Death of the car: The tech behind Helsinki's ambitious plan to kill off private vehicles

Death of the car: The tech behind Helsinki's ambitious plan to kill off private vehicles

Summary: By 2025, the Finnish capital will have transformed its public transport network – with the help from some clever analytics and more.

kutsuplus_copyright Ajelo
The Kutsuplus system at work. Image: Ajelo

Helsinki has an ambitious plan for its future. By 2025, the Finnish capital intends to revamp its public transport system to such an extent that private car ownership becomes pointless. The bold initiative is not just about providing more buses, trains, or taxis, but about creating a new transport infrastructure based on cutting-edge technology and a single, affordable payment system.

The theory goes like this: imagine a family that has opted not to own a car. When they want to drop the kids off at school, they simply arrange an on-demand bus service instead. They use ridesharing and buses to get to work, and in the holidays they rent a car to travel to their summer house. When they need to get around Helsinki, they use city bikes, renting a locker to store any heavy bags. If the weather changes while they're out cycling, a journey planner will alert them and suggest another way of reaching their destination without getting soaked.

Under the plan, all these services will be accessed through a single online platform. People will be able to buy their transport in service packages that work like mobile phone tariffs: either as a complete monthly deal or pay as you go options based on individual usage. Any number of companies can use the platform to offer transport packages, and if users find their travel needs change, they'll be able to switch packages or moved to a rival with a better deal.

It sounds like part Google Maps, part City Mapper, part Boris Bikes, part Uber, and part capitalist free for all — but the Helsinki vision isn't as farfetched as it might sound.

The inspiration behind an initiative that would send many cityplanners running for the hills comes from a master's thesis by transport engineer Sonja Heikkilä. Commissioned by the Helsinki City Planning Department, Heikkilä's thesis argued young people's changing attitudes towards cars, coupled with the growing functionality and takeup of mobile technology, could transform the way people get around the capital.

"The vision is that all kinds of [transport] services will be used together through a single portal," Heikkilä says. "In addition to traditional public transport, it would include taxis, car-sharing, and services that don't even exist yet. A proactive route planner will suggest journeys based on real-time traffic data and alert users to changes caused by accidents or changes in weather conditions."

It's a drastic change from the current system. Like most cities, public transport in Helsinki is currently run entirely by local authorities, combining traditional bus, train and tram services alongside a mixture of licensed and private taxis.

Technology in place

Moving to the system envisioned by Heikkilä will be no small task, but the foundations are already being laid.

In June the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications rolled out Traffic Lab, a real-time traffic information service being developed in partnership between local government and businesses. Traffic Lab will compensate companies in the programme for anonymous traffic data they collect from private vehicles whose owners have opted into the system. The data could include, for example, traffic information and driving logs from traffic apps or in-car navigation systems and will be collected through a mixture of existing in-car systems and newly-installed ones, producing a combination of information over GPS, short-range radio signals and mobile networks.

"I now declare Finland as the country for open traffic experiments – Finland is a Traffic Lab," proclaimed Henna Virkkunen, Finland's transport and local government minister, in June.

The aim is to install Traffic Lab-compatible devices in up to 60,000 vehicles, with the scheme running until the end of 2015. Then, the data will be made available to any interested company, Finnish or foreign, and used to plan, audit, and research the new transport services required for the 2025 plan.

What new transport services could be used to fill the immense gap that would be left by any major drop in private car use? HSL, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, admits it doesn't yet have all the answers, but one interesting new service already in operation could point the way.

HSL has been trialling Kutsuplus (which translates from the Finnish as 'Invitation Plus'), a clever on-demand minibus service, since 2013. Passengers book a Kutsuplus minibus online. Once the request is filed, the Kutsuplus system determines which of a 15-strong fleet of minibuses is best positioned to collect the passenger and take them to their destination. The minibus is then dynamically rerouted by the system — such changes happen all along the journey as the minibus collects and drops off new passengers throughout the city, who all have access to free wi-fi along the way.

The service uses a proprietary platform developed by Finnish tech start-up Ajelo which it claims can be scaled up to support fleet sizes of more than 1,000 vehicles. To make the service work, the system needs be able to do millions of calculations in a day. For example, during one busy day in May, 8,000 separate trip requests were made by the users of the service. The system made five million A-to-B route evaluations, adjusting the routes of a fleet of 10 vehicles, each with nine seats, operating for around 16 hours during that day — all on the fly.

Currently Kutsuplus has more than 13,000 registered users and payment — a trip costs less than a taxi but more than a bus — is made before the journey using a virtual ‘Trip Wallet', part of the Kutsuplus website. Money is loaded into the wallet via online payment services or credit card and the same wallet can be shared between several family members or between workers in the same company.

