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Finland

Reimagining public transportation is hard work

Noted for the record.

Four years ago, Helsinki launched an innovative bus service as part of a long-term plan to make cars irrelevant.

It was called Kutsuplus—Finnish for “call plus.” And it was one of the world’s first attempts to reinvent carpooling for the algorithm age.

The service matched passengers who were headed roughly in the same direction with a minibus driver, allowing them to share a ride that cost more than a regular city bus but less than a taxi. It was a bit like anUber for buses—or more accurately, likeUberPool—except that Kutsuplus was running for nearly two years by the time Uber got into the ride-sharing side of its business.

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Kutsuplus was the best-known component of Helsinki’s and Finland’s intelligent traffic system. Ridership grew steadily. But late last year, Helsinki authorities shut down Kutsuplus, deeming its cost to taxpayers too high. The blue minibuses picked up their last passengers on December 31.

[…]

For passengers, the system was fairly straightforward. You would log onto a website, top up your account, select the starting and ending points for your journey, and walk to the closest bus stop to wait for the pick up. The average fare in 2014 was around €5—about US$5.50. By comparison, a single ride by bus or metro is €3. Taxi fares start at €6 and can go much higher depending on the distance traveled.

The project had two main targets: assessing technological feasibility and user acceptance. Judged on these goals, it was a success.

“The research proposal tackled a number of different problems and we were able to solve them to a surprising degree,” says Sampo Hietanen, who until recently worked at ITS Finland, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent transport systems. “We made some wild promises, such as predicting arrival times. That’s not really something you can control yourself, because congestion and other circumstances affect it too.”

Riders took to it. The growth rates matched what the researchers had projected: Eventually the system had 21,000 registered users.

[…]

Two things ultimately killed Kutsuplus. First was the need for massive scale to make the economics of ride-sharing really work. Second was the significant public cost of doing that.

The transport authority had big expansion plans for Kutsuplus. From the original 15 buses, the fleet was to grow to 45 vehicles in 2016, 100 vehicles in 2017, and later into the thousands.

Achieving scale with this model is crucial in order to optimize trips across an entire fleet. With a small number of buses and users, it’s more difficult to match up passengers who are going in the same direction around the same time. This explains why Kutsuplus buses were frequently close to empty. The two times my family and I used Kutsuplus, we had the bus to ourselves.

The math looks different if you add lots of riders and lots of buses. Scaling up to 100 vehicles would have increased the efficiency of Kutsuplus threefold, Rissanen says. Hietanen agrees. “There’s a huge difference between mass transit that works in some areas some of the time, and mass transit that works everywhere all the time,” he says.

Scale could not come without funding, however—and in an austere budget environment, that was a problem. Although the €3 million it cost to run Kutsuplus was less than 1 percent of the Transport Authority’s budget, the service was heavily subsidized. The €17 per-trip cost to taxpayers proved controversial.

Rather than investing many millions more into Kutsuplus to bring it to scale, city officials backed away. They let the pilot come to an end. Rissanen wasn’t happy with the decision.

“The minibuses were meant for high-volume usage,” Rissanen says. But the politicians “got scared and didn’t want to invest in it in an economic downturn.”

See here and here for some background on the Kutsuplus service. Thomas highlighted this story in a comment on my post about driverless cars and the future of mass transit, in Houston and elsewhere. Kutsuplus is an awful lot like what Tory Gattis had hypothesized, except that these vehicles still had human drivers. Given the economic factors cited, it may well be that taking those human drivers and their salaries out of the equation would have made this viable, but we’ll have to wait awhile to know that for sure. (Although there are some services like this in other cities, including New York and Washington, DC, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea sooner than that.) A couple of points to note here: One is that the reason this system came about is because Helsinki’s existing mass transit system has a key flaw: its buses run mainly north-south, so taking east-west trips are hard to do. Two, despite the initial success of the Kutsuplus, there’s no evidence to suggest it caused any reduction in driving. To be sure, it may not have lasted long enough for an effect to be seen, and as we know from Christof Spieler, it’s not about getting people who drive now to stop and change what they’re doing. It may be this was a glimpse of our future that was snuffed out before it had a real chance to succeed, and it may be that this was another pie-in-the-sky vision from people who will support any form of transit except the ones we have now.