Our mobility future may end up looking something like what they’re working on in transit-friendly Finland, which imagines it can retire the private car in a decade. Even more, it plans a radical transformation of its public transit system that could make traditional light rail and bus systems obsolete.

I was in Helsinki in 2010, and it seemed as auto-centric as any other European capital (meaning, lots of cars but much more centered on biking and transit). But the concept of ride sharing, and innovators like Uber and Lyft, obviously hit hard in Finland. The Finns practically invented the cellphone with Nokia, and I remember it seeming unusual that average folks used them for practically everything four years ago.

Helsinki's Central Railroad Station: A hub for future mobility.

Helsinki's Central Railroad Station: A hub for future mobility. (Photo: Claudio.Ar/flickr)

That use should ratchet up when Helsinki introduces, beginning with a pilot next year, a mobility-on-demand system that functions like city-wide car sharing. All you do, using the app on your phone, is say where you’re starting from and where you want to go, and your trip on appropriate transport is arranged and billed. What’s more, says Helsinki Times, the system should be smart enough to know it’s going to rain, and so route you into a bus rather than a city bike. If it makes sense for the traveler to use several different modes (including a shared car), that can be arranged, too.

Set up properly, the system should be able to bill by the mile, or allow subscribers to buy a monthly unlimited-mileage package. This totally fits with a new generation that is both wedded to their cellphones and somewhat phobic of car ownership. That’s why car sharing is so popular, and spreading everywhere.

It gets cold in Helsinki, but the trains keep running. (Photo: Niklas Sjoblom/flickr)

It gets cold in Helsinki, but the trains keep running. (Photo: Niklas Sjoblom/flickr)

Helsinki’s public Katsuplus minibus system, which allows people to connect with rides on their phones (like senior-oriented paratransit in the U.S.), is already up and running. It’s ultra-cool: Summon the computer-controlled nine-passenger bus to a local stop, and the system chooses the most direct route. If you opt to ride with other passengers, you pay only for the time you’re alone in the bus. The fare is higher than a traditional bus (but lower than a taxi), and you can say goodbye to having to make multiple bus transfers. 

If you think big, you can imagine the whole world embracing this kind of phone-dispatched transit and drastically reducing both buses/trains on fixed routes and the need for everyone to own a private car. Sounds like progress to me. Here's a nice impressionistic look at Helsinki's tram system, in HD:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Goodbye to cars: Why we should take a good look at Finland's phone-based mobility system
Helsinki is experimenting with a plan to match people with rides, making cars unnecessary.