Nicknamed “the Netflix of mobility”, MaaS Global is the acclaimed Finnish creator of the app Whim. The app asks users to enter their destination and then calculates the best route, taking into account cost and including public transport, taxis and car rentals, depending on the route in question.
Users can subscribe to various packages. There is one called “Urban”, for instance, which is for city dwellers who sometimes take a taxi or rent a car, while “Unlimited” includes unrestricted access to all modes of transport covered by the platform.
Reflecting a shift away from modes of transport that are owned individually and towards mobility options consumed as an umbrella service, Mobility-as-a-Service, or MaaS, is an exciting and fast-growing concept. And in Helsinki, it’s a way of life.
The Helsinki model
As the first country to roll out a MaaS ecosystem, and the best so far to implement it and gain momentum, Finland is rightly seen as the forerunner in the area. Along with electric vehicles and the Internet of Things, MaaS is an important part of the development of “smart cities”, and the Finnish transport ministry made MaaS a key part of their strategy as far back as 2011. Helsinki, which is largely surrounded by the Baltic Sea, was greatly in need of a MaaS offering. There is limited space for roads and especially for parking. What’s more, Helsinki has a high-functioning public transport network, without which MaaS would not be possible at all.
But this is not to say that Helsinki is uniquely suited for MaaS. Much of the credit should go to the city administrators, who set the achievable goal of replacing more than 2.3 billion private car journeys each year by 2023. The research group Juniper credited this for Helsinki’s success.
“Helsinki has achieved its winning position in MaaS driven by collaboration between government and MaaS vendors,” said research analyst Nick Maynard.
Contrast this way of operating with that in the U.S., where low support for market regulation and fragmentation at the state and federal level stunts the growth of MaaS in suitable cities like Austin, Texas.
Helsinki also leads other cities that have rolled out a MaaS service because of the way in which it has integrated different transport services. Whim offers customers a place where they can arrange travel on buses, taxis, public bikes, hire cars, rail and metro. The German-based app Quixxit, which was launched this year, combines long-distance bus, train and air travel to create a single connected journey, but it is still relatively new and has yet to build a following. In Singapore, Beeline, which was created in 2015, creates crowdsourced bus services by allowing user demand to create new bus routes, but it has been slow to generate momentum. As of March this year, Whim had 20,000 Finnish subscribers and its owner, MaaS Global, secured €9 million in a funding round in August, suggesting there is wide belief in its purpose and its future.
This productive collaboration between Helsinki’s lawmakers and businesses shows that in order for cities to become “smart”, with all the features that terms implies, cooperation between the public and the government, and between the government and the private sector, is a necessity, not a nice-to-have. Perhaps that’s why the cities leading in this area—Stockholm, Amsterdam, Vienna—are in countries where there is a dialogue and a positive relationship between the public and private sectors.
Whim now has a UK branch, and has been running a pilot in the West Midlands since 2017. Sampo Hietanen, who co-founded MaaS Global, said support for his plans from Transport for West Midlands was ‘almost instant’. It’s just as well: overall public spending on transport in the UK is on the up, and many support grants and local transport budgets have been reduced or cut entirely.
In such an environment, innovation is seldom placed at the top of the agenda. Nevertheless, the cost-cutting implications of MaaS, in addition to its positive outcomes for congestion, pollution and consumer spending, make it a cheap, long-term solution if local governments can find the cash.
What seems certain is that MaaS is the future. A system in which transport in all its forms is paid for and organised in a single stroke seems the next logical step, and a great way to reduce private ownership of personal vehicles. And for inspiration, where better to look to than Helsinki?