Helsinki Public Transport Goes Mobile
By Tim Bird, Fri Nov 02 00:00:00 GMT 2001

The days of bus tickets and printed timetables may be numbered in the Finnish capital as mobile applications are gradually introduced to take their place.

Imagine a future in which all the messy paraphernalia of travelling by public transport is nothing more than a vague untidy memory. A future in which all transactions, proof of purchase and information are processed and stored on your mobile handset.

No more pockets full of crumpled tickets (and no excuse for losing them), no more fiddling with coins to pay the fare, or expeditions to the sales point to buy your monthly pass. No more dog-eared timetables with indecipherable cross-referenced small print. With so much going for it, public transport might persuade more people to forsake their cars and jump on a bus instead.

Many steps towards such a future have already been made, and more are planned, in the Finnish capital Helsinki. The most recent development has been the introduction and promotion of the Reitti (route) timetable service by the Sonera ZED provider.

Reitti functions entirely through mobile phone handsets, on both SMS and WAP platforms. It works like a dream: you key the service identifier into an SMS message, 'REITTI', followed by the address of your starting point and the address of your destination (street names and numbers), then send off your message to the 16400 service number. Seconds later, a detailed itinerary for your trip, including precise times and locations for changing from bus to bus or bus to tram, train or metro, is returned in text message form.

The WAP option is even better, since users are not restricted to the 160 characters of SMS, and they can use a form field that allows them to fine-tune their functions, adding extra information to the query, such as the time and date of the desired departure or arrival. The WAP response can also specify more detail, such as walking distances between different route sections.

Positive response

Reitti came about when YTV, the authority that coordinates public transport throughout the Helsinki metropolitan area, invited tenders for a route optimising Internet information site. The successful bidder, Dipec, founded by students from Helsinki's University of Technology and now part of Novogroup, developed the software that calculates change and route alternatives, and the package evolved into a mobile application. Sonera ZED has been responsible for finishing the product, fine-tuning its usability, and distributing and marketing it.

According to Sonera ZED's Product Manager in Finland, Teemu Lehtonen, Reitti has met with a positive public response. It also represents a good instance of how the wheat is being sorted from the chaff in mobile services generally. The emphasis for service providers has shifted from introducing new options as a means of maintaining a high industry profile to concentrating on services that are proven revenue generators. How much earnings exactly, nobody is prepared to say, although revenues are shared between the different parties concerned.

"Previously, effort in mobile applications was appreciated more than results," says Lehtonen. Elevating such applications to visible levels by vigorous marketing is now another priority. "You can have the cleverest application in the world, but nobody will use it if they don't see it or know about it."

Lehtonen is confident that Reitti is just one angle of a wider vision for the future. "Using a handset is much easier than carrying a timetable, and it works out all your connection details for you." But he also emphasises that this kind of service is an example of how the public will respond to service when it meets a real need - and this is a lesson worth learning for would-be mobile service providers.

Ease of use is another priority: people should be able to use the service easily and quickly the second time, and then repeatedly. Memorable service numbers are also crucial for success.

YTV will launch its PC-based web option for Reitti in November, and Lehtonen, rather than fearing that this will be a threat, looks forward to customers being directed through it to the mobile application.

In between five and ten years, Lehtonen thinks, the distribution of printed timetables to households in the Helsinki area will end, and the use of portable devices for transport information will become standard.

Progressive applications

Meanwhile, Helsinki is forging ahead with other progressive mobile applications. One of the most interesting was launched for the first time on the weekend of September 22-23, when the city extended the EU-backed International Car-Free Day to cover both Saturday and Sunday, with private passenger vehicles discouraged from entering the city centre.

To encourage the use of public transport, it made payment for tram and metro train transport possible by the availability of SMS electronic 'tickets'. The service, using the identifier LIPPU, or ticket, was supported by the Helsinki city transport authority (HKL) as well as the wider YTV, and was available for Sonera and Radiolinja subscribers.

The cost of the transaction was 8 marks, about 1.3 euros, transferable for up to an hour, about the same fare as a normal ticket, so this was a goodwill project rather than a big money-spinner. Benefits might come in other ways, such as the encouragement to use public transport resulting from increased convenience.

Tram drivers in Helsinki would also be relieved of ticket-selling duties, and this could increase punctuality. At any rate, according to Eeva Mustonen of HKL's marketing department, LIPPU will be back.

"HKL will continue the trial from January 1 to February 28, 2002 on the trams, when the drivers are not selling tickets during the euro changeover (Finland adopts the new currency at the turn of the year)," she says.

"The trial during the car free weekend was technically very successful, and the connections worked well. About 700 SMS 'tickets' were sold during the first trial." Bearing in mind that many Helsinki residents have monthly passes and don't need individual tickets, this is a substantial figure.

Yet another public-transport related mobile application was tested in the Helsinki area in spring 2001 and is set to enter regular use in 2002. The LocWAP service run through Finland's Elisa network, is an alert facility that provides real-time info about the progress of a bus, tram or train along its designated route - and lets you know when your required transport is about to arrive at your stop. The service, developed by Hewlett Packard, is due to be extended to all Helsinki's tram routes within the next few years.

The high quality of Helsinki's transport infrastructure, the efficiency of its public transport system and its well-defined geography, not to mention its citizens' fondness for new technology, have made this the perfect laboratory for transport-related services. Mobile applications supporting public transport are becoming commonplace here, to an unequalled extent.

It remains to be seen how well a service like Reitti would work in a city like London, where disruptive factors are more frequent. You don't need a handset to tell you that in London you wait half an hour for a bus -then half a dozen arrive at the same time!

Tim Bird is an English journalist who has been living in Finland since 1982. He has learned to like his mobile phone, but likes to think that he can resist becoming a slave to it.