Will Helsinki make automobiles obsolete?

The Finnish capital has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point “mobility on demand” system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.

Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

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 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.

The story is here, via s.  Here is a further and very different installment in The Culture that is Finland, nice visual on the igloos.  Or try this Finland Bitcoin link, blockchain-by-air.


in theory

and the whole thing run as a public utility:

- overmanning
- exorbitant labor costs
- frequent strikes
- rigid work rules

I propose "Leave early to arrive late" as the advertising slogan.

Finland is a small and homogenous country. I wouldn't impose American expectations of bureaucratic incompetence onto them.

Finaland is sooooo white it would make David Duke proud!

I believe this is the stupidest comment on the internet.

Welcome to Internet.

I think Jay is just riffing on an oft-used, but seldom elaborated, Libertarian meme; i.e., "homogeneity" explains why regulations work in Scandinavian countries but not here.

"leave early to arrive late" is what happened every other day back when i still drove to work in my own car - traffic jams, etc. then i started taking the train, and, lo and behold, i leave at 07:36 and arrive at 08:02, give or take a minute or two, most of the time. private car ownership is highly overrated.

>private car ownership is highly overrated

As long as the train is going where you want to go.

haven't encountered that problem yet, but i guess it depends on where you live. i happen to have ended up in a small country with good public transport.

One often overlooked aspect of public transport is that it encourages centralization. At least, that's what I observe in Switzerland. Public transport increases the value of locations close to train stations and devalues locations in the periphery. Commuting 20 km from the periphery into the city center works well by public transport, but commuting 20 km from one peripheral place to another does not. Cars are much more flexible and decentralized by nature. This coincides with Zurich's current red-green policy of "Verdichtung" (compaction), which aims at increasing population density in the center by allowing higher buildings, thereby preserving peripheral green areas.

That's true of trains. It doesn't have to be true of all "public transport," such as buses. A smart bus management company could use computing power to figure out where its customers are and what to be and give them a quiet convenient WiFi-enabled ride with slightly longer travel times. Customers who occasionally need a private taxi because time is of the essence could get that, too.

It isn't even necessarily true of trains.

Look at London Overground's routes from suburb to adjacent suburb, and Crossrail and Thameslink provide suburb to opposite suburb as well (as do some of the longer tube lines, like the District).

Where I'm at public transportation usually takes 50% longer, sometimes double. It's cheaper, though, if you're headed the right direction.

I'd like to point out that the current public transportation in Helsinki area is already excellent. Buses and trains are rarely late. In Helsinki, owning a car is, in my opinion, already pretty much pointless (in the surrounding areas, it might still be needed depending on where you live). Due to historical reasons, a lot of Helsinki central is poorly planned for cars and thus it is often faster (because of traffic jams and difficult to find parking space) to take a bus or a tram instead of driving a car. Further away from the central, public transport is always something from viable to superior option depending on where you're going.

I was recently reading a book by a shuttle astronaut, and I'm hearing strong echoes of "It will fly every two weeks and be cheaper than unmanned rockets!"

Huge overpromises are a big step -- not the first step, but a big one, nonetheless -- in high tech death spirals. Once it becomes clear that the original plan isn't going to work, a certain kind of mind wants to scale it by a factor of 100 in hopes of solving every problem, all at once. See also Obamacare.

Click through to the Helsinki Times story that this breathless leftie based his story on and you'll see that the only firm plan is a smart phone route planner app and the rest is a study of what might be possible by a grad student, who actually is recommending a mostly private system with a unified payment platform.

Real men use 2.5 tons of metal and 3.5 gallon of gas to travel to their office. Cos MERICAAAAA!

Whereas imaginary men use imaginary systems that are 1:1 substitutable for cars, have zero cost of ownership, but somehow make money for the city in the process.

And sensible people realize that paying to own, maintain, clean, tax, insure and store a car 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if you use it for significantly less than that time is a pretty poor use of capital. Conspicuous consumption of cars or whatever else is all well and good, but the fact that its the current dominant transportation model in much of the world doesn't mean that alternative transportation ideas should be dismissed as being silly.

A typical automobile would be a worthless pile of junk in under a year if it were actually driven 24/7/365, even allowing occasional down time for maintenance. The very few cars designed for extensive use at high duty cycles (the old Checker taxicabs, some of the more utilitarian Mercedes models), tend to be substantially more expensive than typical mass-market consumer models.

