IT’S OFTEN DUBBED the Netflix of transport by its advocates for bringing together multiple transport and mobility choices into a single, digital platform which users can either purchase via subscription packages or on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Its supporters herald it as the solution to a host of transport challenges within our cities. But can Mobility as a Service, often nicknamed MaaS, ever be as popular as on-demand video streaming? Will it be a MaaS movement or is it simply a MaaS delusion?
MaaS has emerged not in isolation, but as part of the wider transition to a smart mobility future, defined by some as autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. The shared element within this is key, with the growth of car- and ride-sharing often forming an essential component of any MaaS offer.
By incorporating multiple transport modes into a single application, users can benefit from personalized services which recognize individual mobility needs, easier transactions and payments, and dynamic journey management and planning. [The MBTA is currently developing a new fare collection system that is expected to incorporate some elements of MaaS.]
A fully comprehensive MaaS offering could mean the ownership of private vehicles is no longer necessary for people. As mobility needs begin to be provided by a range of services through a single platform, usership could replace ownership.
The potential of MaaS has been recognised around the world. In the United Kingdom, the government has included MaaS within its transport strategy. An expert committee of members of parliament concluded that MaaS has the “potential to transform how people travel” by boosting public transport, reducing congestion, and improving air quality.
The private sector has also backed a number of MaaS schemes. MaaS Global, a Finnish company, is perhaps one of the best known. It currently operates the MaaS platform, Whim, in the West Midlands, the UK, Helsinki, and Antwerp.
Companies like Uber are getting in on the act, too, and with good reason. Research from 2016 suggested that global MaaS revenues will exceed $1trillion (US) by 2030.
There have also been a number of publicly operated or joint private-public pilots that have demonstrated the promise of MaaS schemes. Some examples are UbiGo in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Smile in Vienna, Austria. Participating projects have seen increased public transport use and reduction in use of private vehicles.
Like any fledgling mobility solution, from dockless bikes to on-demand bus services; MaaS is subject to the same market pressures. In our new report, MaaS movement?, we’ve identified the three key factors that will determine whether it is a success or a failure.
First, the economic models which underpin MaaS schemes will impact how competitively priced and popular the schemes are. MaaS must provide an offer that customers find appealing. It must create an integrated platform which brings together competitor transport operators. And it must deliver all this at a price which competes with car ownership. If MaaS is not commercially viable, it will require some form of subsidy either from the private or public sector.
Data is the second factor. The Uber data breach in 2016 demonstrates just how important (and sensitive) privacy of customer information is. Rightly, there are other concerns around the ownership, sharing, and resourcing of data. What’s certain is the power of data itself. A comprehensive MaaS system could generate huge amounts of information about travellers’ behaviour, which would be an extremely valuable resource for transport planners in public bodies who could enable better management of travel demand and planning for future projects.
Finally, the way in which MaaS schemes contribute to the wider public policy goals of cities, from public health and air quality, to increased public transport use and social inclusion, will be key. There is potential danger that MaaS could actually increase private car use, contributing to poor air quality and congestion. Without proper planning, MaaS could exclude poorer, marginalized communities by favoring tech-savvy, middle income city dwellers. For MaaS to truly succeed, it must help cities become greener, healthier, and more inclusive places in which people want to live, work, and spend time.
Cities (and their transport bodies), therefore, have tough choices to make on the role they should play when it comes to shaping MaaS schemes in their areas. These choices could make or break MaaS success. We see a sliding scale of potential engagement:
- At one end of the scale, cities could either be the MaaS operator or a pro-active participant in it. This would allow cities to ensure that MaaS schemes work for both consumers and wider public policy goals. But this level of involvement can present commercial risks and liabilities around the costs of developing, managing, and administering such an offer. These risks will be a key consideration, particularly for city transport bodies with challenging budgetary constraints.
- A midway, stepped approach could see cities starting with their existing resources such as smart ticketing, journey planning, and real-time information. These cities could then build a platform for either public sector-led or private sector third parties to integrate new transport modes or new ticketing products. This option risks uncertain and fragmented outcomes which may not meet wider public policy goals or customer needs.
- At the opposite end of the scale is for city regions to opt-out and take no involvement in MaaS. They would instead allow the private sector to lead, which could result in a more innovative and competitive market of MaaS products with no direct commercial risk to the city transport bodies. Yet, once again, it could risk fragmented outcomes or exploitation by private sector monopolies.
It will, of course, be up to cities and their transport bodies to decide which option to take and just how big a role they wish to play in determining the evolution of MaaS, depending on local circumstances and aspirations.
This will undoubtedly be influenced by the regulatory framework that exists in different cities and countries. For example, in the UK, the deregulation of the bus sector outside London and privatization of rail can be a limiting factor as the transport body does not have full control over the pricing of public transport.
But when it comes to making these decisions, cities should follow five tests for good MaaS:
1. Does it incentivize use of public transport?
2. Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
3. Is there a culture of openness and data sharing?
4. Is it socially inclusive?
5. Does it encourage active lifestyles?
The future of MaaS is yet to be decided, and there are many potential outcomes. It could be a private or public sector monopoly or a competitive market; a system that steers people towards using cars or away from them; a concept which makes traveling easier for all (despite their income, disability, or location); or it could make mobility easier for rich urbanites and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalized.
Ultimately, it could be a great concept that takes off at scale, or one that people don’t actually need or want in practice. The difference between these will determine whether it becomes a truly MaaS movement or is just a MaaS delusion.
Jonathan Bray is director of the Urban Transport Group, the UK’s network of city region transport authorities. He is also a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ cities programme, a commissioner on the Commission on Travel Demand, and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation