BERLIN – In a series of talks with inspirational mobility leaders, we are picking the brains of some of the most influential opinion-makers in the industry. In a conversation with Dr. Henrik Haenecke, former Board Member for Finances, Digitization and Sales at Berlin’s Public Transportation Agency, BVG, we talk about shifting BVG from a traditional public transit agency to a smooth mobility platform — with a little help from Trafi.
Planning a multimodal trip usually means making a lot of decisions, and jumping from one app to the other. However, it should be possible to bundle all mobility solutions into one app. This is actually in line with the very idea that prompted the existence of BVG 90 years ago: to create one ticket for all public transport modes. Now, we are no longer thinking about tickets, but about Mobility as a Service. In short, Jelbi is the result of taking a 90-year-old idea into the 21st century.
Being both modern and traditional, you have been at the forefront of developing public transit. Why have you been able to catch up so quickly?
I think that, for Berlin, the situation is special because BVG has quite a good brand recognition and a really strong market power. We have more than three million riders every day using our app. So we addressed other mobility partners and said, “Look, we’re going to use this power to advertise your service.” We then searched for a technology platform to help us develop this solution. We found that Trafi really has the best take on MaaS, that we could deploy quickly.
With Jelbi, we are aiming at integrating all different types of transport providers and approximately a number of 25 different partners have already waived their flag of interest. Can you tell us more about the choice of partners and who they are?
Berlin is extremely diverse with several transport modes. The idea to integrate those various services came to us last year in the summer. Back then we had around eight bike-sharing companies with eight different apps. We went in talks with them and then issued an open call for participation with all mobility providers in the city. Jelbi will include both the entire public transit network but also bikes, scooters, e-kick scooters, car-sharing, shuttles and taxis.
Let’s talk about the name Jelbi. This has been much discussed in the press and I am still receiving questions about it almost on a daily basis. What is the story behind the name?
Very early on we decided that we wanted to be partners on the same eye to eye-level with Trafi, which is why we decided not to call it BVG. But for people to identify with it and understand that it’s somehow part of the public transportation system, we chose to use the same colours. We also wanted to give it a Berlin touch, and here people pronounce “yellow” “jelb” (instead of “gelb” like in the rest of Germany). So it became Jelbi!
If you can look into the future, do you see new types of mass transit or another option of mobility that will soon hit the stage?
At the moment we are experimenting with autonomous vehicles. This would be a great option for a last-mile connection to one of the big train stations. Next to that, there is the hyperloop, which sounds so crazy but it’s actually digging a hole in the ground — just like we have been doing with metros for so long. I can see it connecting Berlin and Hamburg. And then, we have the flying taxis that are going to be a reality in the near future, maybe in Brandenburg. I’m really looking forward to this completely new but remarkably fast mode of transportation.
BVG has its own shuttle service, BerlKönig, in partnership with ViaVan. You can argue that this is the perfect use case for autonomous vehicles. Are you already working along these lines?
For BerlKönig we are not working on getting rid of the drivers. If you look into the future, it would be really useful to have autonomous vehicles taking care of last-mile traffic. This would need to be included in the public transit system. If everybody ends up having their own autonomous vehicle, we will see more and more empty cars flooding the streets (to pick up their owners or look for parking spots) and adding to the congestion.
How is BerlKönig going for you? Are people using it?
People are loving it beyond our best expectations. We have over 300,000 rides completed, and more than 130,000 people have downloaded the app. It’s really successful, and what astonished us is how much people use it. We ask them after their ride how they enjoyed the experience. They have a choice between one to five stars. 97% of the riders give us four or five stars. This is a superb rating, and we have a Net Promoter Score of 76 which is exceptional.
During the last few years, BVG has become increasingly known for its creative take on branding, having added a lot of human and heart to your corporate identity. This has given you not only viral recognition but also a lot of coolness factor — and criticism. Why is hip branding important for a public transit agency?
Branding is important to change how people think about BVG. The basic idea behind the first viral campaign was that our relationship with Berliners is like a 90-years-long marriage. To recapture the magic, we devised a campaign where we said, “Look, Berlin. We love you.” Do you know what Berlin said? “We don’t care.” But we continue to love people, and that idea has sunk in. This has made BVG sympathetic to many Berliners, even if the initial reaction was quite negative.
Let’s go back to the core of your business: public transportation. This is something that really divides people. Some love it, and some love to hate it. Berlin is a multi-million city and every day you carry a huge part of this very population around. How are you working on making their experience better as they travel with you?
Major changes are happening at BVG, especially in that more traditional part of the business. We are buying new trains for the underground and the tram system worth 3.1 billion Euro. We are building new tram lines, we are changing the diesel buses into electric buses. In each part of our business, there’s substantial change happening which involves a lot of people doing things they have never done before.
Founded in 2013, Trafi is a Lithuanian tech start-up. Trafi is working shoulder-to-shoulder with cities, countries, and companies worldwide to create the best in class Mobility-as-a-Service alternative for congested cities. Trafi offers cities the possibility to connect all mobility services into one single platform where users can check itineraries and also book their tickets and trips.
Trafi’s mission is to empower cities’ urban transportation with technology and know-how and encourage citizens to use more sustainable modes of transportation by accessing all services into one single platform. Trafi is currently live in 4 continents around the world and 7 cities.