So a sensible person needs motorized transportation for maybe an hour a day. $25,000 for a new car, 20 year service life at that duty cycle, $1250/year cost of ownership, plus extra because they have to borrow the money up front. Or they sign up for an on-demand vehicle service that efficiently manages 80-85% fleet utilization - they only need one car per twenty customers, but they have to replace that car every year. $1250/year cost of service, plus extra to cover management overhead. A sensible person might well be persuaded by the secondary advantages of personal ownership.

Aside from storage, the costs of automobile ownership scale roughly linearly with usage rather than with calendar time; so long as you intend to "use up" a car within your personal economic planning horizon, it is not intrinsically foolish or inefficient to purchase one and leave it idle most of the time. Unless you live someplace like Manhattan, where storage costs may dominate.

+1 for consideration of storage costs.

If driverless cars work out technically, the ability to easily park a few miles from downtown means ownership will be much cheaper for people who live in urban areas. They could drive off unmanned and park a few miles away where parking is cheap, and pick you up when you want that. Being able to park offsite from my office would save me $350 a month, and I don't park in a particularly expensive garage by local standards and I'm not in NYC. I'd look for car ownership to significantly increase among the urban set.

Fair point, but in a lot of European cities a car isn't really a regular necessity for daily life. Public transport will usually take care of commuting and regular travel needs. That said, many people would like to have the option of using a private vehicles occasionally, for purchasing large items out of town, visiting places that are poorly served by public transport, etc. I would say that if you're interested in using a car very infrequently - say for an hour or less every week, which would pretty much fit my own case - the additional maintenance, cleaning, taxation, insurance and storage costs really do begin to dominate your cost calculations. At that usage rate you'd probably end up spending significantly more on insurance than you would on petrol.

@Aidan, that's exactly my personal situation, and I've resolved it by a car club service (not Zipcar, but one of the competitors)

"the additional maintenance, cleaning, taxation, insurance and storage costs really do begin to dominate your cost calculations."

So if driverless cars remove the insurance and storage costs, will you get less car ownership, or more?

Maintenance and cleaning are mostly per-mile expenses, so when you drive less, you pay less. Same for fuel.

Is it really just taxation driving your choices?

Interesting idea for the 80% case, but mostly useless for the 20% case.

If you live in an urban or first-ring suburban area and all you ever do with your car is drive to work, drive to the grocery store, and suchlike, then yes either public transport or some hypothetical Uber-like ride service with low costs due to scale will work fine.

If you live in an exurban or rural area, and you use your car for other things, well, you'll either have to give up those things or keep your car. I'm biased towards this region of the use space because I live in the Colorado front range where basically everyone drives to the mountains at least occasionally, and many do so frequently, all year round. There are also a good number of people who work in Denver but live in Golden... or Boulder... or Erie / Frederick / Firestone / etc. I can imagine a world where a transport-on-demand system can take care of the daily commutes and other short-distance needs of people in or close to the city, but not one that does anything at all for the above people. Given that half of Colorado's population lives outside the Denver metro area... yeah, I'm not too optimistic.

Obviously people from DC / NYC / SF / Chicago / etc. are likely to have the opposing perspective.

This is why I don't trust anyone who claims that there is a magic technology that would convince us all to give up our cars. I would be thrilled if I never had to drive within the Seattle city limits ever again, but I spend enough time out of town during the weekends that I can't imagine giving up my car. Cabs and car share services claim to solve the problem of needing a car on an occasional basis, but you can't use them to get to a trailhead in the middle of the woods or even the next county. How many people really want to live in a world without personal transportation?

1) In America it wouldn't work because there aren't workable medium-distance alternatives to cars. But that is not the case in Europe, which has a much more developed public transportation network, including to scenic areas like the mountains.

2) For occasional trips off the grid, renting a car is cheap and convenient. Europe has plentiful in-city car rental options catering to people who don't own cars, unlike America where you often only find this at airports.

Going without a car is already workable in much of Europe with fairly minimal sacrifice. This proposal would just take things further.

Oh yeah, and the cost and pain of owning a car are much higher in Europe, too, so there is that.

