A 24-Year-Old Transport Engineer Is About To Free Her City From Car Ownership


Sonja Heikkilä

Sonja Heikkilä

By now it's become clear that the Scandinavians do a lot of things better than other countries. They have the smallest gender gaps, among the highest test scores, and the lowest levels of inequality.


Now, they're set to rub their transportation superiority in our faces.

Finland's capital, Helsinki, is about to launch a program that could virtually eliminate car ownership and give its residents the ability to plot an on-demand commute from their phones.

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It's the mostly the vision of Sonja Heikkilä, a 24-year-old Helsinki transportation engineer.

Her idea was to create a real-time marketplace for customers to choose among transport providers and piece together the fastest or cheapest way of getting where they need to go. The providers' services would be distilled into an app through which a customer could plan a route.


In her Master's thesis, Heikkilä used the character of Taneli, a 34-year-old married father of four young children, to demonstrate how the whole thing works. Helsinki already has a dial-up bus service called Kutsuplus (Finnish for "call plus"), which for more than a year has been letting riders dial up a minibus on their phone, choose their route, and select whether they want their own private ride, according to Wired. Here's what the Kutsuplus app looks like:

Heikkilä vision combines minibus shuttle service with city bicycles and ride-sharing to all but eliminate the need for cars:

[Taneli] usually bicycles with his own bike to a station, ascends a bus, and carries the bicycle with him in the bus or leaves his own bicycle at the station and continues the trip with a city bike.

In case the conditions are not satisfying for bicycling, Taneli finds a car or ride sharing service with the help of a platform that he uses through the mobile phone. In addition, a daily demand responsive transport service, such as Kutsuplus, fetches [his son] and his classmates from pre-school and conveys them [home], where they can continue spending the afternoon together.


"One app would allow to plan the entire route, including all modes," she told BI in an email. "However, there would be several competing apps, as there would be several private companies running the mobility operator business."

Heikkilä said the idea came about because Helsinki is growing too fast for its current transportation options, with a population projected to increase 40% in the next 35 years.

As a result, many people are forced to own a car, but 95% of a car's life is spent parked at home or at work, according to Heikkilä. Widespread car ownership also runs counter to Finland's ambitious environmental problems. Plus, there's been a generational shift in attitudes about cars.

"First of all, the young want to be connected at all times," she said. "They value convenience and spontaneity. They are also very familiar with technology and expect systems to function well. Additionally, the phenomena of sharing economy and 'servicizing' [organizing and selection of a service is bought and performed by a third party, and customers receive merely the outcome of the actions] are rising. The city of Helsinki wants to meet these changing requirements."

Right now, the city has a monopoly on public transit, but the public sector moves too slow to adapt to changing transport demands, Heikkilä said. At the same time, Helsinkians are uncomfortable with full-on privatization. The transportation engineer hopes to combine the best of both world.


"We want to allow the emerging mobility operators to sell all mobility services, including public transit," Heikkilä said. "The core of our work is to determine what the public sector and the city of Helsinki can do to enable and promote the emergence of this kind of mobility service ecosystem and mobility operator market."

The Swedish city of Gothenburg has already rolled out a similar service, called UbiGo, though on a much smaller scale. The Helsinki plan will eventually operate citywide.

"We do not want to launch a project on this but truly create a permanent service ecosystem, which companies may enter at any time," Heikkilä said.

The pilots in certain Helsinki neighborhoods will be launched early next year. Heikkilä said any city that already has a decent public transport system in place could adopt their model.