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Growing pains: Helsinki's web-based transit "revolution"

For at least a decade Finland has topped international in areas such as education, standard of living and innovation. The internet-based ride-sharing service, Kutsuplus, is currently one of the international media's darlings and growing in popularity in greater Helsinki. But there are murmurs in Helsinki that the city may be about to pull the plug on the programme.

HSL Kutsuplus vans crisscross bus routes to pick up customers who order rides on smartphones. Kutsuplus is a pilot programme in its second year run by HSL, the Helsinki Transport Service.
Mark B. Odom

An innovative pilot programme at the city’s public transportation system, Kutsuplus, made worldwide headlines in publications like Wired, The Guardian and tech publications when it launched two years ago.

Kutsuplus is a network of minibuses that drive along the metropolitan area and are summoned by customers via smartphone - the vans are essentially nine-seat taxis, but cost roughly half the price of a traditional taxi journey.

Unlike buses that follow routes, Kutsuplus vans can drive almost anywhere in the metropolitan area, all they need is a bus stop.

This makes it easier for people to crisscross regions and bus routes and, for example, enables young children to travel independently, almost door-to-door, without the need to change buses or trains.

Kutsuplus clients have lauded the programme with high marks in customer satisfaction: 4.7 out of 5 stars. But even so, things aren’t quite perfect yet.

Finnish media has recently reported that the city of Helsinki may be getting cold feet about supporting Kutsuplus because each trip is heavily subsidised.

While customers pay for their rides, it's estimated that each journey currently costs the city between 17 and 18 euros apiece - not an insignificant amount, considering that there were 6,000 trips in July alone, and that’s during the slow season.

Current figures show that in the summer the 15 vans make just under 450 trips per day but in winter that number can reach 800 trips per day or more.

Compared to a year ago, last July there was an increase of 31 percent in vehicular capacity (vehicle hours per day) that led to a 60 percent increase in ride fare income.

The programme director of Kutsuplus, Kari Rissanen, says that next year he expects to see new passenger number records broken.

5.1 million euros next year

A planned expansion next year to 45 cars would bring the total 2016 budget to 5.1 million euros, Rissanen says.

He was hesitant to put an precise number on how many vehicles the service would need to break even and to work without subsidies, but said the figure was "in the hundreds."

He says that conservative projections estimate that an increase to 100 vehicles on the roads would mean subsidising levels fall to less than 50 percent of current levels, and 180 vehicles would bring it to 40 percent of current subsidy levels.

As the service becomes more popular and adding new features like a standalone smartphone app (currently they use a browser-based ordering system) he says, the numbers will improve more quickly.

Rissanen also says that variations on the Kutsuplus model have begun to appear in cities like New York, San Francisco and Paris.

'The investment is worth it'

"Of course we still have to do development work," Rissanen says. "Although our partners and subcontractors have done very good work, Kutsuplus is still not at all the service that we want it to be. But, to me it’s quite natural that this will make a profit when you go large-scale and when the technology develops. I would be very surprised if that didn’t happen."

"It’s kind of ridiculous to talk about the costs at all because this is a pilot," Rissanen says. "We have seen that the technology works and the concept is something that people love."

"So there’s no sense in talking about costs in this pilot phase. It was evident even before we started this whole thing that we have to go to some kind of reasonable scale to get it to reasonable costs, that was known already before we started, Riissanen says."

Kutsuplus is in its second year of a public testing stage, and at the most there are presently only 15 Kutsuplus vans on the roads on a given day.

'This will be a revolution'

Despite a promotional media blitz at launch two years ago, many people in the city still seem to be unaware what, exactly, Kutsuplus does. Others, like Helsinki resident Heikki Schavikin, become fans soon after their first ride.

Schavikin says that because Kutsuplus vans can use bus lanes, it cuts his commute time in half. It also allows him to leave his car at home, sit in an air-conditioned van with free Wi-Fi rather than fighting traffic, as well.

And what if they decide to stop financing Kutsuplus?

"To be honest, that would be stupid," Schavikin says. "I think it should be expanded - like double it."

But given current economic worries, is the city prepared to continue to pay for this experiment?

"I’m not confident at all if Helsinki will continue, but I’m confident that this will be a revolution - and this is the start of it," Rissanen says.

"It will happen. If it's Helsinki or somewhere else that's a different issue," he says.

Sources: Yle

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