You can definitely live without a car reasonably conveniently in Europe...however...
I'm living in Prague. I never take a car when I go from the edge of the city to the center; however if you move along the edge, you get those '15min by car vs 45min by public transport'. That's a lot of lost time. What if you need to move some things around which are impractical to take by public transport? What if you are a company that has a car full of things to serve the customers? Yes, you can go to mountains by train/bus reasonably easily (2 hours by car, 4 hours by public transport); unless you need to take a lot of things with you... then good luck. I have just spoken with 2 friends who (independently) each bought some car and both had the same story: they just saved lots of time.

For occasional trips off the grid, renting a car is cheap and convenient.... Going without a car is already workable in much of Europe with fairly minimal sacrifice.

Going without a car is workable if you have an option to use a car when you need it. Right.

I went to Switzerland a few years ago to meet someone at a conference and then spend the weekend skiing. I thought "Hey, it's Switzerland, I'll just use the trains to get around." That was stupid. I should have just rented a car.

The trains were clean, basically empty of passengers, and ran on time. So that part is light-years better than the American train experience.

But nothing you are going to is exactly at a train station so there's a last mile (or last couple of miles) problem. You have to make numerous connections and that involves a lot of wasted time both in the transition and because the route isn't exactly what you want. You have to carry your stuff with you. In my case, I had skis and a little rolling suitcase. That made all the waiting around and the several miles of walking required a real pain.

I can't imagine the hell it would be to travel with kids. As an adult who actually wanted to be somewhere in a timely matter, it sucked. But I understood why college kids on vacation like it.

Timely "manner." Not "matter."

Transitions are hell and break the concentration of any passenger trying to think about something else. In my pseudo-Star Trek future, you get in your pod-like Google car, and it drives itself onto trains or trucks or buses or whatever for you that are more efficient, and it disgorges you at the right place and the car takes you to your final destination.

Transitions suck. Also, putting control of your journey (and in particular the timing of your journey) in someone else's hands sucks.

This is off-topic, but since you mentioned it, Google made a major error in the design of its Google-car. The big selling features of driverless cars will be safety and ability to do other things while driving. The thing should have been big and built like a vault, not cute and an obvious death-trap when a 4500 pound minivan hits you. In fact, a minivan would have been a decent platform for it. If I don't need to drive, why am I ensconced in a snug cockpit like some fighter pilot? Give me space and accessories.

Enterprise has over 5,000 non-airport locations.

No, in Europe the mountains are just closer. Getting from Jacksonville to Colorado Springs is 1,700 miles. Bordeaux to Bratislava is 1,200 miles (and there are much closer mountains to Bordeaux than Bratislava). Any comparison of a European national transportation system to America's transportation system is worthless unless you take into account that America is really REALLY big.

I think it's obvious the US will always have a hybrid, where some (most) will own cars...but as urban public transit/Uber/etc improves there will be simply less need for them. Most 2 car families in urban areas can probably get by with just 1 car for example, and use public transit/ride share/rentals.

It's not either/or.

"Most 2 car families in urban areas"
Agreed. But what percentage of Americans are all three of (1) 2 car (2) families (3) in densely populated urban areas? Not many. You're basically saying that married folks in SF, Boston, and Manhattan can get by without a second car, which is obviously true. But, again, "take into account that America is really REALLY big."

We could refer to this as the "Iglesias fallacy."

An equivalent way of expressing that is that America has about a billion too few people.

I'm all for having more kids, but adding people is not going to move Jacksonville and Colorado Springs any closer together.

Zero privacy, minimal control, state-owned monopoly on movement.

Advent of the global police state, and people will be enthralled at the ability to be chauffered.

The government already knows what car you own, and cameras can read your licence plate wherever you go. Also, facial recognition is reaching the point where the government can use that to track you.

There's nothing specific about this proposal; technology is just reaching the point where surveillance is really, really easy.

One of the scariest thing about tracking technologies is the exchange where person A will propose an system, person B will point out how invasive it is, and person C, in an attempt to defend the system, will say we've already lost and should just accept it.

Do you have an objection to the substance of my argument? I was only making a factual claim and did not say we "should just accept it".

Finland can study Sweden's H-Day when the country mandated a new driving system in 1967:


If anyone can make it work it will be Finland, where determination is hard wired into their culture, and acts a powerful antidote to dependency.

