Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Lena Nelskylä

User-centered public transport: On-demand bus service Kutsuplus

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Public transport of the future is so smooth and flexible that you might never need to buy a car of your own. The Kutsuplus service by Helsinki regional Transport Authority HSL drives according to customers' needs, not rigid pre-planned routes.

 

Over one million trips are made daily in the Helsinki metropolitan area using the bus, tram, metro, or Suomenlinna ferry. For the journeys to go smoothly, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL) has to have the user’s needs at the basis of its functioning. They can be uncovered by combining the different parts of functional public transport in service design: the vehicles and their routes, passenger information, and communication. At the centre of it all is the passenger and his need to move forward.

Jarno Ekström, Service Design Manager at Helsinki’s Regional Transport Authority says that simply meeting needs is merely the beginning: public transport services have to bring added value to their customers.

It is not enough to get from point A to point B anymore.

The customers’ demands include such prerequisites as easiness, functionality, reliability and comfort. These will arise when the user and his experience are focused on from the start.

”For this reason, service design should accompany the whole planning process. If design is only paid attention to at the end, it can easily become just a coating. Like an ornament, which doesn’t solve any structural problems.”

Ekström notes that many people still think primarily of an Aalto-vase when it comes to design, and a successful public transport experience with clear timetables and signs does not fit the picture. At the level of organizations, service design discourse needs solid, engineering-standard facts in order to establish credibility.

“The challenge is getting design-talk to validate itself as an actual and credible function. It is easier to call upon statistics and mathematically provable facts than experience-based knowledge,” ponders Ekström.

Public transport can't be designed in a vacuum

Ekström says that in this age, customer is king. Due to this, customer-centred service design is a route which cannot be bypassed. According to Ekström, targeted service also means better service, which brings added value to both the business and customer.

However, it is not always easy to incorporate a service design perspective into the functioning of organizations, because just talking about it can be tricky. The whole concept is quickly seen as vague, for the simple reason that it is an unfamiliar one.

 

The term “service design” has only been in HSL’s active vocabulary for a few years although its methods, such as customer surveys, internet communities, and interviews have long been utilized in the design work of HSL’s predecessor, HKL.

“Public transport cannot be designed in a vacuum. If the opinions of the service users are heard already in the planning stage, the end result is likely to be better and the customers more committed,” Leena Rautanen-Saari, Chief of Customer Relations at HSL concludes.

Kutsuplus on suunniteltu helpoksi

HSL’s newest initiative, Kutsuplus, is a bold example of service design that works. The public transport innovation, based on real-time demand, has already managed to prove its functionality in the pilot stage.

“It is one of the few existing and functioning user-centred transport services, not merely theory,” says Leena Rautanen-Saari, responsible for Kutsuplus’ service design.

Kutsuplus’ minibuses have been driving around the metropolitan area for three years. They arrive at the nearest stop and take passengers to the stop closest to their destination, without transfers. The minibus is called with an app, whose map software advises the route from your door to the stop, and from the stop to your destination. The navigation and ordering system was developed by startup company Ajelo Oy, originating from Aalto University. It combines trips in the same direction and picks passengers up within a promised time frame.

”For example, children going to hobbies alone, colleagues on their way to meetings, the elderly with mobility issues, and mothers with prams are all riding on Kutsuplus”, Rautanen-Saari lists.

The number of registered users of the service increases monthly by around a thousand. The minibus, which combines the easiness of a taxi, reasonably priced travel, efficient use of time, and eco-friendliness is hoped to attract those accustomed to their own cars. As the service expands, it is envisioned as a competitive alternative to driving your own car.

Currently there are fifteen Kutsuplus buses in operation, with each trip costing the city about twenty euros. Money will decide the future of this mode of transport. When the amount of buses reaches about a hundred, the system has been predicted to produce clear economic benefits.

“Right now some millions are needed, so that by the end of the next decade the benefit of the investment will hopefully be counted in the hundreds of millions, as the amount of motorists declines”, says Rautanen-Saari.

 

HSL and Kutsuplus’ satisfied customers hope that the service will be able to reach its full potential as it expands.

“The time would be ripe for it. Kutsuplus has partially laid the foundations for a new form of user-centred public transport”, thinks Ekström.

Rautanen-Saari reminds us that as is usually the case with trendsetters, Kutsuplus too has its successors: “Corresponding service concepts are already also in use elsewhere.”

The local Kutspulus Split roams the streets of Washington, which makes use of technology that Ajelo has created. And in Manhattan, New York, a rideshare service called VIA is making journeys easier.

2015

Key lesson: Trying ideas out in the real world teaches you things that can't be foreseen at the drawing board. Services should develpo constantly based on user experiences.


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