Helsinki Has a Plan to Get People to Stop Owning Cars

A system being developed in Finland would allow people to subscribe to all kinds of mobility options and pay for everything on their phones

Traffic jam.jpg
The movement to dramatically reduce car traffic is picking up speed. Flickr user joiseyshowaa

Cars overcrowd the world’s cities, locking people into a commuting model that pretty much guarantees gridlock. To handle all of those vehicles, almost half of the space in cities is taken up by roads and what’s known in the urban planning business as “transportation storage”—what the rest of us call garages and parking lots. Considering that by mid-century, more than two out of every three people on Earth will live in metropolitan areas, all that space will be badly needed.

So what’s a city to do?

Helsinki, Finland, is thinking boldly: if its plans come to fruition, by 2025 no one in the city will need to own a car. While it may seem inconceivable, planners there believe that by combining one of the pillars of 20th century urban mobility—mass transit—with two of today’s more potent trends—the sharing economy and all-purpose smartphones—they can make car ownership a quaint concept.

Why drive?

The Finnish city has committed to a concept called “mobility on demand,” in which a wide range of transportation options from buses to driverless cars to bikes would be meshed together into one system that a person could use to order any trip on a smartphone. The passenger would need to enter just an origin and a destination, and the mobile app at the heart of the program would do the rest, selecting the most appropriate modes of transportation and mapping the best route based on real-time traffic data.

Everything would be covered through one payment plan, either through a monthly charge, like the taxi service Uber, or a pay-as-you-go option. Users would be able to monitor their costs and adjust how they use different means of getting around.

The plan offers door-to-door service that would eliminate the first-mile and last-mile complications of getting to and from public transit. And trips would be customized based on their purpose. For instance, since you wouldn’t need an empty car to get to the grocery store, a bike through a sharing program might be arranged, but a driverless car would be recommended to get you and all your food home. If the weather’s expected to change, you’d get an alert so you’d be able to switch your ride. 

If the concept evolves as imagined by its inventor, a traffic engineer named Sonja Heikkilä, the multi-modal transit system wouldn’t be run by the government, but would be built around multiple apps created by different private companies. They would compete by packaging transit options for people who could subscribe to a plan, with the option of switching to a different one, much as people can with cell phone service today.

The bus stops here

To have such a complex program functioning in a decade or so clearly is an ambitious goal, but Helsinki already has one piece in place. Last year it rolled out an on-demand minibus service called Kutsuplus (Finnish for “call plus”), and so far it’s living up to expectations. 

Once people sign up for the service, they use their smartphones to order rides on the nine-passenger vehicle. They can also request a private trip at a higher fee. Then the system’s proprietary software kicks in, determining which of its 15 minibuses is in the best location to pick up and deliver a passenger to his or her destination. Adjustments are made throughout the day as buses are routed and rerouted around the city to provide the most direct routes for those who make requests. Since it works on the fly, the Kutsuplus system may have to do millions of calculations on a busy day to dynamically move buses around to service its customers. More than 13,000 people have now signed up.

Fees are more expensive than bus fares, but about half the price of taxis. Helsinki officials say they don’t want to put cabs out of business, but instead are trying to entice more people to switch to public transportation, particularly those who currently opt to drive themselves rather than make multiple bus changes for their commute. There’s even free Wi-Fi.

Where people drive when

Now the Finns have taken another step in the reinvention of their travel ecosystem. Since planners will need to know as much as possible about their citizens’ travel habits and patterns, the government has launched a partnership with private companies to collect anonymous data from the cars of their employees.

Through the program, called Traffic Lab, Finland’s Ministry of Transport will pay companies for driving data from people who opt into the research. Information will be collected from traffic apps or in-car navigation systems; not only will that allow officials to stay on top of problems in real time, but it will also build a deep cache of driving data that ultimately could be made available to entrepreneurs creating “mobility packages” of the future.

Will the experiment be successful?

On a very small scale, mobility on demand has already proven popular with customers in Sweden. As part of a trial last year in the town of Gothenburg, 70 households agreed to pay for a mixed mobility program called UbiGo. They were able to use their UbiGo accounts to arrange and pay for public transit, car sharing, rental cars, taxis and bike sharing. 

None of the households stopped using the service during the six-month trial and most wanted to continue as customers. And while those participating initially did so out of curiosity, they wanted to keep using UbiGo for its convenience. Half of the users said they’ve changed their modes of travel as a result of using the service and 4 out of 10 say they now plan their trips differently. An upgraded version of UbiGo will launch next year in Gothenburg and two more as yet unannounced Swedish cities.

Ryan Chin, managing director of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, has been talking about the need for mobility on demand for years. He's particularly interested in the development of on-demand "city cars"electric vehicles that would actually be foldable so they could fit into a very small space.

But how likely is it for most of the people in a cosmopolitan city like Helsinki to give up their own cars? Even Sonja Heikkilä, the woman behind the mobility on demand plan, acknowledges that it could take some time, particularly for the city’s older residents. 

Heikkilä sees much more promise, however, in the attitudes of the world’s young people. “A car is no longer a status symbol for young people,” she told the Helsinki Times. “On the other hand, they are more adamant in demanding simple, flexible and inexpensive transportation.”

She believes that this is a generation whose members feel better defined by their mobile devices than by a car. A vehicle for them, she says, has become more a means to an end. So it may not be farfetched to believe that cars may one day be viewed as just one of many mobility solutions.

Ordered up on a cell phone, of course.

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