With its 600,000 residents spread across 276 square miles (715 km2), the population density of Helsinki, Finland is relatively low compared to other major European cities. Buses, trams and ferries fortunately make it easy to move about the city and greater metropolitan area, but city transportation officials believe Helsinki can do even better as it continues to grow. By leveraging telecommunications and nudging the various cogs within the city’s transport system to improve their services, Finland’s capital could achieve what for now seems impossible: making car ownership obsolete.
To that end, Helsinki is considering a holistic transportation plan that would enable users to map out their route via a smartphone. True, many cities already have similar technologies enabled for residents and visitors, but in Helsinki, this would be far more seamless. Rather than paying for each leg of a trip, or requiring passes and memberships (as in for a bike-sharing program), Helsinki’s citizens would simply pay by the route, kilometer or a set monthly fee.
Sonja Heikkilä, a transport engineer at the Helsinki City Planning Department, outlines such a vision many describe as “mobility on demand.” Analogous to what we are facing with utilities (and their stubbornness towards clean energy), Ms. Heikkilä argues in her master’s thesis that while transportation is improving and has become more modern, the systems delivering them have not. As she explains, we use various tools to book travel, are quick to change telecommunications services if we perceive fees to be too high . . . and to add to that, we increasingly use the sharing economy to borrow or rent items and services that in the past we would simply buy.
Transportation as a service, not something most of us simply purchase—whether it is a car or monthly bus pass—is key such a system succeeding. In the world Ms. Heikkilä describes, a commuter may take a tram a few stops then a shared bicycle to get to the office; but in the event he or she goes to the gym or downtown to meet friends, that person can use a shared car and bus to travel that different route. The big difference—streamlined payment — would vary sharply with systems such as the Bay Area’s Clipper Card, which is still expensive and cumbersome to use.
Such a scenario converges with a long-term trend occurring worldwide: the slow decline in car ownership. More citizens delay the scoring of their drivers’ licenses, and therefore buying cars, for several reasons: their cost and hassles, and many people now have a total lack of interest. Automobiles will never go away of course: but the fact most cars sit idle 90 to 95 percent of the time has spurred owners to rent their cars out for short trips. Other owners already reduce the cost of car ownership by sharing rides with commuters. In any event, the integration of these automobile services with other forms of transportation could render car ownership pointless by 2025, as explained in a local Helsinki daily. City officials are already working with a local Finnish company to test such a system in early 2015.
Change is already underway in Helsinki. The city recently launched its Kutsuplus service, a fleet of on-demand minibuses that allows commuters to determine their own customized routes and schedule and pay for the trip with a smartphone. Similar to the “maxi cabs” and “minibuses” in Hong Kong and collectivo routes found throughout smaller Latin American cities, these mini buses cost more than scheduled public transportation services but far cheaper than taxis.
Much needs to change in order for Helsinki to accomplish this plan. The regulatory environment needs to adapt, telecommunications systems must work as flawlessly as possible and various transportation agencies need to work together—the latter of which bedevils regions such as the greater New York and San Francisco Bay areas, where the myriad of transport agencies often work more as fiefdoms than public services. Furthermore, ingrained attitudes resulting from what is now century-long history of car ownership will make it hard for many citizens to change their habits. But as transport becomes more modern and more of us become comfortable with the concept of shared transport, scenarios such as what is planned in Helsinki could catch on throughout Europe: and maybe even this side of the pond.
Image credit: Visit Helsinki