Modern Life

Will this app make commuting nightmares a thing of the past?

MaaS, Finland’s experiment in connected mobility, could change the way the world travels.

By Garage Staff — December 1, 2017

It's 7:24 a.m. on train platform outside a major metropolitan city. A garbled announcement just notified commuters that their train is delayed, again. A shared decision faces the would-be passengers. How should they get work? Take a different line? Give the bus a whirl? Create an impromptu carpool?

If they are in Helsinki and MaaS (Mobility as a Service) is loaded on their smartphones, the choice will be an easy one.

With the fledgling MaaS, a broad range of transportation options becomes something to subscribe to, not to own. And of course, it’s all managed on a single smartphone app. Using their phones, commuters could choose from different combinations of transport, from ridesharing to the bus to the train, that would take them from point to point, depending on their preferences for speed, comfort, privacy and price. All for a single mobility subscription fee.

Would the convenience of such a mobile service lead commuters finally to unbuckle from the 20th century and get rid of their cars? Helsinki’s city planners are setting the stage today, working to pull all the city’s transportation data on platform that entrepreneurs can tap.

If MaaS takes off as planned, it will transform the movement of humans and goods in the Helsinki region by 2025, leading legions of its 1.5 million people to exchange their cars for a subscription to a networked transport ecosystem. This could change the very geography of Helsinki, opening up thousands of acres of what are now parking spaces to make way for new parks, bike lanes, affordable housing or other development. “Neighborhoods that have been starved for (transport) access could suddenly become hot,” says Greg Lindsay, senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation.

Mobility subscription services will connect and transform urban transportation.

Miika Meijer/EyeEm/Getty Images

Mobility subscription services will connect and transform urban transportation.

Plenty of other cities, from Stockholm to Vienna — and even car-centric Los Angeles — are starting to experiment with MaaS to meet the growing populations of their cities. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. This massive migration will spawn megacities — by 2030, we’ll have 41 sprawling metropolises with more than 10 million people, up from just 10 in 1990. To provide highways, public transportation and parking for these masses could gobble up monster budgets, almost every inch of real estate and create epochal traffic jams.

Each city will fashion its own approach, but the use of wireless networks to optimize movements — the essence of MaaS — is likely to be a constant.

And the usefulness of MaaS doesn’t stop with cities. The groundwork is being laid to bring its services to country railroads and airlines into the ecosystem. Sampo Hietanen, CEO of MaaS Global, Finland’s first MaaS, envisions networks eventually stretching across the world, so that a single subscription will not only route a passenger from Paris to Chicago, but also deliver point point-to-point transit in the Windy City.

 “It’s like mobile phones,” says Hietanen. “In the early days, they didn’t have roaming. But networks spread.”

“Neighborhoods that have been starved for (transport) access could suddenly become hot.”

Greg Lindsay, senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation

Before reaching this glittering future, MaaS operators must overcome challenges. First, they must entice incumbent players, from cab drivers to transit unions, to buy into a scheme designed to disrupt the status quo. The key selling point is that MaaS will be the most efficient tool to bring in a steady stream customers, building a 21st century future for venerable transit systems.

An even bigger challenge for the new industry, says Hietanen, is to compete with the cultural preference for individually owned automobiles.

“It’s the definition of freedom,” he says. “You want to go somewhere, it’s there.”

Hans Arby, founder of Ubigo, a MaaS start-up in Sweden, acknowledges that many drivers will never give up their wheels.  “But younger people,” he says,  “aren't so in love with cars. ” What’s more, they're used to shopping for everything on their phones. So if a MaaS network can provide daily door-to-door transport at a lower cost, it could find a market.  “I'm thinking it might cost $200 or $300 a month, ” he says.

Three years ago, Ubigo ran a pilot project in Sweden’s university town of Göteborg. “When the project was over, many of them didn’t want to give it up,” he says. He’s hoping to run a larger pilot later this year in Stockholm.

And, as always, more data can power better decision-making. Mobility as a Service will not only feed on data, it will also produce terabytes of it. For city planners, this vast trove of new information will bring movement — and the ability to improve it — within their cities into startling focus. This could mean adjusting bridge and tunnel tolls minute by minute or shifting the direction of traffic lanes.

At the same time, MaaS companies will be able to suggest individual itineraries with ever-sharper precision. If the vision of Mobility as a Service delivers on its promise, commuters will get where they need to go quickly and smoothly, with the unrelenting stress of 20th century commuting discarded on the side of the road.


To follow MaaS and its development, check in with the Finnish Transport Agency.