This article is part of our special report What’s driving Europe’s digital transformation?.
The European Commission is pushing local authorities to digitise cities and make them more efficient—one radical plan bubbling up could minimise the number of cars on city streets.
The EU executive has funded research projects and set up a working group to pin down strategies that will help boost so-called smart cities in Europe, a term used to describe the move towards digital city infrastructure.
The Commission is especially encouraging cities to use technology to make energy and transport services more efficient.
A project slated to start later this year in Finland could create an app that would help Helsinki residents to map out routes using multiple modes of transport, including walking, public transport, taxis and bicycle and car sharing programmes. The app will also sell flat-rate subscriptions so that people can travel in the city with whatever combination of transport means they choose—and only pay once.
Sampo Hietanen, CEO of the MaaS app, or mobility as a service, calls the idea a kind of Netflix for transport and says it “could give a true alternative to owning a car”.
Hietanen wants the app to eventually work in cities across Europe so people can use it when they travel. The next cities he’s eyeing to get on the app include Manchester, Berlin, Antwerp and Ghent.
Legislation set to go into effect next year to slash roaming charges for mobile phone users within the EU could help the app draw users as it expands.
“I think that was one of the best decisions the EU ever did. So now you can start planning new types of services,” Hietanen said of the roaming regulation.
The idea has already garnered support for going Europe-wide.
Jacob Bangsgaard, director general of consumer group Federation Internationale de l’Automobile’s Europe office, praised the idea and told euractiv.com that “citizens are underserved when it comes to mobility”.
“In smart cities, we should be able to get from A to B by using convenient, bundled transport packages,” Bangsgaard said.
If the mobility as a service app gets people in cities to stop buying and using their own cars, it could relieve traffic congestion and even cut emissions from cars, lining up with the Commission’s plan to use technology to make cities more sustainable.
In a blog post published Monday (4 April), the World Economic Forum wrote that cities “allow for a use of fewer resources like cars, greater sustainability of public transport and of course pricing”.
The European Parliament’s Transport Committee approved a report last November that called for cleaner transport in cities and included measures to cap emissions and introduce digital features that could make transport more efficient.
French Green MEP Karima Delli (Europe Écologie), rapporteur on the report, told euractiv.com that mobility as a service projects “must get all our attention because it challenges the traditional model of private cars.”
“Platforms have already demonstrated that they lower transaction costs, but they can also be useful to lower congestion and pollution,” Delli added.
The Commission is brokering talks between public authorities and transport operators to work out details of how platforms can gain access to data and pass it along to users.
For mobility as a service and other platforms that want to advise users on how to travel in cities, gaining access to companies’ data is key.
Eurocities, an organisation representing cities in the EU, is pressing for local authorities to make transport data public and to use it to make traffic run more smoothly.
Peter Staelens, project coordinator for digital mobility at Eurocities, said cities are wary of making data public that could be useful for traffic routing because it could be swept up by giant companies like Google.
“Cities want to use open data to allow local SMEs to create employment at the local level,” Staelens said.
Hietanen says that despite disputes over data, there is growing receptiveness towards the mobility as a service idea.
“I think Europe is waking up to the idea that transportation is going through a big disruption caused by different types of digitalisation. It’s a big market disruption and a big opportunity,” he said.
Hietanen is in talks with companies and public transport operators and is pushing for the green light to sell subscriptions to their services. He insists the app will also benefit taxi drivers by bringing them more business.
With ride sharing service Uber banned and under increasing legal pressure in parts of Europe, the mobility as a service idea could face resistance for its plan to combine different modes of transport to complete one route, potentially shortening some taxi rides.
But Hietanen insists that companies and city governments should help the app get off the ground.
“If Europe wants to take charge and be the first area where this is done and beat the US and Asia then the market has to be opened up,” he said.
To make the model work, Hietanen says he needs to convince people they’re saving money but aren’t compromising convenience. He estimates Europeans spend most of their transport fees on buying and using a car.
“Can we provide something that has the same service guarantee as owning a car? People are willing to ridiculously overpay for the guarantee of having the car around and they use it about four percent of the time because it’s a guarantee for their freedom of mobility,” Hietanen said.