Crowded Aleksi street, Helsinki, Finland
Pioneer: Helsinki has led the way in ‘mobility as a service’ integrated transport © Getty

The only time most people associate Netflix with public transport is when they watch the latest episode of Black Mirror or Queer Eye on their commute. Not Dave Roat, strategy manager of transport tech company Cubic. At its innovation centre in Farringdon, London, Mr Roat poses a question core to the transport industry: “How can we as consumers of public transport consume it much the same way we consume things like Netflix?”

He means transport on demand, driven by technology, with one payment for all strands — otherwise known as mobility as a service (MaaS). This integrates public and private transport into one function, so whereas a journey planner might now suggest you take a bus then the metro or hire an Uber driver for the whole trip, MaaS could say it makes most sense to take an Uber to the nearest train station. Crucially, you pay for the whole journey through the app or website, rather than for each leg, and payments are distributed among operators.

MaaS brings customer benefits in terms of ease, efficiency and cost. But giving private services the same status as public ones, or indeed winding them together, threatens to drain people and revenues from public transport. Moreover, some cities use the rise of private-sector transport to avoid funding the infrastructure MaaS needs.

Finland has pioneered MaaS, rolling out Whim, an app by local company Maas Global, in Helsinki in late 2016. Whim brings together public transport, taxis, city bikes and car-sharing services. You can pay as you go, subscribe for €49 a month for unlimited public transport and city bikes, or pay €499 a month, which includes unlimited taxi rides of up to 5km and car-sharing. MaaS Global, founded by Sampo Hietanen and Kaj Pyyhtiä, is backed by car company Toyota, among others.

Laura Eiro, director of the markets unit in Finland’s ministry of transportation and communications, says MaaS required “rethinking the whole system from the beginning with new eyes”, across the core areas of regulation, markets, tech and data.

First, the country had to streamline regulation, Ms Eiro says, “so there are no more silos between different transport modes and services, but . . . a level playing field”. This regulation aimed to be “technology-neutral”, setting out the desired ends and leaving the means to the market. Then all partners had to make data available so other companies could create ticketing and payment services for a “seamless transport chain”, including public and private modes.

TC Chew, global rail leader at engineering company Arup, says data can be the hardest part of MaaS. “The difficulty is about getting the right sort of data but also having the intelligence to know what those data mean,” he says. If a city or a company wants to use passenger data to understand routing, for example, the consumer must not feel tracked.

There was initial suspicion from the public sector, says Jacob Bangsgaard, president of the MaaS Alliance industry body. “They asked, ‘Is this the private sector trying to take away trips from the public transport?’ . . . Now they see we consider the public transport leg as the backbone of the MaaS service.” The proper aim, he says, is to get people out of private cars and into public or shared forms of transport, and he has seen a move of 30 per cent towards this based on Vienna’s experience of the system.

Mr Bangsgaard outlines two types of MaaS: integrated, where the city employs a back-office system to draw together timetables, payment services and tickets across modes; and aggregated, where companies combine data from operators, as Whim does in Helsinki and, since April 2018, in England’s West Midlands.

Some people are already envisaging how MaaS will evolve. Karim Elgendy, senior sustainability architect at Dar, a professional services company in Dubai, says we are seeing “the convergence of trends” such as ride-hailing apps and self-driving, electric vehicles, so “the next stage in Maas would be automated ride-hailing”. He is advising the Egyptian government, which is building a new city east of Cairo using MaaS-type ideas. “It’s a lot easier to build a new city and integrate public transport than it was 10 years ago when everyone was wedded to the idea of private mobility and the personal car,” he says.S

Not every city needs comprehensive MaaS. Michael Hurwitz, director of innovation at Transport for London, says it can be a catalyst to introduce or improve journey planners and payment, which “we’re lucky enough to have already in London”. London has been pursuing its own version, he says, by making public transport data openly available for a decade now, leading to the creation of 600 apps, and by developing contactless payment with credit cards or smartphones, which caps your fares across public transport.

In February, the FT reported that TfL was facing an operational deficit in 2018-19 of close to £1bn, in part because of a fall in passengers as more people used ride-hailing apps. In line with public-sector anxieties about MaaS taking passengers, Mr Hurwitz was non-committal about whether TfL would fit private services into a fuller MaaS: “It’s about getting our own house in order, better integrated, and when and under what commercial circumstances you might open that out.”

Such fears have gained credence as several US states have rejected spending money on public transport. In Altamonte Springs, Florida, in 2016, the city agreed to pay Uber $500,000 to subsidise journeys after the state transport authority refused to fund a demand-responsive bus service taking people to rail stations. In the same year, reported political website Slate, voters in Detroit, Michigan, rejected a $4.6bn plan for a public transport system, funded by a property tax; one lobby group compared cities’ contracts with ride-hailing services with “this proposal [spending] billions on old tech like buses and rail”.

This tendency shows how private can crowd out public and make MaaS harder to achieve, says Dr Philipp Rode, executive director of the LSE Cities programme. “It’s argued that you have Uber here, you no longer need the urban bus running,” he says.

Some cities are already well-advanced when it comes to aspects of integrated transport, Dr Rode says: new ones such as Singapore and Hong Kong and older ones in continental Europe, where you have one ticket for many services, even if there is not yet full public-private integration. He is optimistic about MaaS, but cautions that city authorities need to be engaged: “It’s a massive opportunity for good urban sustainable transport, but it’s not happening by default, and that’s the danger.”

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