up. And I haven’t really lived for longer anywhere with a functioning tram network, so it’s a mode of transport I often associate with being on holiday. Of the top of my head, I remember riding on trams in Lisbon, Krakow, Helsinki and Tallinn. The Tampere tram feels newer, smoother, sturdier than the others. There was less shaking, rattling. I also thought the payment system was smooth compared to how I remember the other systems. But they might have changed since, of course.

Jason: A real tramway contrasting with the ones in Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand which are secretly on wheels with pneumatic tires! I’m just comparing it with newer tramways here. At least in going to Hervanta it worked better than the US efforts to introduce light rail into cities like Memphis, St Louis and Buffalo, which were hampered by the trams not actually going anywhere useful and thus seeming to be near-empty.

Zeynep: My tram rides are mostly limited to ones in the Asian side of İstanbul, between Kadıköy-Moda, and on the European side by the heritage tramline from Taksim to Tünel. During tram rides in İstanbul, many street art forms are also salient, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as artists and youth found their way of expression through street art. As far as I am aware İstanbul trams’ freeriders who travel by hanging to the tram without having need to pay are absent in Tampere.

Silja: I have never used a tram this new before. I have usually used trams in bigger cities (Tallinn, Helsinki etc).

Describe a specific incident or episode which took place in or around the tram?

Zeynep: I remember an episode when I realized how the closing of the tram doors shielded me from the sensescape of the city, from the erratic cold weather in mid-September and from the yellings of a nervous man at a tram stop.

Jason: Nothing really out of the ordinary happened but I remember when Laura was talking, the great range of people who would appear and the sense of bustle and urgency around them, whenever a tram arrived.

Silja: We went to the tram and a black man was sitting alone. I went to sit next to him. Working on our project has made me very conscious of these kind of things.

Adam: At the stop in Keskustori, a shappy looking man – he looked like a hobo and was definitely a drunk – started shouting obscenities. I first thought he was shouting at Silja, Jason and Zeynep but I’m now not sure if he was shouting at anyone in particular. A bald, rough man in a leather jacket and fatigues got up from the Old Irish Pub across the street, obviously also drunk. He first started staring intently at the drunk, then slowly walk over with eyes fixed on him. He walked all the way up to the drunk, almost nose-to-nose, and I thought this is going to kick off now. But when we boarded the tram, they were shaking hands and seemed amicable. The bald guy stopped the man’s shouting somehow.

Louise: I am specifically interested in how fares are structured and how passengers buy tickets. While buying tickets online seemed easy and straightforward for my colleagues, I noticed that buying tickets on the tram itself can be a bit cumbersome for passengers. The tickets can be validated at the validation machines, one of which is placed at each entrance, either from a prepaid card or directly with a contactless bank card. Firstly,  this leads to a jam at the doors when many passengers board the tram, as every single one has to stop by the machine to validate or purchase a ticket. Secondly, I observed passengers who were somewhat overwhelmed by the technology of the machine. After a man tried several times to buy a ticket with his bank card, I pointed out to him in a friendly manner that the contactless payment point is on the side of the machine and not on the screen. He politely nodded and thanked me with relief. Thirdly, when buying a ticket with the contactless bank card at the machine, I was shown that the payment has been made successfully, but not how much I paid for it or how long the ticket was valid. 

Describe a detail (large or small) about the tram which caught your eye.

Jason: How the (fake) woods boxes for hand disinfectant fitted really well with the use of blond wood in the interior.

Aleksandra: I noticed that tram is used by many different people. I do not know whether it was rush hour, but I felt the tram was always crowded. There were many people on platforms and onboard. And they were all very different – a young hippie-like couple with dreadlocks, mothers with kids, persons on wheel-chair, elderly people. I also heard other languages than Finnish, perhaps Turkish and Chinese. The mix evoked a feeling of being in a big city. Indeed, the tram and its public create a sense of big and dynamic cities. On the other hand, when the tram went outside the city towards Hervanta, I had almost an opposite feeling. The tram passed by forests, fields, and little populated areas, so I felt as if I was on a regional train. In a way, it is true because Hervanta is a remote suburb, almost like a separate town, so in this sense, the city tram suddenly becomes like an intercity express.

Zeynep: Female tram drivers caught my eye as still in most parts of the world, transport related works are male dominated.

Silja: The colour of the tram was perfect, so stylish and respecting the city’s history and character.

Louise: As soon as I got on the tram I noticed the wooden boxes dispensing disinfectant liquid at the entrance. In the following days, I noticed that this is more common in Finnish public transport than in other European cities (of the few that I can talk about). During our COVID-19 research, many passengers mentioned in the interviews that they would feel more comfortable using public transport if disinfectant would be provided in the stations and vehicles. So I noticed positively that this was implemented in the tram in Tampere and also in a very elegant package wrapped in wood. Wooden interiors in public transport are currently in vogue (a fact I learned at the Bus Fair 2019)  as something that should add a touch of nature and homely well-being to the interior of public transport. The trams in Tampere have been designed with this interior trend and the latest requirements of COVID-19 and passengers’ safety in mind.

Adam: As I said, last time I was in Tampere, it was a construction site because the tram. I remember that you couldn’t walk across Hämeensilta. Instead they had made a temporary covered pedestrian bridge on the southside of the bridge. Now, only the rusty, metal pillars were left in the water. Looked like an old, collapsing railway bridge.

Any other thoughts?

Silja: A project well accomplished, in terms of politics, economy, arts and urban culture.

Adam: One thing which struck me was how little of the art I noticed, although we traveled the full stretch of the longest line. Laura told of several things (e.g. a pearl-like piece which stretched over several stops, audio-art, some inscriptions in the granite between the tracks) which I didn’t see at all. Calls for another exploratory trip…

Jason: Just great to see a new tramway transforming a city so positively, at least so it seems. Showed the pictures I’d taken at home in the evening and got the response, ‘oh lucky Tampere, it looks like a proper city centre now!’