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Helsinki Hopes This App Will Make People Ditch Their Cars

The city is testing a platform that lets users plan a trip combining public and private transportation options.
November 17, 2016

Helsinki, on the southern shore of Finland, has a regional population of 1.2 million. Its transportation options include buses, trams, and a metro, not to mention bike rentals in the summertime—yet plenty of people still use cars.

To encourage more of those drivers to use public transportation, the local government is working with a local tech company’s smartphone app. Called Whim, the app lets people combine public transit with car rentals, ride sharing, taxis, and other private sector services. The ultimate goal is to help the environment and ease congestion by giving residents a way to get around without having to own a car.

The app was made available for test users in October. Before you set out somewhere using Whim, you enter in a destination, and software designs the best route to get you there, whether it’s by bus, train, or car. If you're happy with the plan, you can approve the trip and it's automatically paid for. The app currently requires a monthly subscription, but single-trip payment could become an option in the future.

Of Helsinki's 1.2 million people, 900,000 have used public transportation in the past six months.

Whim will soon become available in additional markets, first in Birmingham, England, possibly later in Toronto or Montreal, and a number of U.S. markets after that, says Sampo Hietanen, CEO of MaaS Global, the company that created the Whim app. (MaaS stands for “mobility as a service,” a term being used for this type of approach.)

In transportation, “we’re very focused on large, capital-intensive, fixed-rate services, and most people don’t live in places where that makes sense,” says David King, a professor of transportation and urban planning at Arizona State University. “We have to come up with flexible transit, multiple strategies of transportation.”  

Helsinki seems a good place to test the idea. It has a high rate of mobile phone use and good digital infrastructure. Public transit use is high, too: of its 1.2 million people, 900,000 have used public transportation at least once in the past six months. Strong government support for the idea has been pivotal, because transportation systems are generally fragmented among different state and city authorities and departments. 

One concern is that apps like these might leave public transit systems without a connection to their customers. Mari Flink, who runs communication and marketing for the Helsinki Transport Authority, notes that Whim—which has financial backing from car manufacturers and dealers—could promote more car sharing and thus decrease the use of public transit. To monitor that, the Helsinki Transport Authority is watching to see how many new users the app brings to public transit.

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