Technology should probably be transforming public transit a lot faster than it is. Yes, apps like Hopstop have made finding stops easier and I've started riding the bus in unfamiliar parts of town a bit more often thanks to Google Maps' route info. But these are relatively small steps, and it's all limited to making scheduling information more widely available. Where's the innovation on the other side? Where's the Uber-like interactivity, the bus that comes to you after a tap on the iPhone?
In Finland, actually. The Kutsuplus is Helsinki's groundbreaking mass transit hybrid program that lets riders choose their own routes, pay for fares on their phones, and summon their own buses. It's a pretty interesting concept. With a ten minute lead time, you summon a Kutsuplus bus to a stop using the official app, just as you'd call a livery cab on Uber. Each minibus in the fleet seats at least nine people, and there's room for baby carriages and bikes.
You can call your own private Kutsuplus, but if you share the ride, you share the costs—it's about half the price of a cab fare, and a dollar or two more expensive than old school bus transit. You can then pick your own stop, also using the app.
The interesting part is the scheduling, which is entirely automated. If you're sharing the ride, an algorithm determines the most direct route, and you only get charged as though you were riding solo. You can pay with a Kutsuplus wallet on the app, or, eventually, bill the charge to your phone bill.
So far, the service is drawing rave reviews:
This isn't a huge innovation, either—it's just an elegant way to deploy readily available technology to make mass transit more flexible and user-friendly. It's a hybrid taxi-bus that's more comfortable and convenient than a city bus, and cheaper and less resource-intensive than a cab.
It's worth adding that one reason Finland can experiment with ideas like this is that it's a lot more equal than the US—for Kutsuplus to work, everyone has to have access to a smartphone, and riders have to trust each another enough to want to share a close-quarters ride. Both have been stumbling blocks for similar ideas in the states. For information technology to improve transit, everyone needs solid access—and that's the doorway to more advanced sustainable transportation.