Sampo’s blog: Highways to Hell

By MaaS Global • October 25, 2018

By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global

The investments in telecommunications infrastructure are three times the size of transport infrastructure investments, while people spend ten times more money on transportation than on telecommunications. How crazy is that?

You might think that this is because telecommunications has been and still is going through a massive disruption due to digitalization and mobility. While there is certainly truth to that, I’d like to argue that a bigger reason is the direct connection between the usage of communications devices and services and the infrastructure that enables it. If people come, they build it.

Ok, building infrastructure for vehicles in the physical realm is complicated and takes time. It is also often financed with public funds and therefore priorities must be set through public debate.

But to get a point across, a comparison to telecommunication is worthwhile. Before the mobile revolution, the price of a long-distance phone call was often the result of a political debate, not a function of demand or investment. This is still how decisions on transportation infrastructure, especially road capacity, are often made.

As in all political bargaining, some of the decisions are made to score points or include horse trading to get something entirely different through the system. True consumer interest or national interest might be lost. The expert calculations that feed the public debate are relatively simple. Since the ‘50s the transport capacity has been a function of GNP. The richer we get, the more roads we need. There is a logic to this, but it is also perverse the same way owning a car is. A car is expensive to buy and maintain, but it sits unused most of the time. The same with roads and lanes. They are built for the peak hours and therefore are barely used for most of their lifetime.

At a time of disruption, politics and calculations reflecting old paradigms can be calamitous. If infrastructure investments – with a life expectancy of at least 50 years – are still based on the idea that everyone who can afford a car will get one, and that the width and amount of roads are a linear function of GDP, we might be building highways to hell.

In greater Helsinki we have roughly 600,000 cars when just 30,000 could do if used optimally. When I say optimally I’m unashamedly blowing my own horn. If people, instead of owning and using a private car, shared transportation resources through a service like Whim, that would make multi-modal mobility (combining cars, buses, trains, trams, scooters, bikes etc.) easy. If the use of transport infrastructure was more intelligently distributed throughout the day and the week, we would save tons of money, time and carbon footprint.

To put it more bluntly: at a time when most climate scientists think we have to take a drastic u-turn in our carbon emissions now, committing to 50-year investments that make things worse borders on criminal behaviour. We are stalling disruption and smart investment at a time when we should accelerate it.

So, what would a direct connection with usage of and investment in transport mean?? What would bold infrastructure undertakings look like?

When I fly, a fee for the airport infrastructure is a component of my ticket and if my flight is overbooked or seriously late I get a compensation. There’s a direct connection between the demand (my money) and the infrastructure I use and the service I get. With a service layer like Whim app, developed on top of the modes of traffic, current and new, we are hopefully headed the same way in all of our mobility.

As said, current projections for the future are mostly based on cars and GNP. What if we changed that and started simulating models in which people don’t choose to own a car. What’s the optimal fleet of self-driving cars in a city with a good public transport system? How about simulating a web of urban hubs that have to connect with buses, metros, trams and 10 car shares, 3 bike shares, 5 scooter shares and a swarm of drones bringing and taking goods?

It is hard. The future always is. Therefore, a professor friend told me, the only money currently available for transportation research is for those that extrapolate the current curve. But a different future is closing in on us and we are reaching a point when we just have to make the best of the assumptions and the understanding we have right now and start building infrastructure with new settings.

The future means building new towns and retrofitting old towns to accommodate hub-based multi-modal traffic. We are entering a period of disruption and therefore everything we do should be as modular as possible, enabling change and improvement as things develop. We should also maximize connectivity to all existing modes of traffic and try to leave an opening for an interface to those we have not thought of yet.

An interesting detail is that while the Americans might have a hard time giving up their cars, their cities, built around automobiles, are spacious in a way that might allow these new approaches relatively easily. European city dwellers, on the other hand, might be willing to ditch their cars or have done so already, but fitting all the new modes of transportation into an old city is a major challenge. Disruption may threaten jobs in many industries, but not so in transportation infrastructure. We have to rethink, redesign and rebuild most of it.