Mobility as a service

Nora Vilde Aagaard


– Do we have to choose between privacy and sustainability?

Imagine you are waking up on a normal Tuesday. You pick up your phone to check the news as usual. A notification is blinking, and you learn that your train to work has been cancelled. You know that you can take the bus, but you also know that the bus takes 30 minutes longer and will make you late. Luckily, your mobility app tells you that a cab is nearby, ready to pick you up. And guess what? The cab is free!

What might sound like a dream is in fact reality. There must be a downside to this free cab, you may think, and not surprisingly, there is. In order to receive the free cab, you must give your mobility app access to your calendar and permission to save information about the trip you are about to take. Perhaps this does not sound alarming to you, but what if you knew that from the second you agreed to the “terms and conditions”, which nobody really reads, that you had actually agreed to let your mobility app collect and sell every piece of data about where you travel.

Our current mobility system, characterized by automobility, has allowed our whereabouts to be anonymous for decades. We get in our cars and drive without anyone having to know where we are going. Now, with the mobility system changing, what changes prevails and how these will affect our everyday lives is still unknown. The current tendency is characterized by a more centralized, shared transport, especially in cities.

The Finnish company, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), got the brilliant idea to combine different modes of mobility in the Whim app. Citizens of Helsinki now only need one app to use city bikes, public transport and carsharing services. MaaS´ goal is to become a global mobility provider, starting by expanding to the UK. By first glance, the Whim app appears genius. One single app to get access to public transport, city bikes, cabs and carsharing services. Also, the monthly price of the Whim services are lower than buying a monthly bus pass from the municipal public transport provider in Helsinki, HSL. This is possible due to the investors of MaaS, Toyota among them.

In order to use the Whim app, you need to give up a lot of your personal information. For the app to work properly, you have to allow the app access to your phone calendar and your current position (which also stores GPS information when the app is not in use). Also, Whim stores all information about your trips, ranging from mode of transport to where you are travelling from and where you are travelling to, and what date and what time of day you are travelling. Whim uses this information not only to plan your next trip, but also to target advertisements based on your whereabouts. Most of us have been accustomed to targeted advertisements and location storage from using other apps such as Facebook and searching Google. However, how and where we travel have up to now been our own business.

Putting the privacy issues a side for a moment, services such as MaaS can be seen as positive from a sustainability perspective. There is a broad consensus that our current modes of mobility are unsustainable. According to the Norwegian Environmental Agency, the transport sector is accountable for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. In Norway, the numbers are significantly higher. The transport sector is the largest emission source nationally, accountable for over 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport, with carbon based private car use as the spearhead, is mostly to blame. One way to reduce emission levels from the mobility sector is to decentralize our system, thus reducing automobility and relying more on other modes of transport, such as biking, public transport and car sharing. Apps such as Whim who combine several modes of transport, planning our trips for us can make it easier to leave the car at home when we are going somewhere. But is what we have to give up worth it? In Norway, local companies are in charge of the public transport, owned by the local authority. In Oslo, Ruter, who I suppose most people in Oslo and Akershus are familiar with, are in charge of public transport. One solution could be to give them responsibility for other modes of transportation as well, such as the city bikes.

Are we located at a crossroad, where we have to choose between a sustainable transport sector and our privacy? Does a decentralized mobility system necessarily imply giving up our freedom to move anonymous? It is too early to tell. While our policymakers discuss who should be in charge of our future travels, MaaS continue to grow. Who gets hold of our mobility data in the future is too early to say, but the decisions are being made now.