At the moment the service uses a web-based UI optimised both for desktop use and mobile devices, but a family of mobile apps is under development which will allow for additional payment options beyond those found in the Trip Wallet.

But even the online payment options are primitive compared to what Helsinki is planning.

"The city wants to build a framework for an open market where companies can operate and offer their services in different combinations. The City doesn't want to decree what services are offered, but help to facilitate the establishment of an ecosystem that enables private companies to produce a variety of them," Heikkilä says. "There would be several commercial [transport] operators offering these services, in the same way as in telecommunications today. The customers could choose the operator and the service package they want."

The best part of this approach is passengers can vote with their feet: if they aren't satisfied with the package offered by one transport provider, they can switch to another.

Bumps in the road

But data and services are only half the battle. Equally important is giving them the platform to flourish — and that currently presents a problem.

"At the moment, the Finnish laws stipulate quite strictly what kinds of services are offered and there isn't much room for innovation," Heikkilä says.

It's something Teemu Sihvola, CEO of the startup Ajelo which created the platform behind the Kutsuplus service, also agrees will need to change. "To make [a car-free Helsinki] happen in just 10 years requires not only innovation but also courage from the public sector," he says. "New innovations in transport have to work hand in hand. Not competing against each other but complementing each other to provide a service network that in time will make private cars obsolete."

The first of several necessary changes will begin in early 2015 when a pilot project will launch in Vallila, a borough of Helsinki. The pilot will test a new kind of a service package based on existing transport services, including trains, trams, buses, parking, taxis, car-sharing, and Kutsuplus.

The details of the pilot are still in the planning phase and it will be the first of many, but the aim is to create a single mobile user interface through which all mobility services can be accessed and paid for. Users can easily monitor their monthly transport costs and optimise how they use different services, helping them to see when the use of a car isn't economical or necessary.

"The technology elements needed to build this kind of transport operator-based system is starting to be there but we need a structure that enables building the system," says Sampo Hietanen, CEO of ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems and Services) Finland.

"This includes legal challenges like getting rid of the monopoly in selling public transport tickets. The biggest technological challenges are in the validation of payments, as there is no unified system in use, and in enabling different systems to communicate with each other.

"Helsinki is planning to be the first city in the world to open up different public transport-related data, like live traffic data and its payment system, is a huge step."

Winding road ahead

While Finland is aiming to be first, it isn't alone. Neighbouring Sweden is currently trialling its UbiGo service in Gothenburg which combines public transport, car-sharing, rental car service, taxi and a bicycle system in a single app alongside 24/7 support and a gamefication element for those who choose environmentally-friendly options. Similar trials are also underway in Austria and Germany, among other countries.

More widely the European Union has also detailed its objective of combining a user's mobility and transportation needs under a single service agreement. Perhaps predictably, that meeting was hosted in Helsinki. The city seems convinced that if it can lead by example, others will follow.

Read more on Finland

Topics: Innovation, Government, Mobility

Eeva Haaramo

About Eeva Haaramo

Eeva Haaramo has covered the Finnish startup and tech scene for the past seven years. As a freelance journalist, she enjoys writing about entrepreneurs, innovation and industry trends in the Nordic region.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Germany Euro 6 Zone

    And Germany is looking at introducing a Euro 6 disc for cars. Currently only Euro 4 capable cars (most petrol cars post 2000 and a cat and diesely with a particle filter) are allowed in major cities in Germany.

    If your car isn't Euro 4 or you haven't invested in a green Euro 4 disc for the windscreen, you can't enter the city with your car.

    This was designed to alleviate the polution in major towns. It has sunk the CO2 and particle pollution, but German towns still often exceed the NOx allowances. Therefore they want to introduce Euro 6 zones in major towns. This will effectively ban all diesels pre September 2014 (from September 2014 all diesels on sale must be Euro 6 compliant). Owners of relatively new diesels might be in luck, but my old 2010 Toyota D-CAT only manages Euro 5.

    The TV news, here in Germany, yesterday was saying pretty much all diesels and 65% of petrol vehicles will not be able to enter the cities, if the proposed changes go ahead.
    • Unless you purchase an exemption sticker

      Come on, you know that will be coming next...
      • None so far

        and the scheme has been running since 2006...
    • does running LPG injection on an older car get an exception?

      I ask because injected LPG has more power and burns cleaner than petrol and definitely cleaner than diesel.
      • No idea

        to be honest. You would have to get the car retested after the conversion anyway, so as long as the exhaust output falls in line with Euro 6, you could get the disc.
    • Euro issues

      With the cojmplete lack of data sharing between EU countries, you can quite easily circumvent this with a foreign registered car/truck. Not like they can do much about it.
  • Unless you purchase an exemption sticker

    Come on, you know will be coming next...
  • Transportation and Government

    Virtually every transportation problem in the world that various government bureaucrats are trying to solve exist because government took over transportation from the private sector.

