By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global and Krista Huhtala-Jenks, Head of Ecosystem & Sustainability at MaaS Global

Roughly 120 years ago some of the world’s major cities had an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions in their hands, and they saw no cure for it. Life was turning unbearable because of stinky by-product of progress, horse manure. And it was not just the stink. Manure attracted flies, and when it dried, it turned into dust and flew everywhere. And there were lots of it. In 1900 in London there were 11 000 horse-drawn cabs plus thousands of buses each requiring 12 horses per day. In addition to that, there were all the horses needed for delivering goods. That’s a lot of horses, each producing 7–17 kilos of manure every day. In New York, in 1900, there were 100 000 horses that produced over one million kilos of manure every day.

And the more affluent the society grew the more horses were needed. In 1894 a writer in the Times of London estimated that in 50 years every street of the British capital would be buried under three meters of manure. Four years later, in 1898, the first international urban-planning conference in New York was discontinued after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because the attendees could not see a solution to the mounting manure crisis. Because of horse droppings, there was no future for cities.

In hindsight we all now know how the crisis was cured. It was not regulation limiting the amount of horses in the city, or the amount of dung a single horse was allowed to drop in a day. It was the automobile that saved the cities.

Today the automobile has become the new horse. As we are striving (are we really?) towards the 2030 European climate goals of cutting our emissions by 40% (or maybe 55%) compared to what they were in 1990, the only sector which performance is totally subpar, and increasing its greenhouse gas emission, is transportation. And 2030 is not way in the future, it’s tomorrow (Think back to 2010: Deepwater Horizon explodes, Arab Spring starts, Eyjafiallajökull erupts. 10 years is not much.)

To us the takeaway of the horse manure story is not that a pressing environmental problem will eventually solve itself, but that people will swiftly change their behavior if there is a superior alternative. Cars beat horses because they were better.

As this blog comes out, MaaS Global has just launched its sustainability initiative of replacing one million privately owned cars with something better, our Whim subscription. According to our research, 38% of Europeans would give up their cars if they were given a viable alternative. This would mean 70 million cars off European roads. Our initiative aims at wiping out a million. This may sound bold for a single company, but in the larger context it is anything but enough.

”Wiping out cars” may sound aggressive, but at MaaS Global we are not car-haters, and don’t believe in policies that focus on eradicating cars. We respect cars. They are a great product and they have an important role in most of our consumer packages. But we are convinced that we all must get aggressive about finding alternatives that limit their quantity. If we don’t, we too face a future of being buried under three meters of something nasty.

Everybody working towards a revolution in transportation must keep in mind that the solution to climate crises requires offering better and concrete alternatives to what exists today. And there should be plenty of them. That’s what will bring the big changes. The times for haggling percentages, protecting age-old fiefdoms and letting egos stop the needed changes are over. We must act now.

As we’ve seen with Covid measures, masses don’t respond well to tough restrictions, at least in the long run, no matter how grounded on science and current knowledge they are. But people are quick to adapt to new alternatives and technologies that make their everyday better, as we have seen with the arrival of the smartphone and all the digital services it enables.

The key to dealing with the climate crises lies is moving fast but respecting individual freedom. Things happen when people don’t feel they were forced to do something, but when they are delighted that they were given something better than the old stuff. At MaaS Global our initiative is that we will be better than a million cars. Well, for starters.

Read more about our sustainability commitment to replace 1 million private vehicles by 2030 and other actions we’ve taken to bring sustainable freedom of mobility to all.