A car and a bus compete for space in Turku, Finland. Flickr/Henry Hagnäs

Another bright idea from one of the world’s most innovative countries for public transit.

The Finnish city of Turku is offering drivers a pretty tempting deal: apply for a bus pass and you get a chunk of free travel.

So keen is Finland’s third-largest city to get drivers off the road that it’s offering €20 ($22) of free fares to any new applicant for a touch-in, touch-out bus pass—provided they also possess a driving license. The hope is that once their free travel is used up, drivers will top up their cards with fresh funds, and stay on the bus. If people shift even some of their regular journeys off the road and onto public transit, the potential for slashing congestion and emissions could be considerable.

The discount offered may not be a life-changing amount, but it so far seems to be effective. Last month, at least 5,000 drivers applied for the new card, and by some estimates that number might already have doubled. The program is one of a bunch of new measures across global transit systems to encourage and manage ridership through benefits, such as perks for riding off-peak.

The scheme’s Finnish origin is arguably no coincidence. Right now Finland’s  public transit networks are among the world’s most innovative, and they keep coming up with new ideas (or adopting other people’s) on a regular basis. Föli, the Turku region’s transit authority, recently introduced smartphone bus payments and is planning a new taxi feeder system for bus stops along its more rural routes. Slated for trial this autumn, the system would see exurban commuters use a reduced-rate taxi service to reach and return home from the network’s more far-flung bus stops, cutting taxi costs and thus encouraging more people onto the bus network.

There are also plans afoot to link up Turku’s fare system with an existing multi-city fare card that covers eight other cities. And within the next few years, information on all of Finland’s bus timetables and 75,000 bus stops will be digitized and made accessible to users via app. Rolling out nationally a service that is already available in the Helsinki region, this real-time info will streamline journey-planning, making it so universally easy to catch a bus that hopefully yet more riders will be encouraged onto the network.

Not all of Finland’s transit innovations have stood the course. Helsinki’s groundbreaking bus on-demand scheme Kutsuplus closed in December, despite having inspired similar systems elsewhere. But setbacks like these haven’t inhibited an ongoing culture of innovation. Just this month, Helsinki volunteered some of its electric buses as testing platforms for a new bundle of smart mobility experiments. The Living Lab Bus project is joining up city transit with tech business to test a host of products over the next three years, be it user interfaces, smart payments, or in-cabin sensors.

At kick-off, the actual goals of the project seem a little hazy, but when it comes to new ways to attract and meet the needs of public transit passengers, we should expect to hear a lot more from Finland in the near future.

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