Value-added transit: Helsinki transit

Itäkeskuksen metroasema-Helsinki.jpg

Marketers strive to add value to people’s lives, either by improving an existing product or service, or by inventing a new one. Shouldn’t government do the same?

The city of Helsinki is working toward adding so much value to public transit that, within 10 years, most people will not want or need a car to get around.

Helsinki is designing a transit service with a mobile phone app that would stitch together all the available transit options–public and private–making them so cost-effective and convenient that car ownership might become pointless.

One transit official quoted in a story from The Guardian described the service this way:

Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility. Imagine the popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required, and the whole thing run as a public utility, and you begin to understand the scale of ambition here.

This story caught my interest because I recently switch jobs and thereby changed from commuting by San Francisco’s BART system to driving the fast and furious freeways of the Bay Area. My new commute takes more time and money and offers less open air, activity, and free time to read or nap. I wish I had better transit options.

Helsinki already offers a type of on-demand mini bus called Kutsuplus. Place a phone call, specify your start and end points, and the bus comes to pick you up. If you’re willing to share the bus with others who are taking nearly the same route at the same time, computer algorithms determine the most convenient route for all and divvy up the costs.

Adding more personalization, convenience, and payment options–more value–is a great way to get more people using and benefiting from public services.

There are some obvious drawbacks. What about people who don’t own a smart phone? Will it work in smaller towns and suburbs, or between towns?

Who knows? Although the public sector has the charter to serve all the public, I don’t think that these initial challenges should hold up implementation. Products and services can be refined. Early successes can help fund later development.

These transit options won’t get me to move from my sunny Bay Area to the cold north of Helsinki, but they might entice me to visit without worrying about a rental car.

(Helsinki metro photo licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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