Smart ideas from Helsinki

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While not proposing that the city goes entirely car-free, Helsinki’s smart planners know that mobility must keep up with the digital age.

In a move that could transform our view of transport within urban areas, Helsinki has unveiled a plan that might make car ownership a thing of the past. Helsinki aims to surpass conventional public transport by allowing customers to control their mobility purchases straight from their smartphones.  By doing so the city hopes to ensure that through combining all mobility and offering the least expensive alternatives public transport and other transportation options will become a competitive alternative to car use.

In essence it would be a one-stop-shop marketplace. Subscribers would specify their departure point and destination with a few preferences with the app functioning as both a journey planner as a universal payment platform, eliminating the need to outline the best applicable journey. It would essentially be a mix of existing services such as the popular transit Planner Citymapper, a bike service like Villo, and a taxi app such as Uber where only one payment would be required with the whole system running as a public utility.

Helsinki’s new plans were unveiled only a year after introducing a strikingly innovative minibus service called Kutsuplus which lets riders specify their own desired origin and destination from their smartphone.

This slow transition to a ‘mobility on demand’ system whereby public, private and shared systems are merged to form a single final service hopes to ultimately eliminate the need for car ownership among city residents. Although a few of these services prove to be more costly than traditional public or private transport method (Kutsuplus costs $4.75 user fee plus 60 cents per km) its greater flexibility offers an added value to customers.

This new system was devised by Sonja Heikkilä, a 24 year-old Helsinki transport engineer who wrote a master thesis that essentially lay the blueprints for mobility on demand in the city. She ultimately envisions the service as an actual marketplace where private companies all pursue the best packaging and planning transportation for customers to choose from. For this end she argues that the city government should not only provide the service itself but also compile and make the data that other firms could use public; necessitating the altering of legislation and regulation to facilitate the new service.

One of the most crucial questions that will need to be answered is whether this scheme can work in lower-density municipalities around compact, central cities like Helsinki.

One thing that is very important to keep in mind is that Helsinki is not proposing to go entirely car free but that it has become an inherent need in the digital age to revolutionise the way public transport works. Perhaps it can serve as a prime example for other cities willing to undertake this important step into the future.

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