The Guardian‘s excellent environmental coverage has been supplemented by a new section on cities, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Here, we learn about an ambitious plan in Helsinki, Finland, to create a revolutionary “mobility on demand” system by 2025. The system would enable all “shared and public transport” to be paid for with a single payment network available via smartphones. People would create their own transportation infrastructure from scratch. This is a complete rethinking of urban mobility for the age of ubiquitous connectivity.
The Guardian writes: “The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible, and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.”
Helsinki residents will use a new app to simply indicate start and end points, with perhaps a few preferences for mode of transit. “The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.” The app would be like Google Maps mated with a public Uber, but across all transportation options.
This city-wide mobility-on-demand system may build off of the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority’s new minibus service, Kutsuplus, which already lets riders indicate their own origins and destinations. With Kutsuplus, “requests are aggregated, and the app calculates an optimal route that most closely satisfies all of them.” Kutsuplus is expected to reduce car ownership, and even Zipcar membership.
The Guardian wonders whether this system can actually work in practice for everyone though. Riders would need a smartphone to be able to buy in. While this may work for upwardly mobile segments of Helsinki, does everyone there actually own a smartphone? What about the elderly, or people with disabilities?
Getting cost right will also be important. As an example, “Kutsuplus costs more than a conventional journey by bus, but less than a taxi fare over the same distance – and Goldilocks-style, that feels just about right.” How much will people pay extra for mobility on demand? And should they even pay extra, if this is to be a publicly-managed service?
Furthermore, could this model actually work elsewhere? The Guardian asks whether mobility on demand will be as effective in the spread-out, low-density suburbs of Helsinki.
And further afield, is this model transferable? Cities in the developing world that don’t have well-established public transportation systems (buses or subways) already rely on a network of private mini-buses and vans to move people around. These form a decentralized network that also responds to supply and demand. Could a Helsinki model be superimposed on such systems? And could it augment recent developments? Many developing world cities are moving towards more a more integrated public transportation network, often with new bus-rapid-transit (BRT) systems as the backbone. According to The City Fix from EMBARQ, 31 million urbanites now use BRT.
App-based urban transportation experiments are underway, perhaps showing the way to a new form of mobility. Almost all major urban transportation systems in the U.S. and Europe have their own apps that enable easy route planning; that’s a new thing. San Francisco is even testing an app to manage supply and demand for parking spaces. Uber and other taxi-on-demand services are now ubiquitous in the developed world, and have even caused widespread protests in Europe. But can an app really kill the car?