The city of Helsinki recently announced plans to transform its existing public transportation network into a comprehensive multi-modal system that, in theory, would render cars unnecessary. Our in-house urbanists and transit experts, Jeff Maki and Neysa Pranger, provide their perspectives on this ambitious plan and what it could mean for NYC.
What’s your overall perspective on the Finnish plan?
JM: I think the Finnish plan well accounts for the direction technology is going– personal, mobile, ubiquitous and on-demand. In fact, I was interested to read the Masters thesis, which was the basis of the Finnish recommendation because it applied the logic of the Internet and its development in the US, as well as trends in the American energy market, to the future of public transit.
It’s an interesting perspective and theory of evolution for transit, especially coming from a country that is typically more friendly to state-owned infrastructure as opposed to privately-run, “market driven” approaches, usually found in the US. The focus on “millennials” and their unique perspectives on public services was also great to see in the thesis.
NP: While seamless travel options through integrated wayfinding and payment are not new ideas, Northern Europeans are once again pioneering an innovative, city-scale transportation initiative much as they did with congestion pricing, bike share and pedestrian friendly streets. The proposed plan by the Helsinki City Planning Department will be watched by many as citizen expectation for reliable service rises. While at the same time, however, cities and states grapple with the ability to improve services due to structural (decline in gas tax revenue, for example) and political (enacting new tax revenue remains highly difficult) funding constraints.
But Helsinki is doing it at the right time, as those most likely to embrace the “shared economy” (e.g. Airbnb, Uber, BikeShare and TaskRabbit, etc.) move into a prime user demographic. Overall, what Helsinki is proposing is highly innovative but will also require intense collaboration between public and private providers, special attention to equitable provisioning and continual pilot testing on how different user segments’ needs are addressed.
What’s it going to take for people to give up their cars?
JM: To be honest, I think it’s just time. It’s already happening. There’s been a lot published recently about millennials and their declining rates of car ownership. You can take a bus from NYC to Boston for a few dollars now– it’s certainly not the price holding people back at this point. It’s about shifting expectations to a “shared” mindset.
You might summarize by extending some of the logic from the Finnish Masters thesis: if the road network (and the car) was a symbol of freedom to the “boomers”, the Internet might be that same network to millennials. And it’s our task as designers of personal mobility systems to figure out how to enable mobile devices and other Internet-connected things to provide that same sense of freedom afforded by the car. That’s the thing that will cause people to switch, I think.
NP: I think it’s useful to remember that in New York City at least, owning a car is difficult already as the City has multiple public and private systems, like ZipCar, buses, bike share and subways. As a result, nearly half the residents in Manhattan do not own a car and car ownership city-wide is on the decline.
But for users to move away from personal car ownership permanently, they’ll need to be presented with a time-competitive option for getting from point A to point B for a number of different purposes. Also key to this will be the frequency of service (how long will I have to wait?) and reliability (does it show up when it’s supposed to?).
Other requirements include:
– one or two seat rides: moving from one mode to the next can be cumbersome, especially for the elderly or parents with strollers;
– a cultural shift in perceived benefits of owning a car (going from ‘privilege’ to ‘curse’);
– support from mayors and governors, including strong messaging and the right package of policy incentives to back it up.
How will the Internet of Things play into this?
JM: This plan requires that shared services– buses, car rentals, taxis, subways, etc.– will need to be connected to users. The Internet of Things is that connection, so I see its role as bringing the ability to engage with more physical systems to our phones via the Internet (or whatever form that might take in the future.) And it’s important to note that the interaction will go two ways: transit operators get data from users, and users get data from transit operators.
NP: I completely agree. Helsinki will find it difficult to get their system off the ground without real-time data availability and connected systems– both of which will be powered by the Internet of Things.
Is such a system feasible in a city like New York?
JM: Of course. We already have many of the pieces here. A ubiquitous network of taxis, an extensive transportation network in the form of commuter rail, subway and bus; car share vendors, car rentals; informal bus options and two world-gateway airports.
If there’s any barrier to realizing the Finnish plan here, I think it’s the lack of integration. Elsewhere, one organization operates many of these modes, but in NYC you have multiple organizations and little integration, making using these services more tedious– different fare cards, different mobile apps, etc. Getting the MTA, Port Authority and the City to form a working group charged with integrating transport in the New York region would be a huge step towards the Finnish plan, and a way to encourage people to use other options.
NP: While Helsinki’s motives for developing Mobility as a Service are driven by trends in the marketplace, environment and demographics, New York would likely be driven by others: relieving traffic that wreaks havoc on the economy, improving public health and safety of pedestrians, and solving the ever-ominous need to fund better public transportation options. Over the last five years New York has pointed to congestion pricing as a solution but that has not proven feasible so far. But addressing New York’s needs can be done many different ways– including increasing the supply of other time-competitive options, such as bike to ferry or bus to bike. So the development of shared systems such as Helsinki could be realized in New York and publicly supported.
The MTA, for example, spends fifteen cents of every fare dollar paid towards collecting that fare. Sharing fare collection across ten different systems that collect $10 billion in annual revenue would mean savings in the range of $1.5 billion dollars. That’s a strong argument for integration!
What would you do for NYC?
JM: As one concrete proposal, I would better integrate paratransit into NYC’s mass transit system. It’s the publicly-operated system we have that closest to the type described in the Finnish proposal. It’s also one that receives a lot of Federal funding, so the potential to innovate around it is potentially huge. There were plans to replace paratransit with taxi vouchers a few years ago– but what if we added paratransit to the transportation network and redirected that money towards programs that serve both those with special mobility needs as well as the general public? There are challenges here, but nothing that can’t be solved.
NP: We could pilot a shared system in Lower Manhattan, where there’s already limited parking, a residential and business population and access to several public and private systems including bike share, PATH, buses, subways, and ferries.