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Hamburg’s on-demand alternative to commuting by car

First publishedin ITS International
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A switchh interchange at Berliner Tor in Hamburg..jpg
A switch interchange at Berliner Tor in Hamburg
As Hamburg is confirmed as the host for the 2021 ITS World Congress, David Crawford looks at the city’s moves towards enabling MaaS-type operations.

Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is pinning its civic reputation on having its promised all-electric, on-demand, shuttle bus ridesharing service up and running by 2018. Partners in the three-year project are regional  metro and bus service provider Hamburger Hochbahn and Volkswagen Group’s Berlinbased mobility innovation subsidiary Moia, which was set up in December 2016.  

Hamburger Hochbahn is Germany’s second largest public transport operator and carries around 500 million passengers a year on its metro lines and bus fleets. The new service will supplement the existing ones with a network of connecting shuttle runs and offer a fresh alternative to travelling by car.

Regarding financing, Moia’s head of communications Michael Fischer told ITS International that the company will be “responsible for the entire value chain of the business,” which he sees as a contribution to the expanding Mobility as a Service (MaaS) agenda.

Moia will be responsible for supplying the electrically-powered shuttles and the operators to drive them. VW has set up the company speci cally to develop new mobility concepts, with the initial emphasis on ride-hailing and pooling. It is already a shareholder in the Israel-headquartered Gett ride-hailing operation, which launched in 2009 and now also operates in Europe and North America.

Current plans foresee an initial fleet of 200 EVs, with a later expansion in 2019 as the scheme develops. Robert Heinrich, COO at Moia, sees the ‘shuttle-on-demand’ as representing “the transition of the well-known ‘dial-a-ride’ concept into the digital age.”

Passengers will be able to book their rides on a smartphone app by entering their locations and destinations. They will be informed in advance of the fares which, the company says, will be midway between those charged for using regular bus and taxi alternatives, and will automatically be charged to their pre-registered accounts.

As individual journey requests reach the network control centre, purpose-developed algorithms will combine these in order to plan the most ef cient route for ful lment, calculate the duration of each trip and give each passenger an estimated pick-up time. Once on board the shuttle, the app will give them an estimated time of arrival at their destination.The schedules will then be sent to the drivers and Fischer told ITS International that Moia is con dent of developing a system for communicating each ride request to the drivers without risking distracting their attention while on the move. There will be no  xed routes between a planned network of virtual stops. The  rst passenger determines the start point and an algorithm will enable consideration of new points in response to passenger requests.

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Ole Harms announcing Moia at the 2016 TechCrunch Disrupt in London..jpg
Ole Harms announcing Moia at the 2016 TechCrunch Disrupt in London
There are plans to integrate the service with the ‘switchh’ platform operated by regional public transport association HVV – of which Hochbahn is the largest of its 34 partners. The ‘switchh’ platform gives travellers access via an app to convenientlylocated car- and bike-sharing schemes for their onward journey. Hochbahn CEO Henrik Falk sees the overall result as “a new kind of mobility which will make owning your own car super uous.”

The three-year term of the current partnership provides a timeline designed to enable both partners to monitor the results over a reasonable period. But Fischer sees longer-term collaboration extending beyond that, citing the company’s active support for the city’s 2021 ITS World Congress bid and across the whole realm of ITS.

Other pillars of the relationship could include multi-modal urban mobility, traffic flow management, autonomous driving and parking, alternative vehicle technologies, air quality monitoring and goods transportation.

With the Hamburg project already underway, Fischer says Moia is currently presenting its concept to several cities in Germany and other countries. “We are analysing their needs and developing the individual approaches needed. But we have not so far reached any decisions about our next partners.”

The ridesharing initiative also forms a key feature of Hamburg’s ongoing plan for the overall digitisation of urban transport. Another involves it trialling ‘Check-In/Be out’ mobile phone-based ticketing products being offered by several suppliers. This Bluetoothenabled system identi es the approach of the desired bus and records it being boarded with a time-stamped ‘check in’ barcode on the passenger’s phone.

Alighting severs the connection and this event is also recorded, to allow calculation of the correct fare. Initial testing has already taken place on buses and local trains in two cities elsewhere in Germany. Hochbahn is also trialling free Wi-Fi on buses and at metro stations.

In a parallel move, national rail operator Deutsche Bahn and the Hamburg municipality agreed, in July 2017, on a three-year ‘smart city’ partnership. This aims to deliver more appealing railway stations, especially those on long-distance routes, with, among other enhancements, workspaces and intelligent lockers for the collection of items pre-ordered online; and the conversion of surplus space at stations into depots for alternative bike-based delivery.


It was to secure access to the expertise necessary to develop the ride-combining algorithms that, in June 2017, Moia acquired Finnish ridepooling software company Split Finland Oy, now renamed Moia Finland Oy. Founded in 2011 as Ajelo Oy, the start-up was responsible for creating the software behind Helsinki’s Kutsuplus (Finnish for ‘call plus’), service, an early attempt to increase the ef ciency of ridepooling. It built on experience gained during a research project at Finland’s Aalto University and ran using minibuses.

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Helsinki's Kutsuplus in operation (pic HSL)..jpg
Helsinki's Kutsuplus in operation (pic HSL)
Announcing the deal, Moia CEO Ole Harms said: “From now on, Finland will be our expert hub and development location for the pooling algorithms.” Added Heinrich: “We are acquiring a usable platform that will noticeably reduce the development time for our software.”  

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL), Kutsuplus was an early feature of the Finnish capital’s Mobility on Demand Programme, which has fed into MaaS. Kutsuplus matched people who were travelling in roughly the same direction with minibuses – for a fare lying between those of regular service buses and taxis.

It aimed to overcome a historic lack of balance in Helsinki’s public transport as most routes run northwards from the city centre, which sits on a peninsula in the Gulf of Finland. The system, with an initial 15 vehicles, was up and running before Uber launched Uberpool. Ridership rose steadily, but the authority closed the operation down at the end of 2015, citing under-occupancy of vehicles and the burden of subsidies on local governments.

The experience left the door open for HSL to explore the scope for a fully marketdriven service, which, programme director, technology solutions Kari Rissanen recently told ITS International, “seems possible given improvements in algorithms and streamlining of costs. The closer the service is positioned to that of the taxi, the easier it is to make a profit; the closer to heavily subsidised public transport, the more challenging to break even. However, it is obvious that combining rides in a personalised service makes sense.”

He highlighted the scope for specific algorithm improvements. “For example, the passenger could be asked (via the smartphone app) the earliest convenient time to start their trip and the latest time to be at their destination. People heading in the same direction with overlapping travel-time windows, could then be escorted to the same vehicle.”

The concept lived on briefly outside Finland in the US, where Washington, DC-based operator Split adopted the Ajelo Oy technology in 2014. The result began operating in 2015, more conventionally using passenger cars and was accessed by an app that gave the price of the journey in advance. In October 2016, however, Split discontinued the service.

In May 2015, US transport consultant Jonathan Bollhoefer tested it for the government of Arlington County, which neighbours Washington DC, and rated it “a very affordable transportation option,” and “promising for those looking to save a few dollars.”

Asked how con dent he was about Hamburg, in the light of the early closedowns of previous attempts, Fischer replied: “In order to provide successful pooling, you need a suf ciently strong foundation and the ability to scale the service and expand it. Moia enjoys the strong and long-term commitment of the Volkswagen Group, and we are very con dent about starting in 2018.”

Companies in this article

Deutsche Bahn
ITS World Congress



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