Science, Tech & Environment

The city of Helsinki imagines a car-less and more care-free future

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A tram moves in the Helsinki winter. City planners predict current roadways and subways will not be able to support Helsinki’s growing population unless a smart phone-based mobility service is implemented to make better use of resources.

Credit:

Niklas Sjöblom/City of Helsinki Tourist & Convention Bureau

In Helsinki, the capital of Finland, the city’s current transportation system is overstretched and short of money. City streets have no room left for more car traffic or parking. City planners have a novel solution: “mobility as a service.”

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Mobility as a service would take the job of figuring out how to get from point A to point B out of users’ hands. The system would use a mix of local public transport, long distance public transport, car sharing, the city bike system and car rentals.

“The basic idea is you have a transportation operator that takes care of arranging your transport,” explains Ville Lehmuskoski, Helsinki’s director of transport and traffic planning. “You have an interface provided by this transport operator, and in the interface you test the [travel] points, then get the options and the prices for the different options.”

Lehmuskoski envisions a mobile phone or computer application that would handle all the transactions and scheduling. Current mobile phone or public transport companies could operate them, or maybe new companies would emerge, or maybe a mix of all three.

Investing in shared modes of transit, based on needs, will save money, reduce traffic congestion, and improve travel comfort and convenience, Lehmuskoski says.

In the current “mobility system,” people own their cars, which, Lehmuskoski notes, is a big investment. But cars are not in use 96 or 97 percent of the time, he points out: Most of the time they are parked somewhere, taking up space. Family money is tied up in cars anyway, which is a “very ineffective use of capital.”

“When there's not that big a need for capital in cars, it makes the system as a whole much more efficient, in terms of both public money and private money,” Lehmuskoski contends. Even better, if you use mobility as a service, you get just the kind of car you need for every trip.

For example, he says, “at some point you need your Toyota Corolla; at some point you would like to have a van; at some point you would like to have some sport car; and you also have the possibility to take public transport, take bikes, take also different kind of bikes. You can always take the best option.”

And when people have all these options and only pay per use, not as an investment, then more citizens will choose to use sustainable transport instead of cars, which could dramatically change traffic congestion and parking headaches in the capital.

“In the future, there's a lot of parking available because the cars are [always] moving. The cars that are needed take one passenger from place A to place B, then continue — so the number of cars is maybe half of today, or even less. So there's much more space in the city. There are more cyclists, more public transport users — and there are happy car users.”

Helsinki has some small pilot projects underway, but Lehmuskoski says mobility as a service as he imagines it will take at least five years to become a reality. But he is certain the system will eventually be easier and cheaper — both for the private person who uses it and for the whole society.  

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood