Making the car redundant – Master's Thesis that interests congested cities

Transportation engineer Sonja Heikkilä's master's thesis catapulted her directly to the centre of innovative development work.
Aalto University School of Engineering

The goal of the work is to make private cars obsolete in cities.

In her thesis, Sonja Heikkilä explored the opportunities to implement the Mobility as a Service concept in Helsinki. After graduating, she continued to develop the service model towards its practical implementation in the employment of the Helsinki City Planning Department.

As a concept, mobility as a service is so new that no research has been conducted on the topic previously. The topic, however, is of interest in the congesting cities of the world. This is evident from the frequent interview requests received by Heikkilä in her position as transport engineer.

At the end of October, more than 300 articles had been written on the project in different parts of the world. Heikkilä had also been invited to speak in several countries, including Canada, China and Germany. She has already visited the United States twice this autumn.

- In the concept, the different transport services: transport by metro, bus, tram and train, taxis, car sharing and city bikes are all combined into a single mobile application. The services are offered by operators established for the purpose, Heikkilä explains.

In other words, the operators will conclude agreements with the providers of transport services and supply the services to citizens using them. The customers would have a single, easy-to-use user interface that they could use to pay for the journey.

- The most notable change to the present is that the users will buy the service from the operator, instead of directly from the producer of the service. In case, for example, no bus connection exists for the route, the operator can suggest some other competitive option, such as car sharing or a car available for joint use.

The operator would thus handle the planning of the journey and the method of transport on behalf of the customer. The difference to the current model would be vast.

As it is, persons needing a transport service must themselves find out the connections, their prices and the locations for departure and arrival. Car owners must arrange annual maintenance and inspections and make sure payments are made for various statutory fees.

Keeping the prices in check

How much, then, are people willing to pay for their journeys? How do we ensure that the prices remain at a reasonable level? According to Heikkilä, the key word here is competition. A comparison can be drawn to mobile phone operators.

- It is possible to regulate the market so that the prices do not become too high or the journeys are not sold too cheap. We are currently in the process of figuring out the right regulation, Heikkilä says.

In other respects, too, the new service model for mobility is coming together at a rapid pace. Heikkilä even describes the speed as surprisingly fast.

'A large number of companies have contacted us wanting to become a part of the project. Next year, pilots will be launched in selected areas. The Finns are showing real motivation to develop this.'

Public sector operators involved in the project include the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (Tekes), the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the Finnish Transport Agency and the Finnish Transport Safety Agency (Trafi).

This is not a utopia, according to Heikkilä.

- The services could be available in a couple of years' time. However, the new model does require some major changes, in areas such as legislation, which takes time. It is about building business activities and effecting change in the business environment, both of which are gradual processes. But in ten years' time, we will have gone a long way.

The Mobility as a Service concept is a Finnish invention. According to Heikkilä, the Finns have the opportunity to turn the project into an export. There is no time waste, however, as similar things are currently being developed elsewhere.

A dream job

Becoming a student of transportation and highway engineering at Aalto University was not self-evident for Sonja Heikkilä, originally from the municipality of Masku near Turku. As she was taking her matriculation exams, she had not yet identified her specific interests in terms of her choice of career and was not aware of all of the opportunities available to her.

- My parents gave me a hint, Heikkilä states.

Studies in the field of technology were, however, a natural choice for her, as she had opted for an advanced course in mathematics as well as chemistry at school.

She describes her studies as an enjoyable period in her life. She does, however, criticise the practical arrangements of the courses that in her opinion took up too much time.

In her current job, she is continuing where she left off with her master's thesis. Heikkilä could say that she is currently in her dream job – even though her current work situation is something she could not even dream about some years ago.

Sonja Heikkilä's master's thesis, Mobility as a Service - A Proposal for Action for the Public Administration, Case Helsinki, is available on the Aalto University website at

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