David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
A mid-sized city on the edge of Europe, Helsinki punches far above its weight in the world of urban mobility. With a regional population of 1.4 million, Helsinki has become a global testing ground for the ideas behind Mobility as a Service (MaaS: allowing commuters to plan and pay for trips across multiple transportation modes through a single access point). Many see it as the next big thing in mobility.
The city is home to MaaS Global, a startup whose Whim app debuted in Helsinki in October 2016. Sami Sahala, a mobility innovation project leader for the city of Helsinki, says he hosts visiting foreign delegations every week who are eager to hear the local perspective on MaaS. Global media from the Economist to The Guardian to The Financial Times have taken note. Amidst so much hype, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we do and don’t know thus far about Helsinki’s bold experiment, and how mobility stakeholders are responding to it.
The biggest advocates for private MaaS platforms like Whim are often national and local governments who envision a simplified commuter experience that nudges constituents away from using a personal vehicle. But it’s not clear how effective MaaS can be if transit agencies—the backbones of mobility networks, especially in European cities—don’t want to see these third-party platforms succeed.
Krista Huhtala-Jenks, Director of Go to Market at MaaS Global, says that Whim has 60,000 active users per month in Helsinki, with users booking 1.8 million trips as of early October. Whim’s growth is remarkable—but it’s important to keep it in perspective. HSL, Helsinki’s public transportation agency, provided 375 million trips in 2017, suggesting Whim is fulfilling well below 0.5 percent of all non-vehicular journeys in Finland’s capital.
Both city officials and MaaS Global see HSL’s foot dragging as a constraint on growth. In particular, the transit agency has not yet opened up its ticketing to allow Whim subscribers to enjoy the convenience of HSL’s monthly pass (instead, Whim users must obtain a new ticket every time they ride).
Here is how Whim works: With the Whim app, travelers in Helsinki can plan and pay for trips across public transportation, bikeshare, taxis, and carshare. No need to toggle between apps; everything is sitting right there when you open Whim. Whim offers three tiers of service: a free, pay-as-you-go option; a 49€ (approximately $55) monthly “Whim Urban” subscription offering unlimited public transportation and reduced rates for taxi (10€, approximately $11) and carshare (49€); and a 499€ (approximately $565) “Whim Unlimited” package that adds unlimited taxi and carshare access. Most of Whim’s 7,000 Helsinki subscribers use Whim Urban.
If a problem arises—say, your taxi doesn’t show up—Whim’s customer service will help you get wherever you need to go. Whim negotiates with individual mobility providers before placing them in the app and takes a small commission when trips are booked (some private services active in Helsinki like DriveNow and Uber are not currently available on Whim).
MaaS Global and local officials hope that the convenience of using Whim will induce people to drive less, or perhaps not get a car at all. But it’s conceivable that a subscription MaaS service like Whim could actually increase vehicle miles traveled and congestion. Consider a commuter without Whim deciding whether to take a taxi or public transportation to get home at rush hour, when road congestion is highest: a taxi is more convenient since it will get him exactly where he wants to go, but at the cost of imposing congestion on the overall transportation network. The lower cost of public transportation acts as an incentive to opt for the mode that takes up less space.
But if a Whim subscriber receives unlimited or discounted taxi service, the incentive to use public transportation fades. And if taxi trips increase, that would lead to a net decrease in public transportation ridership and an increase in vehicle miles traveled (and, likely, congestion). There’s no good information yet about how Whim changes the transportation behavior of its users, but MaaS Global is studying it.
In addition to the potential loss of ridership, transit agencies are wary that a MaaS app like Whim could erode the direct relationship agencies have with commuters. Suzanne Hoadley, senior manager at the Polis Network, an association of European city transportation leaders, notes that “many transit agencies have spent a lot of energy building up a brand. A MaaS intermediary will weaken it.”
The Finnish government gave Whim a boost when its Act on Transport Services came into effect earlier this year. Known locally as the Transport Code, Finnish law now requires any transportation provider to make its full ticketing functionality available to a third party. HSL has promised to give MaaS providers like Whim access to its convenient monthly passes by the end of 2018, which should improve the user experience for Whim’s customers. But if HSL is concerned about maintaining its brand and its direct connection with commuters, the transit agency could create its own MaaS service to compete with Whim.
Huhtala-Jenks insists that MaaS Global would welcome competitors to their Whim app, including one from HSL, as long as a “level playing field” prevents HSL from claiming an unfair advantage for its platform (i.e., limiting access to its monthly passes). But HSL could probably find other ways to give its app customers a slightly better user experience than those who use a third-party MaaS platform.
This tension between HSL and MaaS Global could be a harbinger of things to come as the MaaS concept spreads to other cities. Private mobility companies are already wary of MaaS platforms (Uber and Lyft continue to fight attempts to allow price comparison of their ride-hail services). If transit agencies join them in opposition to MaaS, they would be a powerful force against change.
If you want to see where MaaS is heading, do keep an eye on those new deployments—but don’t lose sight of Helsinki, where HSL’s stance may give a glimpse of what happens when public transportation agencies start feeling the multimodal ground shifting beneath their feet.