For what must be fifteen years or more, the transformative powers of 'mobility as a service' or MaaS have been repeatedly predicted as 'just around the next corner' at conferences across the world. The promised benefits are clear: reduced road congestion, improved use of public transport, one simple way to access public and shared transport modes and a seriously reduced carbon footprint. No-one would argue that these outcomes are not a good thing. And yet, we still struggle to get a large-scale, straightforward, business case-led solution off the ground, particularly in the UK.
So why the problems? Why do we struggle? The answer lies in the fact we have created one set of barriers to success ourselves, whilst another set of issues which could be addressed are being stubbornly ignored.
In Worldline's experience, we meet frequently with regional authorities and cities and with gifted, visionary people possessed of the drive, clarity of purpose and determination to join up their transport networks and make travel a better experience for everyone. But they are facing some tricky obstacles as they work towards those goals....
A major hurdle to creating an effective MaaS solution is the combined issues of scale and fragmentation. To make a business case stack up well, the key is in the take-up numbers – the more people who use a service and adopt it early, the lower the risk to the development and implementation cycle and hence to the funding. But the fragmentation and siloes created (albeit inadvertently) by privatisation means that the herd of commercially-driven cats in the form of operating groups and mobility service providers need to be marshalled. The greatest chance of a MaaS scheme working is if it can be coordinated with neighbouring schemes - or even (and here's a revolutionary thought) be implemented as part of a national programme. Attempting to orchestrate such cooperation whilst also trying to keep the plates spinning in their own region is beyond virtually any authority – and why should they have to?
A nationally coordinated MaaS program would need to identify common threads that will recur in most regions, while at the same time recognising that every trial will be different, due to the uniqueness of demographics, existing services and infrastructure and geographic features. One size most certainly does not fit all.
Rail and bus operators often describe their aspiration to 'own their customer' in order to optimise that customer's experience. That in itself dictates against cooperation because it pre-disposes an operator against wanting 'their' customer to use any other service – even if it is in the best interest of that customer and the city or region to do so. The struggle to get traction, because of the isolation of individual trials and implementations, also means that there is some understandable reluctance to commit too much in the way of funding. "What happens if it doesn't work or can't wash it's face?" Consequently, authority teams are frequently sparsely staffed and obliged to multi-task. This vicious circle creates an air of impermanence and nervous under-commitment. As I once heard the great Sir Bob Geldof rather memorably say about getting Live Aid off the ground... "When you know what you want to do, commit to it 100 f**king %"
So, how about this for an alternative approach? Every MaaS trial hinges on the ability to get mainstream bus, rail and tram operators on board – so why not get them involved from the outset? Use their skills and experience to reinforce the authority team, and share resources and capabilities. Maybe even share data on an agreed basis so everyone benefits from a view of the 'whole picture' and the solution can be defined from a completely informed starting point. Of course, there will be that familiar operator suspicion that this will trash their business models. But not if they can be convinced that the overall 'pie' will be bigger – their percentage share may fall, but revenues grow because more customers are travelling on their, and other, services. Perhaps use government funding to generate the 'art of the possible' business case – instead of hoping for the best and waiting to see what will happen.
Some point to Whim's success in Helsinki as the model to emulate – but the circumstances, ownership models and legal situation in Helsinki's case is different, and Whim has not enjoyed quite the same success over here. On top of that, there are numerous well-established consumer apps already on millions of peoples' phones. Google and others have spent countless millions on creating a slick customer experience and attracted a huge user base with very skilled and expensive marketing (albeit most are map and mode based). The regional authorities have deeper experience in effectively communicating with their communities, but this is a very different, social media based marketing. The more time goes by, the more difficult it will become to distract people from their well-used apps – no matter how good your MaaS solutions is. And every solution needs customers if it's to survive, in numbers and fast.
It seems like a difficult landscape beset with thorny issues, but at the outset, I mentioned the problems we have created for ourselves. Fragmentation through privatisation. Siloes and siloed self-interest. Services run primarily for profit and not for social mobility or environmental good.
There are ways to overcome these issues. Firstly, appoint a single minister to empower authorities trying to create MaaS ecosystems in their regions and cities. Fund that department properly, having carefully run the business case on the benefits that will accrue from a nationally coordinated approach. Some might consider London as the example that shows what can be done with properly integrated travel and ease of payment. There's a reason for that. So give regional mayors and authority leaders the same powers that the Mayor of London has – to commission transport services, to set fares and to use data for the good of the people who truly do own it – because they generated it.
Hmm... data. Where did we hear that before....?