Which city will be the first to crack on-demand mobility?

Imagine a city bus that you could hail like a private cab. A public transit option with no fixed routes that gets you to your destination at less than half the price of a cab fare and almost as quickly.

That was Kutsuplus, a city-run “mobility on demand” transit service in Helsinki. WiFi-equipped minibuses roamed the city's downtown core. A dispatch system would direct buses to passengers and dynamically update routes on the fly to pick up more passengers. Pickup points were typically the nearest city bus stop, usually only a few minutes walk, and payment was arranged through an app — no fumbling with transit cards or cash needed.

But it wasn't meant to be, at least not in the Finnish capital. Helsinki Regional Transport pulled the plug on Kutsuplus on Dec. 31, 2015.

The technology that powered Kutsuplus — from a startup formerly called Ajelo — is the same routing algorithm that powers the ride-sharing company Split, which launched in Washington, D.C., last year. (Ajelo was acquired by Split in late 2014.) Like Kutsuplus, a driver’s route can be optimized on the fly as new passengers request seats. But Split works more like Uber or Lyft, in that drivers use their private vehicles to transport passengers, rather than a fleet of publicly or privately owned buses. That takes a lot of cost out of the equation. Also unlike Kutsuplus, it’s not supported or backed by the local government, excepting the fact that the D.C. council passed ride-sharing-friendly legislation in 2014. Having government backing can be a two-edged sword: Because HSL is a political entity, it put pressure on Ajelo to develop certain features or drop others. The agency asked Ajelo to build a system to let Helsinki users hail a van by text message, to provide accessibility to non-smartphone owners, before it built a native Android or iOS app. Surge pricing was a nonstarter.

That isn’t to say that a model where cities own their vehicles can’t work. In fact, Bridj’s new partnership with Kansas City, Missouri, operates exactly that way. The city pays the drivers and owns the buses, which are Bridj branded. Bridj provides the platform and the technology — the algorithm, the app, the customer service. The one-year pilot program, which George says is the first such partnership in the U.S., launched March 7. “We're partnering … to provide Bridj not as a traditional supplement to transit but as an extension of transit,” he says.