But it sounds impractical. Not only do people go to different places, they like to go at different times, by different routes, at different speeds and in different modes - a Smart Car for someone going for coffee or a pickup for a trip to the hardware store.

I see a hybrid model where we own variations on the google car, self autonomous and able to synch with neighbourig traffic for an efficient ride, but at a push of a button manually controlled when you want something different.

Maybe all cars on main highways have to be synched for efficiency by side roads are open to manual drivers.

It's Europe. The hardware store will just deliver your stuff to you.


In the final analysis, congestion charges will make many ideas viable. The technology for collecting is available. Apparently, much of the US public would rather drive on congested road -- stuck in traffic -- for free than pay for enhanced mobility. Solutions will be politically viable only once congestion gets one hell of a lot worse. :-)

Why do commies hate cars so damn much anyways?

Because they are harder to control.

'Driver's license, please,' said the freedom loving cop at the voluntary checkpoint. 'And registration, and proof of insurance.'

E-ZPass is another one of those freedom loving systems that just happens to involve billing and photos of the vehicle and driver each time a toll collection point is passed. Just see how freedom loving this group of driving enthusiasts is - 'The E-ZPass Group is an association of 25 toll agencies in 15 states that operates the extremely successful E-ZPass electronic toll collection program. E-ZPass enjoys tremendous brand recognition and high levels of customer satisfaction, and is the world leader in toll interoperability, with more than 24 million E-ZPass devices in circulation.

While this website is primarily intended as a resource for our staff and member agencies and much of this site is therefore password protected and not available to the general public, you will find some basic information about the E-ZPass program. More detailed information can be obtained by contacting the E-ZPass service center of one of our member agencies.' http://www.e-zpassiag.com/

Yes--how dare you think you can travel where you want, when you want!

I wonder how far you would get driving 'where you want, when you want' in a car without a license plate in the U.S. Then there is the sticker - with an expiration date - as proof that you have paid your personal property tax in a commonwealth like Virginia's.

Though this was new in the free to travel where you want lottery - 'Vehicles owned by Fairfax County residents who display out-of-state license plates on their vehicle rather than Virginia license plates as required by state law within 30 days of purchase or residency are subject to Fairfax County's local No Plate tax. Valid temporary Virginia plates are acceptable.

The No Plate Tax refers to the $100 tax, plus an additional $250 penalty adopted by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on September 10, 2013. This applies to vehicles that are normally garaged or parked in Fairfax County and are subject to Virginia’s vehicle licensing laws.' http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dta/cartax_noplatetax.htm

Amazing what new variations of freedom arise in the U.S.

Cars do not allow you to travel when you want. You need to be near your car, which is a huge restriction. You're forced to be constantly tethered to your car if you want to go anywhere. With public transportation, you can just be walking down the street and decide you want to hop on the bus. With a car, (other than a Zipcar) if you drive somewhere you have to drive back or your car is stuck there.

If anyone can make it work, it's probably the Finns (though how the Japanese didn't beat them to it is beyond me). However I doubt that any combination of 19th century technology is going to render 20th century technology obsolete. When cars are finally junked, it will be because something new and powerful has rendered them unnecessary, not because the neo-Luddites of the left finally convinced us to pedal bikes made from our own urine to our organically composted mud huts.

Now that I think of it, during my many trips to Helsinki over the years, I haven't encountered a single traffic jam. Not in what would normally constitute the rush hour, not in winter during snowstorms, not ever. Either I've been randomly lucky like that or there aren't that many automobiles to begin with. You'd be surprised by the paucity of damn anybody gives about cars when they are merely a way of getting around as opposed to a prerequisite for being kewl.

That's because cars are for people that can pay for them. The upfront cost is higher in the EU compared to US: how expensive is to get a driver's license? The ownership costs are also higher in the EU: parking spot, fuel price, how easy is to lose your driver's license and maintenance cost. Also, it's easier to survive in the EU without a car.....survive, not enjoy life.

I calculate the market potential for local self-driving cars in Princeton at around 4,000 on a population of 40,000, giving a SDEV to household ratio of about 1 in 3 to 1 in 4. That is, self driving EV's (to wit, the Google "Dorkmobile") would represent between 1/4 and 1/3 of miles driven in the Princeton area. Owned vehicles would represent 60-70% of the market; and public transportation and other, the rest.

