How Helsinki is setting the pace in urban transport

The Finnish capital is a leader in Mobility as a Service – a way of combining transport services together into a monthly subscription that covers bus, taxi, bike-share and other mobility services – even car rental. So what are the lessons for other cities looking to create sustainable transport systems?

Home life sustainability mobility How Helsinki is setting the pace in urban transport

Finland may be a small and unassuming country on the northern fringes of Europe, but it is used to punching above its weight when it comes to developing cutting-edge technology. The country has produced great names as diverse as the phone-maker Nokia and the mobile game phenomenon Angry Birds, but today its most important initiative may lie in the field of urban mobility.

The capital, Helsinki, has become a global testing ground for Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS). Often described as the “Netflix of urban transport”, MaaS bundles transit and taxi fares, bike-share trips and other mobility services into a monthly subscription with tickets, real-time data and optimised journey planning accessed via a single data point. In Helsinki the one-stop-shop is an app called Whim.

How Helsinki is setting the pace in urban transport
How Helsinki is setting the pace in urban transport

“Mobility as a Service is the 21st-century equivalent of the Ford Model T,” says Sampo Hietanen, CEO of Maas Global – the company behind Whim – and a key player in the development of MaaS as a concept. “It gave people the freedom to go wherever and whenever they wanted.”

Globally, MaaS platforms are expected to reshape urban transport – by 2018 they had replaced 17.6 million urban private car journeys a year, according to digital-sector analysts Juniper Research, with that figure expected to increase to more than 2.3 billion by 2023. Such a fundamental shift would reduce traffic on the road – cutting congestion and emissions – and free up space currently used for parking cars.

Helsinki leads the way

It's no fluke that Helsinki is at the forefront of the development of MaaS. Surrounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea, there is very limited space for roads and parking so the public transport network is well developed and popular.

More important, perhaps, is the backing of the Finnish ministry of transport, which is trying to foster the right framework for a more “efficient arrangement of publicly subsidised passenger transport by utilising digitalisation, combined transport and different fleet types”.

Public transport providers, for example, offer free access to their data and have paperless ticketing in place. Private mobility providers – from car-share and scooter-hire companies to cabs – can move into the space and compete on a level playing field.

“Helsinki is successful because it has a comprehensive selection of transport types – so accessing transit strictly via the MaaS platform is plausible – and the transit authority and government have been supportive,” says Nick Maynard, author of the Juniper report.

Maynard also praises the role played by Maas Global and, in particular, it's CEO Hietanen, who trained as a civil engineer with a focus on traffic and the economy. “The company has created a really strong vision for MaaS deployment and the role of the company's founder in the birth of MaaS should not be underestimated,” he says.

Mobility on a Whim

The company's Whim app, which launched in December 2017, is not simply a digital platform that allows mobility providers to sell to the customer. It also analyses traveller behaviour so the firm can buy a combination of rides – from bus and tram to taxi and car-share – and turn them into subscription packages. 

There are four levels of service: Whim to Go (pay-as-you-go); Whim Urban (€59 per month for unlimited use of public transportation and city-bikes and also reduced taxi fares); Whim Weekend (€249 per month, including car hire at weekends); and Whim Unlimited (€499 per month for unlimited travel).

“We are old-fashioned in the sense that we buy the parts, package and brand them to meet our customers' needs and then charge for the value we create for the customer,” Hietanen explains. “MaaS has huge potential to provide people with the individual freedom that they desire.”

New ways of getting around

So far, the results are impressive. A study of the app's first year by Ramboll, an engineering and design consultancy, reveals Whim users – more than 70,000 have registered from a population of 630,000 – have quickly adopted multi-modalism and use more than one form of transport on each journey. They also combine public transport and bicycles or taxis to solve the so-called first-mile-last-mile problem – the challenge of connecting large-scale public transport systems with the individual's final destination.

Whim users make 73 per cent of their trips on public transport compared with 48 per cent for non-users, while 42 per cent of all Whim users' city-bike trips are combined with public transportation. “[Whim users] are more open to combining different mobility options and to trying out new mobility services such as city-bikes,” explains Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen, director of Ramboll's Smart Mobility division. “They are using taxis as a first and last mile service three times more than the average Helsinki citizen.

“Should this behaviour become an even more common trend in other cities it will help them solve their congestion problems, make urban areas more pedestrian friendly and help cities meet their sustainability goals.”