In This City, Car Ownership Could Soon Be A Thing Of The Past

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Helsinki, the capital of Finland, has a a plan that might make car ownership a thing of the past.

Which is not to say it would eliminate the need for riding in cars. Rather, Helsinki’s plan is to provide its residents with a smartphone app that can knit together all the different transportation options in the city — subways, buses, taxis, ferries, car sharing services, bike sharing services, etc — into one complete trip from Point A to Point B. Users would input an origin and a destination, and the app would plot out their trip, along with which modes of transportation they’d use, according to their preferences, their available time, the weather, and other variables. Payments could be structured in different ways — by the kilometer, by the trip, or as a monthly fee, for instance — but in every instance the user would be making one single payment via the app rather than paying for each mode of transport individually.

Essentially, it would be a one-stop-shop marketplace for transportation — similar to what Obamacare is trying to achieve for health insurance with its exchanges.

The idea is called “mobility on demand” — planning out transportation across public, private, and shared systems, all as a service delivered to customers. And because the primary value of owning a car is the convenience of immediately available transportation — 95 percent of the average car’s life is spent sitting idle — proponents think Helsinki’s system, if sufficiently successful and effective, could more or less eliminate the need for car ownership among the city’s residents.

In 2012, Helsinki debuted a program that could serve as a prelude for mobility on demand, called “Kutsuplus.” (Finnish for “call plus.”) It’s a system of minibuses, coordinated by computer, that can be called up by a smartphone app. Users can designate a start point, end point, and whether they’d like to ride by themselves or not. The cost is a $4.75 user fee plus 60 cents per kilometer — more than a standard Helsinki bus fare, but less than a taxi ride. The system actually wasn’t meant to end car use but to make it easier to get to public transportation, and was serving 4,500 people as of September 2013.

Kutsuplus was also cited by Sonja Heikkilä, a 24-year-old Helsinki transportation engineer whose master’s thesis laid the blueprint for mobility on demand. And while Helsinki’s current plan appears to be rolling out mobility on demand as a public utility, Heikkilä ultimately envisions the service is an actual marketplace: multiple apps created by different private companies, all competing for who can do the best job of packaging and planning transportation for customers. To that end, her master’s thesis recommends that the city government not only provide the service itself, but also compile and make public the data that other firms could use to create their own version of the app. Legislation and regulation would also need to be altered to facilitate the new service, and frameworks set up to encourage cooperation among stakeholders.

From a climate change perspective, Helsinki’s mobility on demand plan represents the kind of innovation that will be necessary to cut carbon emissions. There’s no inherent reason all the people living in dense urban areas should need to own a car. By facilitating this kind of service use and transportation sharing, the plan would allow a far smaller fleet of cars to serve that same population. That would mean less resource use, less space taken up by the need for parking, and most importantly it would require burning far fewer fossil fuels.

People usually think of technology when discussing innovation, which may be why some critics argue against aggressive policies to curb carbon emissions, and favor efforts to simply ramp up research and development of new energy technologies instead. But innovation can extend far beyond more advanced solar panels or better smart meters, and into changes in policy, social organization, and business models. Those are the sorts of adaptations that become more likely if we put a comprehensive price on greenhouse gas emissions (in this case, one that includes the transportation sector) precisely because they involve decentralized experimentation across a society. Creating the kind of all-purpose price signal to drive that activity is exactly what something like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system could do.

Some unanswered questions remain, however. The Guardian pointed to whether the system would serve the less-dense municipalities around Helsinki as well as it would serve the city center, and to the issue of how accessible the mobility on demand plan would be to lower-income customers. In America, for example, access to the internet and to smartphones often breaks down along class lines: households that earn less than $30,000 per year are 35 percent less likely to have Internet access than households earning $75,000 or more. And similar divides show up along race and geographic lines as well.