By Alisyn Malek, Executive Director, Coalition for Reimagined Mobility
Last month, we had a ton of fun hosting a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) on the idea of Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, and whether this is a useful application or merely a fantasy concept. The panel was moderated by our very own Marla Westervelt and included participation from Ashwini Chhabra of Tier Mobility, Nadine Lee of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Warren Logan of Lighthouse Public Affairs.
According to the MaaS Alliance, “MaaS integrates various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand,” usually through a smartphone app. Our panel discussion ranged from public transit to rideshare and scooter options.
Panelists joked that MaaS means there is “one app to rule them all,” serving up a variety of mobility options. Takeaways included some key concepts that are critical in order for MaaS to be more than a fantasy, but rather a useful way to serve up mobility options to any and every user. To do so, MaaS first needs to be built on reliable transportation services. It also requires trust among public and private providers that they are each receiving value back to their businesses, and clarity around the role and necessity of public funding to get these types of systems off the ground and useful for everyone.
A key theme emerging from the panel was that a MaaS app is useless if there are no reliable mobility options—like buses, ride share, or rental scooters. This makes sense: If you cannot trust that the bus is going to show up, or that the bike you rented will actually be at the pickup point you selected, then you would not come back and use the app again. Instead, you would pick another mode or stick with your personal car.
MaaS therefore needs to be built on a strong backbone of high-capacity transit like buses and trains, which make it easier for other modes to come in and augment to provide more options and a broader reach into neighborhoods. The services available in any app need to be frequent and reliable enough so that users can depend on them, and there must be options for every budget. A successful MaaS app, and underlying transportation services, would also ensure that each user has access to a few timely and affordable options, regardless of neighborhood or bank account.
If this sounds like a basic transportation infrastructure pitch, well, it is. Without functional options including mass transit and personalized private options like rideshare, an app would be left with nothing useful to provide.
Even if there are many transportation options available in a city, it does not guarantee that the different providers will team up to offer their service information via a single app. Historically, public transit operators have a lack of trust for private service providers.
This history can be traced in the US through the evolving conversations at the American Public Transportation Association’s annual conference over the years. At first, transit providers did not think they needed to care about ride share, and later the conversation evolved to rideshare being a threat. Only now are we at a point where ride share is beginning to be seen as an option that can help providers serve a broader audience through MaaS.
On the private side, there is concern as well, but it is more focused around how to capture value and drive profitability. This has resulted in a lot of private companies creating their own walled garden offerings, meaning that when a user opens the app, the only options they will see are approved or owned by that company. We are seeing the continued progression of this with Uber’s recent announcement to create the ‘superapp’ by adding planes, trains and rental cars.
These walled gardens keep the user from being able to see all of the options available to them, which might include lower cost options like transit. This approach also means that the private company misses out on new potential customers. During our panel, Ashwini Chhabra explained that Tier Mobility was able to increase their customer base in a new city by 2 percent by partnering with the local transit operator. It represented a win-win on both sides (a market growth opportunity for Tier Mobility and expanded mode options for the transit operator’s users) and echoes our earlier point that MaaS sees success when transit is the foundation.
These type of public MaaS offerings are an interesting solution as they can bring both public options and private options, such as ride share and micromobility options, to regular transit users. Local transit agencies often want to develop these types of solutions themselves, like the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) GoPass system, which started as a payment platform.
While DART licenses their software to other communities, some communities set up their own systems, requiring private companies spend time and effort integrating with even more partners. Establishing a standard for sharing data between systems and providers would be a huge opportunity to simplify the integration of new MaaS providers and reduce costs to keep the systems up and running over time. Plus, this kind of flexibility would free up more public money.
Finally, our panelists also agreed that any MaaS offering should work for everyone, including those without bank accounts or smartphones. That also means it should work for people who live in neighborhoods with fewer amenities currently. With the role of the public sector, including transit operators, focused on advancing the public good, public funding can be an important tool to help private companies fill the gaps in their offerings to make sure that services can truly be provided for everyone in the community.
Our panel discussion revealed that the success of MaaS apps in providing users a variety of timely and cost-effective options depends on some key enablers.
First, existing transportation options need to be useful and reliable – that is, they need to work on their own before offered up together. C40 Cities gives a great overview on how to make public transit— and all forms of shared mobility—more attractive, which can help lead to this modeshift. They recommend to “take a whole-network approach to public transport planning, with integrated physical planning, fares and operations.”
Second, partners need to take the time required to build trust so there can be a strong foundation for the eventual MaaS offering. David Hensher, a renowned MaaS researcher, put it well in a recent interview. “What I think we’re trying to do here is build a single business model to benefit many, many transport (and mobility) suppliers who have their own business models and don’t see how they can talk to each other,” says Hensher. “And because they’ve never really worked closely together before, they are very worried that each supplier will end up diluting the other supplier’s advantage within the product set,” he continued. “And so until it can be shown that that won’t occur, then they’re not so interested.”
Third, partners need to be clear about the money, where it comes from, and how to use it to achieve the desired community outcomes. Funding is a tool to get services to the people who need them most, and it helps bring all of the desired providers to the table. In particular, to get things started, we need public funding for operators to help make sure there is the right level of value for all parties to join.
With these elements in place, MaaS can make the journey from fantasy to reality.