The cost: 4,000 vehicles x $25,000 / vehicle = $100 million, just for Princeton. Princeton has tax revenues of about $25 million; of this, discretionary funding for things like EVs might total $2 million. Thus, any fleet of SDEV's would likely be both funded and operated by the private sector.

I would suggest that as likely (or even more) than making autos obsolute is to make point to point, one size fits all, boondoggle transportation links (think light rail, etc) obsolete. I would also suggest that the number of miles driven by autos would go up and (all else equal) possibly the amount of fuel/energy consumed. If all this comes to pass, I would also expect motorcycles/moped sales would take a hit, and actual biking and walking would also fall.

"With bad luck, supply and demand will correlate even less, when simultaneously everyone wants to take a taxi home from their Christmas party. Heikkilä believes that the problem can be solved with price elasticity, for example."

Good luck with the price gouging, Heikkilä. It worked out so well for Uber.

Rational individuals will own or not-own a car after comparing the real and psychic values of owning a car (including time saved) with the many costs (including time spent) of buying, maintaining, insuring, parking etc) a car imposes. Such costs and benefits vary greatly across persons, so those advocating optimal schemes chase windmills.

The closest thing to a technology to convince people to give up their cars was the Curitiba above-ground "subway" system. In its heyday it had the virtue of being cheap, private, fast, frequent, and convenient.

Transportation in Brazil in general is eye opening for an American. With exceptions such as Curitiba there is not much of what Americans would think of as public transportation (and certainly not much passnger rail). But there is not the mass diffusion of private auto ownership, again at least by American standards. The difference is made up by living in very compact towns and cities, and a pretty relaxed attitude towards unlicensed vans picking up passengers. There is also an excellent private intercity bus network, though parts of the US are starting to catch up in this regard.

For example, you might be in a small town with one bus -not one bus line, one bus- but then you can walk everywhere (and get things delivered), and there are pretty frequent buses to other nearby towns, so the net effect is that you less dependent on cars than you would be in a larger and wealthier American city, even if the American town has a better mass transit system on paper.

The weakness of public transit has always been that it rarely can provide a single-seat, end-to-end journey. Often it's something like a walk to the bus to the train, and then a bus and a walk from a train to one's destination. In the end, few use it (unless congestion or law makes everything else impractical or illegal) because it just takes too long to get anywhere, and it's too inconvenient if one is burdened with packages or other cargo.

The possibility of driverless cars just might change that, but they're certainly not here yet. And there remains the problem of cost. Privately owned cars are certainly not cheap (or energy-efficient), but actually-existing big-city transit also is neither.

So, the question is: is carlessness ever going to be practical for most of us without some very hard government nudges pushing us to live, work and play where density makes transit practical? And, if we're to be dependent on transit, is there some way to prevent unions from acquiring inordinate power and riches from their ability to shut it down?

Cars are far from ideal transportation machines, but if they didn't work better than alternatives then people wouldn't keep buying and using them. A great deal of thought (and more than a little public money) has gone into finding replacements for them, without a whole lot to show for it. Which reasonably makes one skeptical upon reading yet another utopian this-will-solve-everything proposal.

One thing transit planners keep coming up against is, cars (automobiles) keep getting better: they last longer, they use less fuel, they're safer. Whereas many transit technologies have not improved all that much in decades.

Very cool.

If they pull it off by 2025, I would like to visit just to see it work :)

I do not understand how is it possible to have a discussion about public transportation without discussing the cheapest, healthiest and more environmental friendly and (for my libertarian friends) the only truly "free" mode of transportation: bike.

Obsolete as an urban need, maybe. Otherwise, there will always be joyriders!

Btw, these on demand systems already exist in other countries for several years, so they are not new. (maybe they dont have "that" fancy app yet, but still) Obviously, it is impossible to answer all work-home transit demand without cars. However, there are several places where public transportation could be vastly improved, by having better interconnections for instance. Better information, is also an issue. In periphery-periphery travels, it is obviously very hard to design a public transportation system, and those people will always be better served by car.

It's ironic that the most ardent defenders of car ownership and "liberty" could be the first clients of the new system. One day you'll be old and impaired to drive. You are not used to stay at home all day. What are your choices? Rot in the couch and be depressed at home or call the mobility company?

Before answering with the animosity of a teenager, check that your body is the one of a teenager.

Comments for this post are closed