    Transportation is not a function of government.

    Because government has provided roads wherever they were needed, often for free or paid for with gas taxes that don't economically incentivize specific roads, transportation is a mess. And because government also provides mass transit, heavily subsidized, it is also a mess.

    It's a shame that all these Socialist governments (I include the US) have not tried *freedom* in transportation rather than thinking it is a function of government.

    Did you know that the New York Subway system was originally private? Then government co-opted it.

    If transportation were private, you would pay for the roads you use. This would lead people to make decisions based on cost and quality of roads. Trucks would actually pay their fair share of road cost, as they do most of the damage. The fact that I would have to pay for the roads I use would be an incentive to use mass transit, which the public sector is also more than capable of providing.

    Like most other things in our lives that have problems, the solution in this case is "get government out".
    • if all roads are private

      what is going to prevent the owners from jacking up the prices as high as they want? what incentive are they going to have to spend any money on the maintenance?
      • Simple: no maintenance, no usage, no income from the roads.

        • details, please

          Any one - liner can be made to sound simple. The realities behind the details prove it is not so simple.

          People who will be hit - how do they move to more dense areas if they don't have money and there are no jobs that pay squat?

          There's one example. Many exist. Want a real discussion? Let's do it. Simple.
          • HypnoToad72: Details? What the heck more do you want?

            If a company decides to save money by not maintaining roads, chances are that, people would stop using those unmaintained roads, and roads that aren't used, won't be making any money for the owner.

            It's the same whether it's managed by a government entity or a private business. However, with a private business, the owners would have to abide by regulations, which would be, very likely, coming from government(s). So, even if a business decides to forsake the maintenance of a road, that road could be made to change hands by the government, because that road could be deemed very valuable and necessary infrastructure for a locality and for businesses and for individuals. Private ownership doesn't mean just raking in the dough and hoping for the best without looking out for the roads or infrastructure.
          • It is difficult to form a response to this without being insulting...

            So I am not going to bother. This is the most idiotic position I have ever heard on any subject. If you privatize roads, companies can easily buy enough roads to have a monopoly on access to destinations. People cannot just stop using unmaintained roads when there aren't any other routes to their destinations.
      • worse.. if private.. only popular roads would be built or maintained.

        If you were rural you'd be screwed because companies would only build roads where there is the most profit. In Australia for example we are 5000km across and its not all city.

        In Australia Rural communities get scr3wed for broadband services because the private telcos and ISP's only spend on infastrusture in highly populated profitable areas. Same would happen with roads in private hands.
        • Even government works that way, where they don't build roads to

          out-of-the-way places, and they don't deliver mail to very distant places. People have to take it upon themselves to live close enough to government and/or business places and/or towns, and they also have to do their own mail pick up in post-offices in towns.
    • Over here

      it is mainly privately run and a complete mess, citizens in many countries are arguing that the government should nationalise public transport, so that the public transport will work properly.

      Privitisation didn't work out in most countries, although I'm fairly happy with public transport here in Germany. Back in the UK, where I come from, it is a complete privatised mess.
    • Transport and Goverfnment

      Hahahahahahaha . . . that's so funny. The private sector better at transportation. Hilarious.
    • Those who fail to study history ...

      Adam Smith, the "father" of the free market said there were 3 responsibilities for government:
      1) protecting society from external threats
      2) protecting members of society from the unscrupulous behaviour of other members of society
      3) Providing those services that facilitate commerce that cannot be EFFECTIVELY or economically provided by the private sector.

      Most people are unaware that the U.S.A use to have an entire network of roads that were all privately built and privately owned. And it was a real problem. The roads weren't built by companies in the business of roads, they were built by the raw materials extraction sector and would go from somewhere(i.e. a town with a sawmill) to nowhere (i.e. the middle of the forest). Sure, anyone could use those roads, but they were in crappy and trips over to the next town were often long an arduous. Why didn't the companies build better roads? They were in the raw materials extrtaction business, not the transportation business. What about the transportation companies? You had to be rich to ship a bar of soap over land from NY to LA.

      The solution? The Interstate Highway system, one of the BEST road networks in the world. Built by the government to facilitate interstate trade. Walmart would not be able to exist without it.
  • The problem

    The problem with trying to herd cats is eventually you have to start kicking them or give up trying.
    Buster Friendly
  • Great idea, not universal

    This will simply not work in large, sprawling cities, especially in the southwest U.S., where people and services are too geographically-diverse. It takes 2 hours to drive anywhere, and everything you want / need is 2 hours away, OR right next door.