​This app is trying to kill the car, and Helsinki is doing its best to help it

Using the Whim app, Helsinki becomes the first city to try out an all-inclusive mobility service covering public transportation, taxis, and even car rentals.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor

The Whim app shows you the best route using trains, taxis, buses, and car rentals, and also acts as your ticket.

Image: Helsinki Regional Transport Authority

Instead of a monthly train or a bus pass, imagine buying a mobile app subscription that covers all forms of public and private transportation.

In Helsinki, this concept is now close to reality through mobility service Whim, which has launched in the Finnish capital in cooperation with the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL).

At first glance the Whim app, which was released to a limited number of users in October, seems like a typical route planner.

Type in the destination, and you receive suggestions for your optimal route using a mix of transport options ranging from trains and taxis to buses and car rentals. The notable difference is that when you accept a route, everything is paid for and the app acts as your ticket.

"How this works is you choose a monthly package that suits you best, either pay per use or a monthly fee, which provides you with enough usage [for all transport options]," explains Sampo Hietanen, founder of MaaS Global, the startup behind Whim.

The ambition is for Whim to eventually replace owning a car by covering all a user's mobility needs, whether it is taking the bus to work or driving to the summer house. Whim's current monthly tariff €249 ($270) is described as a medium package.

That figure includes unlimited public transportation and 5,500 Whim points, which can be exchanged for services such as two days of car rental and eight 10-kilometer, or six-mile, taxis rides.

"The first 100 users have the medium package, which we've tested and found to be enough for urban users. It's cheaper than having a car, but enough to cover all transport needs for a month," Hietanen says.

"This is the first experiment and there'll be many more options."

More packages and a pay-as-you-go model will be introduced when the service opens to the wider public in early 2017.

The concept behind Whim is what MaaS Global refers to as 'mobility as a service', where consumers are provided with flexible mobility bundles through a single gateway.

There have been various experiments around the concept but Hietanen, who is often cited as the father of MaaS, started the company in early 2016 to create the first commercial offering.

A crucial milestone for MaaS Global was sealing an agreement with HSL to include public transportation with the service.

While HSL's route and schedule data has been open for years, this is the first time the transport authority has opened up its payment APIs for a commercial service and sets a precedent for future collaborations.

HSL communications director Mari Flink says the transport authority has two goals in making that change.

"We want to gain information on what kinds of customers new transport services attract and to test whether the combination of public transport and new services would be a competitive alternative to owning a car," she says.

Whim itself has been built on a serverless model that taps into existing routing and payment modules. MaaS Global's Hietanen notes there is no point in building services, such a routing, where several options already exist.

He adds that the initial response from transport service providers has been good, but the biggest challenge has been in opening up payment API's to enable everything to be processed in the app.

In Finland this might not be an issue for much longer if the planned Transport Code act is passed next year. For transportation service providers, including the likes of Uber, this would mean a legal requirement to open up their data and payment systems, paving the way for new mobility services.

MaaS Global's plans extend beyond Finland. The company expects to launch Whim in at least two countries during 2017 and says negotiations are ongoing in 20 markets. One potential location is the West Midlands in the UK, where Hietanen says the transport ecosystem has been very proactive and welcoming of the idea.

"Our dream is that the whole world is open to you. Exactly like roaming works on the telecom side, if we're your mobility operator we'll take care of you in London as well," Hietanen says.

"Someone is going to do this and do it big. So why shouldn't that be us?"

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