The Kutsusplus on-demand bus system in action (Ajelo)

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How Helsinki plans to make the car obsolete

27 August 2014 | By Rod Sweet | 0 Comments

By 2025, public transport in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, will be so slick, convenient and affordable that private car ownership will just wither away.

That is the hope of the Finnish ministry of transport, and it won’t come about through some old-style push for buses and trains but through a digital revolution, in which private-sector suppliers can meet the population’s diverse “mobility” needs thanks to reams of data being collected right now.

Finland is a Traffic Lab– Henna Virkkunen, Finland's transport minister

It could look something like this: to go shopping, you use your mobile device to book an on-demand mini-bus service; if you missed the early train to work, you book a ride-share with the sort of people you like to mix with; to take the family on holiday by the sea, you rent a car.

Bikes are available for a minimal rental fee everywhere, and so are secure, versatile lockers for stashing bags and packages. And if traffic, weather, or roadworks threaten to disrupt your journey, an online travel planner is constantly updating you with other options.

The beauty of the vision is that all these services are accessed and paid for through one, simple online platform that commoditises “mobility” itself and lets you pay, quite literally, as you go.

It could even be that, like telecoms firms, companies compete to offer mobility packages, giving users the opportunity to switch over to suppliers who offer a better deal.

Visionary Finland wanted fresh thinking for its transportation revolution, so it commissioned transport engineer Sonja Heikkilä to lay the visionary groundwork. Her paper, which she submitted as a master’s thesis at Aalto University in April, sets out an action plan for Finnish authorities to unleash “Mobility as a Service”.

“The vision is that all kinds of [transport] services will be used together through a single portal,” Heikkilä said in an interview with Eeva Haaramo, writing for ZDNet.com. “In addition to traditional public transport, it would include taxis, car-sharing, and services that don’t even exist yet. A proactive route planner will suggest journeys based on real-time traffic data and alert users to changes caused by accidents or changes in weather conditions.”

Data is key to the new system, which is why, in June this year, the Finnish ministry of transport launched a comprehensive data-gathering platform called “Traffic Lab” in partnership between local government and businesses. Traffic Lab pays companies for anonymous traffic data they collect from private vehicles whose owners have opted in to the system. The data could include traffic information and driving logs from traffic apps or in-car navigation systems.

Politicians are quite enthusiastic: “I now declare Finland as the country for open traffic experiments,” said transport minister Henna Virkkunen following the launch. “Finland is a Traffic Lab.”

The point of the project, says the transport ministry, is to promote a market for “intelligent transport services” in co-operation between authorities, companies and research facilities. 

The data will shine new light on how and when people move, and will be made available to entrepreneurs who feel they can offer new mobility packages, such as the scenarios outlined above, to Helsinki residents.

Authorities admit they don’t even know yet what new forms of getting around might emerge from what scholar Sonja Heikkilä calls the new “ecosystem” formed by good, real-time data, an internet-enabled mobility marketplace, transport technology, and sheer entrepreneurial flair.

But providing a clue to the possibilities is “Kutsuplus”, an on-demand minibus service trialled in Helsinki since 2013.

As described by Eeva Haaramo in ZDNet, Kutsuplus uses a proprietary platform developed by Finnish tech start-up Ajelo. Passengers book a Kutsuplus minibus online and once the request is filed, the system determines which of a 15-strong fleet of minibuses is best positioned to collect the passenger. The minibuses are dynamically rerouted by the system all day according to demand.

Currently Kutsuplus has more than 13,000 registered users. A trip costs less than a taxi but more than a bus, and you pay using an ‘trip wallet’ that can be topped up and shared by family members or co-workers.

Ajelo claims the platform can be scaled up to support fleet sizes of more than 1,000 vehicles.

This could be just the start of services that turn people away from the now-dominant model of private car ownership in Helsinki.

“The city wants to build a framework for an open market where companies can operate and offer their services in different combinations,” Sonja Heikkilä told ZDNet. “The City doesn’t want to decree what services are offered, but help to facilitate the establishment of an ecosystem that enables private companies to produce a variety of them.”

Transport planners will be watching keenly to see how Helsinki plan unfolds, especially as it could signal a cheaper alternative to expensive and risky infrastructure mega schemes.

As the ministry of transport said in a statement upon the launch of Traffic Lab: “The goal is that the Finnish transport system will be one of the most advanced in the world, that transport policy will address the mobility problems instead of just building infrastructure...”