Sustainability conceptualisation, operationalisation, and realisation – perspectives on urban transportation policy-making and planning

Activity: Academic assessments Pre-examination of doctoral thesis or acting as opponent to doctoral students or membership of doctoral thesis committee or board


Sustainability is a globally prominent guideline in policy-making and
planning, with cities currently leading the way by pursuing sustainability
transitions locally. The urban transportation sector is no exception in this
regard. Urban transportation sustainability (UTS) pursues accessible,
affordable, safe, and just mobility, efficient operations and investments, and
lower levels of emissions, pollution, resource use, and other environmental
impacts. Such a system requires long-term commitment to policies alongside
wide and cooperative collaboration between diverse actors within
municipalities, as well as between their surrounding regions and the national
While sustainability promotes a tri-dimensional approach that addresses
environmental, social, and economic aspects together, local applications have
been found to mostly focus on environmental and efficiency-related issues.
The simultaneously marginalised social aspects of sustainability tend to be the
most relevant to local citizens, as they touch upon the diverse perceptions,
experiences, needs, and vulnerabilities of the population. If sustainability is
narrowly conceptualised, it likely leads to a narrower set of measures selected
and implemented as a solution, as well as potentially limited indicator use
when monitoring these measures locally. Together, they affect the urban
context that is created as a result of policy-making and planning. Thus, critical
exploration of the links between conceptualisation, operationalisation, and
realisation of UTS is needed.
This thesis directly addresses the space between concept and practice that has
been overlooked in transportation policy research and is in need of connecting.
Specifically, the following two-fold research question is posed: RQ1 (A) How
is UTS conceptualised and operationalised in municipal policy-making and
planning, and (B) in what ways does (A) affect the realisation of sustainability
in cities? An integrative analytical framework is applied to analyse the journey
of UTS from an idea to a reality through the stages of the policy cycle. This
thesis presents an interdisciplinary policy analysis that is rooted in empiricism
and realism. It draws from environmental social sciences, geography, policy
studies, and urban planning to cover each step of the policy cycle, to utilise
diverse datasets and mixed methods, as well as to incorporate viewpoints from
academia, municipal policy-makers and planners, and citizens. The
viewpoints are synthesised as integrated perspectives to answer the research
question reliably and broadly.
The data consists of academic research articles that focus on UTS assessments
(Paper I), municipal policy-maker and planner interviews that focus on
political agenda formation (Paper II), and household car ownership statistics
that focus on different types of carlessness (Paper III). Mixed methods are
applied to both data collection and analysis. The methods consist of a systematic review, semi-structured interviews, thematic analysis, and
statistical analysis. Local cases representative of the Nordics (Helsinki,
Finland; Oslo, Norway; Stockholm, Sweden) are utilised.
The key findings reveal that UTS in practice is most prominently framed
through climate change and carbon emissions. Despite this politically
established direction, car travel presents a significant challenge to UTS
realities even though current policies strongly address emissions.
Furthermore, the UTS focus throughout the policy cycle is on the quantitative
and easily measured emissions, traffic volumes, and accidents. The limited
UTS coverage is guided by politics and begins in the agenda setting phase,
carries onto the measure selection and implementation phase, and finally onto
the monitoring phase, producing an application of UTS that marginalises
many social and qualitative aspects. The narrow monitoring of UTS then loops
back to problem definition and agenda setting. Academic assessments display
the same disregard towards diverse and comprehensive indicator and data
use, and display minimal efforts to broaden their approaches to sustainability
to produce more conclusive results. A vicious circle that does not fully account
for sustainability as a concept nor as a reality is thus created.
The notion of accounting for social equity and planning for the most
vulnerable is largely missing from current practices, yet it presents a reality to
many citizens as empirically detected in Paper III. UTS ought to be broadly
framed throughout the policy cycle to diversely understand and sensitively
include different citizen realities, vulnerability, and other aspects of
sustainability into the policy-making and planning processes. This thesis
empirically demonstrates that while on the surface UTS appears to be
advancing – regarding political agendas, solution implementation, and
evaluations – a critical in-depth analysis of its conceptualisation,
operationalisation, and realisation reveals major issues and further
implications in sustainability coverage and sensitivity. Currently, UTS is
mainly advanced within the existing system and practices, and no significant
changes in decision-making and planning (including assessments) are visible.
The narrow view on sustainability is applied in practice throughout the policy
cycle and round again, disregarding the purpose and comprehensiveness of
the UTS paradigm, as well as the complex citizen realities.
Period1 Nov 2022
ExamineeLinda Karjalainen
Examination held at
  • University of Helsinki
Degree of RecognitionInternational