The transport-on-demand revolution could start in Helsinki

Is there a smarter way to travel? epSos.de, CC BY

In every part of our daily routines technology makes its presence felt. Now, forward-thinking Finland plans to change the way Europe goes about urban travel using a novel system, based on a smartphone app, to help people get the most out of public transport. It might even herald the end of the dominance of the private car.

The driving force behind this move is that the younger generation want practical travel options. With incomes falling and motoring costs soaring, cars are increasingly seen as an unwelcome burden rather than the liberating symbol of personal freedom they once were.

A recent report shows Generation Y (18 to 29-year-olds) hold different attitudes to cars than their predecessors. For Generation Y, being debt-free is suddenly sexy, while less than one in five consider car ownership a reflection of personal success. This is reflected by the lower car ownership levels among Generation Y (68%), compared to the previous Generation X (81%).

The end of the affair with cars

While cars have been elevated to status symbols representing something aspirational, public transport, walking, and cycling only account for a small amount of total travel, and are often perceived as the fallback option for those with no other choice. The social, economic and cultural power attributed to private automobiles has meant that modern cities prioritise the car.

The automobile industry sets new records each year, selling 69m cars in 2013 as emerging markets follow in the footsteps of Western Europe and North America.

In social and environmental terms, this is incredibly destructive. Car culture has contributed to a rise in individualism that cuts off social interactions and damages community relations. Neighbours simply pass by one another in their separate metal boxes.

Astoundingly, a quarter of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions originate from road transportation, with passenger vehicles the main culprit. It is no small matter that this equates to a fifth of global oil usage.

Finland’s next top model

The Finnish capital has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point mobility on-demand system within the next ten years. City-wide, this would link together taxis, shared cars, ferries, trains, shared bikes, driverless cars, buses, trams and, also, the Kutsuplus – the minibus rolled out last year that lets riders specify where they want to be picked up and put down via smartphone. In theory the Finnish set up would render car ownership essentially pointless in the city.

The Planning Department-approved plans come from an engineering student, Sonja Heikkilä, who believes young Helsinki residents view transportation differently from their parents. They want simple, flexible and inexpensive transportation so she has suggested a mobility model based on how services are provided in the telecommunications industry (in which Finland was also a trailblazer).

Like internet service providers or mobile phone companies, residents might get around by paying by the kilometre, or by purchasing a monthly package with kilometres included. This integrated approach goes beyond traditional public transport systems, with transport procured in real time through a single app, providing residents with a range of options available at the touch of a screen. Users simply specify an start and a destination, and the software then acts as a journey planner to both identify and book the most efficient means of completing the journey.

This approach allows users to tailor their journeys from point to point, offering all the convenience of owning a car without much of the cost.

Nordic capitalism in action

As other economies still suffer fallout from the global economic crisis, the Nordic model of capitalism is gaining increasing attention. The Scandinavian approach entails a pragmatic judgement on public services: as long as they work, it does not matter who provides them. The city’s transportation will continue to be run as a public utility but will include competition to ensure the services that most benefit residents win out as commuters vote with their feet. This is Nordic capitalism in action: public authorities facilitating capitalist innovation to improve the overall standard of living, state-private partnerships that promote the comfortable life in Helsinki. But the impact of this plan could be felt beyond Northern Europe.

It’s clear that, in the name of sustainable mobility, radical measures in urban planning need be undertaken. The electric car is currently the most popular alternative to petrol and diesel engines. However, by replacing cars with more cars we are not solving the problem. The electric car competes with public transport, walking and cycling. It displaces sustainable transport options in urban areas and requires precious raw materials to build. Add to this the fact that they are generally powered by electricity from fossil fuel-burning power stations and we are faced with the truth that realistically, the problem can only be remedied through changing our relationship with cars, not just changing the car with which we have a relationship.