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April 11 2018
By Mel Holley

A former routeone editor, Mel has more than 30 years’ experience in road and rail transport journalism.


Travel on a Whim: Is the future here?

Forget the jargon, a new service for the West Midlands aims to join up travel, with monthly payment packages

It’s been talked about at conferences for years. Now Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is in the UK, launching in Birmingham.

Arguably the biggest barrier to MaaS is its strange name that few inside, let alone outside, transport understand, leading to various descriptions of what it is and how it works.

Think of a mobile

Most people are familiar with mobile phone packages. They range from pay-as-you-go, to monthly contracts. A small monthly price relates to limited numbers of phone calls, text and data. The next price gives you a bit more while a premium package offers unlimited calls, text and data.

MaaS is the same, except it’s for transport and accessed through an app. The transport is buses, trams, trains, taxis, cycle share and car rental.

Season tickets for bus, tram and trains are already available in the UK, and growing thanks to smartcards. MaaS adds the ‘missing’ bits – i.e. taxi and car rental – with the object of making car ownership redundant.

Whim is looking for the first 500 people to sign up to the scheme. A three-storey house the size of a parking space in central Birmingham to underline its message of what can be achieved when you take cars off the streets

For younger people, the concept of monthly packages for phone, digital TV and streaming (such as Netflix, Amazon and Spotify), to fix costs is already accepted.

For transport, the fixed monthly price of personal car purchase (PCP) – that includes service, insurance and vehicle use, but not ownership – is also widely embraced.

For those used to multimodal smartcards, such as Oyster, buying fixed sum monthly products (such as zoned and/or mode-specific season tickets) is already second nature.

Doing this for all, rather than some, of their transport needs, seems an obvious next step.

The clever bit will be the pricing, availability of transport, and ease of use.

This is what the West Midlands aims to achieve.

Little house

MaaS was trialled in Sweden in 2015 and is active in Helsinki, Finland, where it is backed by the government.

Now in its first rollout outside Finland, it is backed by the Department for Transport (DfT), Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), Mayor Andy Street, and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

National Express (bus), Gett (taxis), Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Nextbike have already signed up, with others lined up to get involved.

The launch took place inside “the world’s smallest three-storey house”, the size of a parking space... highlighting what you can have if you take cars off the streets.

Launch: (l-r): Stephan Anescot (MaaS Global), Stuart Everton (Wolverhampton CC), Sampo Hietenan (Whim), Kaj Pyyhtia and Chris Perry (both, Maas Global)

The Finish Tikku (microhouse) – a genuine building – will be in Brindley Place, in the heart of Birmingham’s business and leisure district, until 14 April, aiming at wooing users to the service.

Whim enables customers to find the perfect route, use the right transport for the right journey, and pay for it all within the Whim app, which dovetails with the existing West Midlands Swift smartcard.

Pricing

At the launch three options were outlined for Whim:

- Pay as you go

- Whim Everyday, £99 per month. Unlimited public transport (buses, trams and trains), plus taxis (pay per ride) and best-price car hire (max £49 per day, with price capping)

- Whim Unlimited, £349 per month. Unlimited public transport, all taxi rides within a three-mile radius of your location, and up to 30 days’ car hire per month.

A 5,000-strong cycle share scheme is coming, when Nextbike UK launches later this year. A further addition will be a Whim Everyday bus-only plan.

All plans can be cancelled at any time. The zone for transport and the Whim app is within the West Midlands county area.

Goal

The key aim is to reduce the number of cars on the roads, with Whim Unlimited being billed as the “modern alternative to owning a car.” The marketing makes this clear: “For the cost of owning a car, you get unlimited access to public transport, taxis or a car depending on your daily need. And bikes are included as soon as they arrive.”

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For Whim to work the pricing, service and usability must be right. Also operators need to take a risk – to ‘suck it and see’.

The vision is clear. Whim founder Sampo Hietanen says: “On average, cars are parked for about 96% of their lifetime – but we still have to pay for them, sometimes in conjunction with other transport options. Owning a car is a burden for many people but there’s been no realistic alternative until now.”

How will West Midlanders take to the scheme and will it be seen as anti-car? Responds Mr Hietanen: “We like cars, we’re certainly not anti-car, and we offer access to cars when needed. But we are showing people that they don’t need to be so reliant on car ownership.”

Once people realise this, the benefits are huge.

Find out more – https://whimapp.com/uk/

About Whim

Finnish-owned Whim is the world’s first and only monthly mobility service and already operates successfully in Helsinki, where it has 20,000 registered users. It aims to expand to Antwerp and Flanders, in Belgium, later in 2018. Negotiations are also ongoing in the Netherlands, Austria, Canada, Singapore, and several other markets.

Users will also have full access to the new 5,000-strong fleet of Nextbike bike-share cycles that were announced for the Midlands last month.




Please may we have the National Express Homeless help rolled out in Milton Keynes. Brilliant and helpful project
Christina Kettle

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