Keeping cities on the move

Connected society 11 June 2018 Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen

As cities continue to grow, urban transport systems are increasingly feeling the strain. To improve mobility without increasing air pollution and CO2 emissions, cities need transport systems that are holistic, integrated and utilise innovative technology. In other words, smarter.

8 min

On a cold but sunny day in Helsinki, Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen, Global Division Director for Smart Mobility at Ramboll Finland, is on his way to his next meeting. He opens up an app called ‘Whim’ on his smartphone and with access directly to his calendar, the app knows exactly when and where he is heading. 

With the current location determined by GPS, he is instantly presented with a range of transport options - from tram and bus to private car and taxi. 

As many of us who live in them know only too well, moving around crowded, congested cities can be a challenge. And things are only set to get worse, with nearly 70% of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, according to the UN. 

The good news is that as cities and their infrastructure become more connected, the ability to make transportation systems that are efficient, sustainable and smarter is increasing - if planned and implemented in the right way. 

At the heart of this lies the concept of smart mobility. This involves combining intelligent transport systems, which combine sensing technologies like cameras, radar and traffic counters, with the use of data from the internet and smartphones. Smart mobility is a central focus of Ramboll’s approach to making cities more liveable and sustainable, and takes a holistic view of transport - from maximising the use of precious public space to more sustainable infrastructure such as bike paths, smart parking, car sharing and better traffic information. 

But smart mobility is not just about technology, emphasises Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen. “Technology is, of course, at the core of this. But mobility in cities does not become smarter just because the technology is smart,” he says.

“There are also plenty of more immediate ways of increasing mobility and making it more sustainable. This can be everything from more efficient traffic flow to better use of existing transport infrastructure and increasing the sharing of modes of transport.”

On the move in Helsinki

Helsinki is arguably one of the smartest cities in the world right now when it comes to mobility. Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen is running late and so reluctantly opts to take a taxi. He barely has time to look up before it arrives, and ten minutes later pulls up at his destination and steps out without paying. Because he is a subscriber, the app automatically deducts the fare from his bank account and it’s significantly cheaper than indicated on the taxi’s readout.

As it turns out, Jukka-Pekka Pitkänen’s destination is the head office of the company behind the Whim app, MaaS Global. Begun only two years ago, the Finnish company is quickly gaining international recognition as its customer base expands and investment increases.

The Netflix of transportation

The concept of MaaS (Mobility as a Service) was born out of frustration of not being able to find viable and integrated transport options. “As a business traveller I might want a fast service in all the countries I visit, while as a family with kids living in the suburbs I might want something else,” explains Kaj Pyyhtia, co-founder and Chief Customer Experience Officer at MaaS Global. “Providers often push out transportation, saying to people, ‘catch me if you can!’. That’s how a lot of transportation is operated and planned. You put up a schedule and then wait.”

MaaS aims to solve this by combining all the available transport options, such as taxis, public transport, cars and even bike share, into a single mobile service. Consumers can buy the exact transport options they need through the Whim app, either as a one-off purchase or on a subscription basis.

Crucially, MaaS involves the flexibility to use all modes of transport, even cars. “To ensure that the customer will use MaaS, we have to have neutrality – we allow everybody and all transport options,” says Kaj Pyyhtia. “Changing people’s behaviour is the hardest thing when it comes to the car. But car ownership is falling among the 18-25 age group and we have to offer an experience on par or better than owning a car. The dream used to be open highways, now we want to provide an open world – without the need to own anything.”

City support

Having the support of the city has been a major factor in the success of the MaaS project in Helsinki. According to Heikki Palomäki, a transport planner for HSL (Helsinki Regional Transport) who works closely with Ramboll in Finland, it is important that transport users all have the same options available to them.

“Everyone needs mobility in some ways. If you feel you are not equal to those who own a car, then that’s wrong. And the same if you have a car and you’re not able to use public transport where you live. The integrated approach like MaaS makes being mobile easier so you don’t need your own car.”

However, he cautions against the over-reliance on vehicles – even if they are autonomous. “Public organisations need to consider the impact of AVs (autonomous vehicles) so that they do not become too desirable. Because if you change your car to an AV, then there will more traffic. Here you could use pricing to ensure this doesn’t happen,” he says.


"Changing people's behaviour is the hardest thing when it comes to the car."

Kaj Pyyhtia, Co-founder, MaaS Global

Increased public transport use

Ramboll has been instrumental in the early success of MaaS, preparing business plans and providing extensive planning expertise, a vital element of the MaaS concept. “We don’t operate any of the fleets ourselves,” says Kaj Pyyhtia. “We are 100% reliant on the goodwill of our partners and we engage with officials and policymakers - unlike some companies who just launch themselves without consultation.”

This effort has paid off handsomely in Helsinki where more than 70% of Whim users now travel by public transport. “The primary promise we make is hassle-free transport, so you don’t have to think how to get from A to B. We take care of it,” says Kaj Pyyhtia. “We can’t unclog the congestion in a city immediately because we use what already exists - but we are making more efficient use of it.”


Mass facts 

  • MaaS has recently launched in Birmingham in the UK. 
  • Launching in Antwerp, Belgium in May and aims to go live in a further eight cites this year. 
  • Has ambitions of operating in 60 countries or 100 cities in five years. 
  • 40,000 registered users and thousands of monthly subscribers in Helsinki. 
  • 70% of Whim users in Helsinki travel by public transport.


TAKE A WALK ON THE SAFE SIDE: Smart mobility is not limited to transport users. In Finland, the ViaSmart system developed by Ramboll is in use in over 160 cities. ViaSmart is a computer programme that evaluates the traffic risk for pedestrians and can help determine the best walking route based on road attributes and traffic features. The system is used by schools to determine the safety of routes for students who walk to and from home. In Finland schools are not obliged to provide bus transport for schoolchildren if they live under three kilometres from their school – unless the route is deemed too dangerous. As Aino Mensonen, Service Manager for Digitalisation and Innovations at Ramboll Finland explains, “the challenge for school authorities has been how to evaluate this. We made a mathematical model that uses 12 parameters to measure the risk on any given route – such as the age of the child, the width of the footpath and street lighting in that part of the city and so on.” Aino Mensonen envisages ViaSmart being utilised in scenarios other than schools. “Road administrators can use it to determine which are roads are ‘black’ and then act accordingly,” she says. “And it can help traffic planners at Ramboll and within city authorities improve the design and planning of pedestrian crossings, lighting etc.”

Traffic Light

ALWAYS GREEN: Improving public transport and easing traffic congestion is one thing. But how do we ensure that essential services such as emergency vehicles can operate quickly and safely when called upon in a busy, congested city? In Finland, Ramboll has developed the HALI Always Green system which automatically provides a green light for emergency vehicles without any pre-planned routes. Already implemented in two cities, the system is now being piloted in Helsinki, a project that is not without challenges as Sami Lappalainen, Senior Fire Marshall at the Helsinki City Rescue Department explains: “The system works by GPS where the fire engine or ambulance sends a signal so we know its exact movement and location and as it approaches an intersection, the traffic light automatically detects it and changes to green. However in Helsinki, trams have priority and we also have about 500 traffic lights, so this will take about five years to implement.” While HALI helps reduce the time it takes emergency vehicles to reach the scene by 10%, it also vastly improves safety. “During that last ten years there have been 52 car accidents involving emergency vehicles,” says Sami Lappalainen. “So this new system is good for us. It’s all about safety. For us and road users.” Since the introduction of the system in Eastern Finland, there have been zero accidents.

Written by Andrew Somerville

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