Sampo’s Blog: A Bridge Over Troubled Traffic

By MaaS Global • May 29, 2019

By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global

I still remember the day when I got it. The insight into why we as societies are practically incapable of doing the right thing to prevent climate catastrophe. This was in my former job as a traffic engineer, when our environmental manager sat me down and explained the relationship between political decision making and environmental impact.

He started by drawing a simple chart on a whiteboard. The vertical line represented the real environmental impact of decisions, the horizontal line the level of difficulty of decision-making. Then, starting from the meeting point of the lines (no decision, no impact) he started drawing a line exponentially curving up. The tougher the political challenge the more impact.


Then, to explain himself, he divided the chart into three vertical segments. The first one (easy decisions, very little impact) was built on techno-optimism: low-emission cars, electric cars, automated cars, etc. Politically this is easy: just let people buy new cars. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence that it works. The emissions of today’s cars are half of that of the cars 25 years ago, yet the CO2 levels keep rising at crazy rates. How cars are powered is a piece in a puzzle but not the solution.

The next segment requires more guts from the decision makers but is still quite commonplace. Let’s do more of the good we are doing now: more public transport, more bike lanes, encourage people towards sustainable modality splits (walk more, bike more, ride public transport more). The reality of this approach is that it has not produced significant results anywhere, and the majority of the money still flows into building motorways. It brings incremental, but not drastic change.

Then there is the third way, and that is to heavily tax all transportation according to its emissions and prohibit the use of private cars at least in the cities. It would bring significant results fast, but taxes and prohibitions that seriously limit individual freedom are politically extremely difficult in most parts of the world. So the tough decisions are always pushed forward an election cycle or two.

Yet at the same time, deep inside, most people know the third way is the right way. It is not a question of opinion, faith or politics. It’s just a question of when. The sharpest minds in climate science say we have 11 years. Not to start doing something, but during which we must have made drastic changes, like cut CO2 emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, or come hell and high water.

I am all for individual freedom, and therefore partly understand why humanity will push itself to the cliff’s edge before tackling the tough decisions. What I do not understand is why we don’t even try to ease ourselves into stage three. The private car, as used today, is a big part of the climate challenge, and the opposition to drastically reducing their number in densely populated areas is coming from people who really like their cars and the idea of freedom of mobility. The multi-billion dollar car industry is also something that must be taken into account. Simply banning cars will not go down without a fight.

My belief is that MaaS can be a bridge between today’s idea of freedom of mobility and the inevitable severe cut to CO2 and small particle emissions. We could ease into the future by having alternatives that respect freedom but are ready for a world in which emissions will be taxed like never before. This would not be as bad for the auto industry as a total ban. People would still have access to great cars when they absolutely want to drive them.

The willingness to take the MaaS route varies according to the generation you are talking to. And this is a detail that makes me optimistic. Take almost any group of 20-year-olds in any modern city, and they are usually not looking forward to owning a car like previous generations. They want to get to places and do not mind driving if needed, but to own an automobile is not a goal.

To cause a little generational friction, which often helps to get a conversation going, I am tempted to say that the real obstacle toward MaaS are the gentlemen in their 50s who are so used to getting around in a nice car of their own that they cannot fathom any other future. They – or we, I belong to the same demographic – hold the future hostage and are not willing to make the lifestyle adjustments and political changes that cutting emissions requires.

But, while there is some truth to this, it is a cheap shot. Not all middle-aged men are alike. One-third of our customers are past 45 and there is a small, interesting spike in males in their 50s. I could not help but laugh and yell ”Yes!” when I was looking at our customer reviews a while ago and spotted a five-star review from a gentleman well into his 50s who had previously been dedicated to Bavarian driving machines but had recently discovered Whim Unlimited and was wondering why on earth he had not switched to it before.

Another, quite different moment came in Abu Dhabi. When I give speeches I often ask audiences if the car they own is their dream car. The point of this question is that, according to several studies, the allure of a new car fades in about a month. So almost everyone is driving around in a car that does not excite him or her. But if you get a MaaS subscription with rental option, you get to test and enjoy different makes and models. Well, in Abu Dhabi my tactic backfired. Most of the gentlemen present raised their hands and smiled widely. Quite a few of them, I learned, had not just one, but five dream cars.

So, we may not be landing in Abu Dhabi any time soon, but I will keep asking my question. So far it has worked everywhere else.

Read next: Why Freedom of Mobility Is at the Center of Dealing With the Climate Crisis