The Future of Mobility is a combination of vision and function
“In December 2019 we were living in a world that was going through one of the most profound transformations in the human history. Digitalization, urbanization and climate change happening simultaneously created a need for a new type of leadership that recognized the combined effects of these large transformations. And what it would mean to our every day life.
These transformations took place first and foremost in cities. The impacts are inherently urban. Cities around the globe collaborated in order to create the best solutions for carbon-free energy, data smart urban traffic, intelligent service development, safer urban spaces and intelligent designs to support well-being.
None of this stopped in January 2020.
By now we are starting to understand the impacts of the COVID crisis. Even though we are still living in the shadows of the virus and none of us are able to fully comprehend the magnitude of the social and economic consequences, we are moving forward. COVID brought resilience to the core of urban context. It impacts all other transformations and actions – but does not alter the eventual progress of cities’ development in a larger scale.
One of the areas where the COVID crisis has had a profound effect is urban mobility. It has, almost overnight, put a huge share of people working remotely, increased the use and familiarity of online shopping and food deliveries, and improved air quality due to reduced emissions. Even though it is still early to predict which changes in behavior will last, cities around the world are looking at their mobility infrastructure planning through the lens of COVID.
It now seems that private car use recovers faster than public transport. Cycling has increased also in areas where the biking culture is young. Micromobility was increasing before COVID and will most likely gain much new ground during this summer. Some global companies, like Twitter, have already announced new policies where working remotely will become the new norm.
All these changes lead to the conclusion that “returning to normal” in urban mobility does not mean returning to the pre-COVID situation. Also, the question of the future of mobility is much more complex than a simple “private cars versus public transportation”. We must approach the future with more flexibility and intelligence. We must also remember that mobility is a developing ecosystem – not a choice a city can make.
Helsinki has been in the forefront of smart mobility with advanced testing and MAAS development. We believe that a city must recognize its role as a platform and an enabler. We protect and develop our well-functioning public transportation system and at the same time aim to forward privately developed mobility services and platforms that offer the citizens a more flexible, fast-reacting and intelligent way to move in the future.
The new reality and significant changes that started already before the COVID crisis create a rapid demand for new solutions – along with new business opportunities. Helsinki aims to be a place where developing the innovations and new business is easy. We are also eager to share our learnings with other cities around the world.
What will then the future of urban mobility look like?
Urban mobility is no longer about roads, rails, bridges and tunnels. It’s a complex and interconnected ecosystem of intelligence, data, services and intermediaries. Data and digitalization are in the core. This requires an active role and a clear vision from the public authorities.
The challenge is two-sided: how to make traffic more efficient, faster, safe, flexible and customer-friendly and, at the same time, decrease harmful environmental effects. Cities are at the forefront of the new innovations. New transport solutions and innovations are often created in collaboration between cities and the private sector.
At the same time, the concept of public is evolving in service production. Current service environment is moving more and more towards user oriented, individualized transport. Individualism sets heavy requirements for the public transport operators and to meet these needs private companies are stepping in to the role of what used to be reserved for the public operator. In the future, the line between public and private will be blurred even more.
Helsinki aims to be the city in the world that makes the best use of digitalization.
Being able to tap into and integrate different data sources gives cities better intelligence about congestion, if micromobility services are cluttering the streets, is there a supply/demand mismatch in the public transport or city bike networks, and so on. Besides seeing what is going on now, the next step will be to take future action based on the intelligence gathered: modeling and understanding the causalities and potential impacts of steering actions can give a city much needed visibility to the future infrastructure investments which are both long-term and expensive.
Also the question of personal data ownership comes to play. MyData and the paradigm shift in managing personal data – the user being in charge and having the ability to manage their own information. MyData is one of the main objectives in Helsinki’s plans regarding digitalisation and data. Mobility sector will most likely be one of the areas where this shift will lead to concrete changes fast – and first.
We have witnessed multiple changes in recent years: electric cars require charging facilities, new private service providers manage to shift a previously controlled market, public citybikes and scooters have made public transport more attractive by addressing the last-mile challenges. While we are still far from autonomous vehicles taking over, the digital infrastructure they will require can enable other services while improving preparedness. Drones are shaping the urban transport network into a three dimensional and cities will need to figure out rules and practices for taking this into account.
New technologies also bring about uncertainty – which is why close dialogue and co-creation between public and private stakeholders is important. From public authority’s perspective the reaction to uncertainty is often the will to try and control the change through regulation. In urban mobility proactive regulation in order to control the technological developments has shown to be ineffective. Public authorities are affected and bound by the volatility of new businesses and should develop strategies that embrace this kind of environment. Holistic view, flexibility and ability to act quickly are essential – even though not always inherent – from the public sector.
Helsinki’s objective is to be one of Europe’s most captivating locations for innovative start-ups and the most attractive knowledge hub for companies and individuals wanting to make the world a better place to live in. Helsinki is big enough to be a place where you can develop and systemically test significant innovations, and small enough for it to be feasible in practice.
Helsinki is well-known when it comes to mobility innovations from the Mobility as a Service (MaaS) concept to automated driving and a supporting environment through e.g. open data and enabling legislation.
At the same time, we must be aware of the problems that might occur with new innovations. Übers have increased congestion, scooters are creating safety problems for pedestrians and increasingly used delivery services create more traffic. The lifespan of a new innovation can be quick. Knowing when to intervene is crucial. Also paying close attention to companies like Amazon, Google and Apple is essential.
Cities need to be alert for disruptions. Piloting and testing new technologies and services helps cities learn and prepare for the future while also providing a fertile ground for businesses to grow. Being the proving ground for testing new solutions helps determine fit for context. Different solutions fit different cities.
We are experiencing one of the greatest transformational times in the human history. Only this time our ability to champion the change is not depended upon treaties between countries or national legislation. Success in this new era is a combination of intelligence, practical decisions and the ability to build trust in an unsecure world. Cities will be in the leading position, but the real determining factor will be a high-performing ecosystem where each player has accepted their role.”
Photo: Jussi Hellsten