Moving MaaS 3: Helsinki Happenings

Today, city inhabitants have access to almost a dozen different modes of transportation. However, almost a dozen different modes of transportation require almost a dozen different apps, payment methods, and authorizing documents which can prove to be a hassle for users and operators alike.

Fortunately, there are already a couple of solutions to this problem that adhere to the concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). A flexible concept, MaaS can be implemented in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this article series, we will examine MaaS programs that aim to:

  1. Unify transportation trip planning in a city
  2. Simplify payment methods for city-wide transportation
  3. Provide multi-modal transportation options

Because of the variety of MaaS implementation, I focus on three cities: Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Helsinki. Last week, I explored the rise and fall of Zipster, Singapore’s first major foray into MaaS programs. This week, I focus on Helsinki’s Whim application and how it’s faired in the capital of Finland. To read last week’s article, follow the link here. 

A Helsinki History

At first glance, Helsinki may seem like an odd place for a comprehensive MaaS-like system to get its start. The city itself only has a population of 600,000, much smaller than a city like Singapore. Additionally, its metro area only contains around a 1.5 million people, just more than half the size of the Pittsburgh MSA. However, despite its relatively humble surroundings, Helsinki is still plagued by heavy traffic and congestion. Not only that, but Finland is leading  an intense carbon emissions reduction campaign and hopes to achieve a 60 percent reduction by 2030, and a full 95 percent reduction by 2050. Perhaps as a result, the city is home to Whim, one of the most comprehensive MaaS programs on the planet.

Whim was developed by the Finnish startup MaaS Global, and got its start in Helsinki in October 2016. Following a successful rollout, it was fully launched in 2017. , Whim is more comprehensive and convenient than its peers. Unlike Move PGH’s Transit, Whim allows users to pay for transportation services internally without navigating to other applications. Additionally, Whim breaks from Singapore’s Zipster by featuring monthly and annual benefits to users, as well as coverage of all transportation modes within the city’s metropolitan area.

However, Whim has much more in common with Zipster than it does with Move PGH’s Transit. Like Zipster, Whim utilizes a monthly payment model as well as a pay-per-ride feature. Starting at  €62 ($73 ) a month, a Whim subscription allows for an unlimited number of public transport tickets, and bike share trips under 30 minutes. Not only that, but Whim includes a cap of €10 on taxi services and a €55 ($65) cap for rental car services. For €499 ($532) a month, users can use an unlimited number of taxi rides within a 5 km radius, along with unlimited rental car trips.

Unlike Zipster, Whim utilizes benefit systems to entice riders. A season ticket unlocks Whim Benefits, a system of price reductions and perks to encourage multimodal travel. For instance, a season ticket unlocks 35 percent cheaper taxi rates with Taksi Helsinki. In addition, rental car rates are capped and reduced over a month-long period. Finally, JURO-bike, a local cycling service, is rendered free once a month.

Following Whim’s successful deployment in Helsinki, it has since expanded to Vienna, Greater Tokyo, Belgium, the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, and the entire country of Switzerland. As a MaaS application, it enjoys by far the widest reach out of any programs featured in this article series. But what does Whim look like in action?

Where Whim Wows

A 2019 Ramboll report (titled Whimpact) explored the first three years of Whim’s deployment in Helsinki. The aim was to determine how Whim changed travel patterns for users in cities and suburbs. Additionally, the study wanted to catalog if Whim use corresponded with multimodal transportation practices, and if it reduced private vehicle miles traveled (VMT). According to transport engineer and MaaS planner Sonja Heikkila, Whim is supposed to reduce the number of private cars in use, not eliminate them entirely. The report was limited by its operational scope (one full year of operation, 2018), but yielded interesting results.

Ramboll found on average that Whim users ride public transportation more than their Helsinki metropolitan area counterparts. A full 63 percent of Whim users were more likely to use public transportation than their non-Whim peers. Additionally, Whim users combined multiple modes to reach their destinations. Ramboll discovered that Whim users were three times as likely to combine taxis with public transportation than their non-whim counterparts. Finally, Whim users addressed what transportation planners call the last-mile problem head on. 30 percent of bike trips booked through the Whim app were used within 90 minutes after public transportation.

Ramboll wasn’t the only group to record Whim’s activity. In 2018, Ecoconsult Solutions released a short report that found Whim has seen its usage soar to 70 thousand users a day, with 25 thousand daily trips. As a result, 38 percent of Whim users have replaced their daily car trip with other modes of transportation, and over 95 percent of their trips utilize public transportation.

Whim’s success can be attributed to a number of factors, but it should be noted that the Finnish government has played a key role in helping digitize transportation services. In 2018, Finland passed the Finnish Act on Transport Services. The legislation consolidated existing transportation legislation and asked transportation carriers to release travel data for planning purposes as well as make ticketing available to third-parties for application development. According to Whim co-founder Sampo Hietanen in a March 2018 Guardian interview, “No transport provider has enough supply density to provide the same service as owning a car… If you want to tap into the 85 percent of the market owned by the car, the only way is to have everything combined.”

Where Whim Wobbles

However, Whim hasn’t had an entirely smooth ride since its unveiling. Despite booking 1.8 million trips a year after launch, its share of transportation trips is still relatively small. In that same timespan, Helsinki’s public transportation agency ASL provided 375 million trips. According to transportation scholar and advocate David Zipper, that accounts for less than 0.5 percent of all non-vehicular journeys.

Zipper also points out a concerning possibility of Whim – that it encourages congestion and automotive use through its generous perks and benefits. For instance, a Whim monthly pass provides almost unlimited affordable utilization of taxis and rental cars. Much like the supposedly congestion-relieving services of Lyft and Uber, Zipper proposes that Whim could end up increasing congestion by increasing the access to automobiles. Similar trends were discovered by MIT in 2021 after studying Lyft and Uber’s impact on traffic.

Additionally, Whim faces many of the same problems as Zipster in regard to funding. COVID-19 affected Whim like many other transportation services, reducing the number of travelers and potential revenue. Whim recently celebrated its first month earning $1 million, but as of 2021 spent €50 million ($59 million) in failed expansion efforts.

What’s What with Whim?

Despite its tenuous situation, Whim recently surpassed 18 million trips worldwide. It has been deployed in the largest city on the planet and has been rolled out nation-wide in Switzerland. COVID-19 seriously disrupted the deployment of Whim, but also all transportation modes.  Time will tell how Whim will succeed, but now it holds the distinction as one of the most comprehensive MaaS systems in the world. No matter what, Eno will be here to cover developments that help people Move MaaS.

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