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Putting Mass Transit Back into MaaS

Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc.

The concept of “Mobility as a Service” (or “MaaS”) is trending. Conversations about MaaS are taking place everywhere: in government chambers, at industry events, in product planning sessions for startups—even among riders.

Most of my peers agree that MaaS ­signifies an exciting vision of future public transportation—better, faster, more connected and personal; one that improves mobility options in cities, limits environmental impact of motor vehicles and increases the standard of living.

Just how this future mobility will be delivered, however, is a question of perspective. To date, the MaaS effort has been driven largely by the private sector. Ride-hailing and auto companies have been at the helm, together with potential digital disruptors such as MaaS Global (creator of “Whim,” an app that combines journeys taken with public transport, taxi, car and bikes into one pay-as-you-go or monthly service plan) and have focused the industry’s attention on the technological aspects of future MaaS solutions—in part pitching them against public transportation and promising improved convenience, speed and comfort.

Such a version of MaaS centers on a personalized, lifestyle-dictated, on-demand mobility service. It’s not a bad vision of the future—if you’re part of the urban elite. After all, tapping a button on a smartphone and catching a direct ride to a destination within just a few minutes sounds truly appealing.

However, in the context of cities, communities and the wider public, the vision of MaaS propagated by the private sector is problematic as it omits the important questions of governance, social good or larger integration with city networks. It’s unlikely, for instance, that a private operator will consider the impact of its services on the overall city infrastructure or on the environment over its own corporate gain.

Several studies have shown that Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies contribute to greater congestion in our already clogged and polluted cities because they don’t create the density of sharing enabled by public transit. Therefore, it’s hard to see how any MaaS solution that does not promote transit where density is required is truly viable.

Furthermore, commercially motivated mobility providers target specific demographics—namely the digitally savvy, wealthier and younger populations. For example, in San Francisco, Lyft Shuttle conveniently avoids low-income areas on its scheduled routes. Such behavior goes against the social equity goals of public transit.

Affordable and sustainable transportation is critical to the economic vitality of a city and region. As such, to decrease congestion, improve the standard of living in cities, limit the impact of transportation on the environment and create better opportunities for citizens, MaaS must provide better mobility options for everyone. That’s something profit-motivated mobility simply cannot do.

Public transit agencies, on the other hand, are already responsible for providing services to all citizens, regardless of social status, income or age. They are already committed to limiting traffic and pollution by encouraging use of the highest-density transport modes over the private car. They already offer integrated, multimodal fare payment systems that make it easy for citizens to move across cities seamlessly. And they understand the mobility needs of their riders well—including those who can’t afford a smartphone or are disadvantaged in other ways.

All of this makes public transit agencies ideally placed to manage the direction and development of MaaS ideas and products, and to serve as a focal point for all future mobility endeavors.

Thankfully, the private sector has begun taking heed. In recent years, Lyft has taken several steps to reposition itself on the mobility market as a service complementary to city networks, including its big marketing campaign “Friends with Transit.”

This year, Uber joined the MaaS Alliance, hoping its services can help better connect people to the existing transportation infrastructure. Both companies have recognized that public transit is the backbone of mobility, that ­cities are civic spaces meant to be enjoyed by everyone, and that true MaaS must help realize public policy objectives.

It’s also crucial that MaaS be properly executed and regulated. Governments, city authorities and, by extension, public transit agencies are already well accustomed to playing this role and can provide the necessary regulatory framework for future MaaS solutions.

Treading carefully to avoid over-regulating the booming mobility market and stifling innovation, they can set the scene for MaaS implementation, bringing all the various stakeholders to the table. They can help define the vision for MaaS in a given region, set common objectives and agree on the metrics by which success will be measured. They can also encourage and promote investment and partnership between public and private players while aligning mobility efforts with broader social equity goals.

It’s clear that the tides of the MaaS revolution are turning. The time is ripe for public transit agencies to start owning the discussion about MaaS, and by leading we can make it beneficial to revenue, cost and service. Here’s hoping that in the future we’ll see more MaaS efforts resulting from PPPs, and that the next time I ask someone about MaaS, public transit will be front and center.

A Cubic white paper that aims to demystify MaaS, its key stakeholders and primary objectives, and make the case for why public transit must be the backbone of MaaS can be found here.

"Commentary" features authoritative points of view from various sources on timely and pressing issues affecting public transportation. APTA would like to hear from you. If you are interested in submitting a original, thought-leader Commentary for consideration, please contact Senior Managing Editor David A. Riddy.




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