Helsinki becomes first city to provide MaaS (Mobility as a Service)

by Dennis Mitzner

Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HRT) has signed an agreement with Helsinki-based MaaS Global to roll out MaaS (Mobility as a Service) app Whim to offer the city’s residents subscription-based access to a flurry of transport options, from taxis and rental cars to bike sharing and public transportation.

The CEO and Founder of MaaS Global, Sampo Hietanen, said in a press release that the company’s “goal is to offer a viable alternative to today’s car owners, which enables them to combine public transport and a car as needed”.

Whim is launching with a 100 user pilot for 100 €/month after which the price will be 249 euros.. If you think 249 euros will get you a daily taxi ride to work and back, think again as the subscription comes with a point limit.

According to the website, 5500 points – presumably equivalent to 249 euros – includes unlimited public transport in the Helsinki region and 8 taxi rides and 2 days of rental car use. Currently the price of a monthly metropolitan transportation pass, which includes bus, train, metro and tram services is 102 euros.

Curb your excitement

When public entities talk about innovation with futuristic fervour I cringe because, more often than not, their taxpayer-funded initiatives fall flat and no one is held accountable. Helsinki is no exception. In 2012, the city launched Kutsuplus, an on-demand bus service to encourage carpooling and private car ownership. In December 2015, the service was shut down.

The reasons behind Kutsuplus’ failure should be obvious to most startup founders, investors and private sector operatives: inability to scale to make ride-sharing work (high cost of drivers, no mobile app) coupled with a significant public cost (tax-payer subsidized, high payroll costs) of attempting to scale. Kutsuplus also had a separate user account and wallet that users had to transfer funds, both contributing to poor user experience.

Less other people’s money

One wonders if Kutsuplus’ failure led to redundancies. After all, failure is painless when done with other people’s money.

Kutsuplus and other similar, arguably good, ideas often fall prey to activism-driven enthusiasm without a real understanding of consumer behaviour. The Green party is the second largest political party in Helsinki and its influence is showing through initiatives to discourage and even penalise private car ownership. Undoubtedly, the green agenda is the driving force behind many of the the anti-car initiatives and programs.

Against the backdrop of publicly funded failures, it’s obvious that the private sector operators are simply better at innovation because they know resources are scarce, competition is fierce and investors will eventually want to see results.

What might distinguish Whim from the Kutsuplus fiasco is that MaaS Global is a startup looking to scale beyond Helsinki. For HRT the perks are obvious: a drop in car ownership means a spike in public transportation, but there might be more to HRT’s move to MaaS. With ride-sharing apps like Uber, even public actors like HRT have understood that they, too, must adapt or slowly drift into oblivion.

It remains to be seen if Whim is another government-initiated attempt to push Uber out of the equation and keep transportation in the public domain all the while appeasing the green agenda. However, unlike Kutsuplus and its clunky user experience, Whim is a simple app and might therefore attract a steadily growing user base of tech-savvy Helsinkians.

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Dennis Mitzner is Head of Editorial at The Nordic Web. Dennis has contributed to a number of the world's leading tech publications including TechCrunch, The Next Web, Fast Company and VentureBeat.