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Helsinki experiment: Would you trade your car for buses, taxis and rental cars?

The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority is teaming up with Finnish start-up MaaS Global on an app that offers all local mass transit services and limited access to cabs and rental cars, all for a monthly fee of 249 euros.

Rush-hour action in Helsinki's Kaisaniemi district. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

The Whim mobile application was launched in October as a partnership between the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL) and start-up firm MaaS Global. So far it is only available to a limited test group, and will be expanded next month to include new options.

For 249 euros a month, a user gets unlimited access to HSL buses, metros, trains, trams and ferries. He or she also gets 5,000 "whim-points". These can be used for taxi rides – an average of eight trips of 10 kilometres – and to rent a car for two days. Or, for a weekend getaway, one could use most of the points for a four-day car hire.

"We want to offer a genuine alternative to car ownership or buying a second car," says Kaj Pyyhtiä, ‎co-founder of MaaS, which is an acronym for Mobility as a Service.

"Mobility as a service simply means that all possible forms of transportation are available from one source. In our case it's a mobile app," explains Pyyhtiä.

Pyyhtiä says the service aims to bring choice, ease of use and perhaps also cost savings for the user. He compares the app's point model to mobile service packages offered by telecoms operators.

Sustainable transport is trendy

Flexible transport on demand is part of a global trend, says the Finnish Transport Agency's development manager, Asta Tuominen.

"Finland is a pioneer in this. The thinking on this as well as the political will behind it are further advanced here than elsewhere. Certainly there are similar services elsewhere in the world, but not this broad and comprehensive," she says.

The Transport Agency is primarily interested in the phenomenon from the standpoint of sustainable transport.

Tuominen points out that this is still early days, and predicts that if such systems proliferate they could revolutionise transport.

"And when there are more services, selection and users, we'll see how the prices stabilise," she adds.

Pitäjänmäki to Kreuzberg with a click?

HSL and MaaS signed a contract on November 15 that will make HSL the first urban region to adopt the system – but not the last, hopes the startup.

The Finnish firm is actively marketing the Whim app internationally. Negotiations are underway with about 20 metropolitan areas.

"England looks like a quite strong possibility, but so do many other places," says Pyyhtiä."We'll certainly be able to say more early next year."

So would that potentially mean that a user could for instance arrange transport from the Helsinki neighbourhood of Pitäjänmäki to Kreuzberg in Berlin, with a few screen taps?

"Yes, the whole trip, including flights," promises Pyyhtiä.