Getting beyond the MaaS hysteria

MaaS Movement cover social size

I don’t know about you but I’ve seen more than enough Power Points by now explaining with breathless excitement what Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is – as if no-one had ever heard about it before. And as if frequent repetition of the phrase in itself has alchemic properties which render immaterial base considerations as economics. So in the report we recently published on MaaS, we’ve tried to get beyond the MaaS hysteria and delve deeper into the real issues on turning the considerable potential of the concept into reality on the ground.

However, first it’s worth acknowledging how understanding of what people mean when they say Mobility as a Service has shifted in recent years. When this clumsy technocratic phrase (which unfortunately we are all now stuck with) first emerged it was commonly understood to mean the purchasing of packages for access to public transport combined with different forms of vehicle hire and sometimes bikes. It has since morphed to include portals for access to information and purchase of individual trips, and further evolved into the potential for the creation of ‘walled gardens’ where international corporations seek to ensure that you always go to them for transport information and payment (thus seeking to reproduce the monopoly platform model that has ultimately proved so profitable for Airbnb, Amazon, Google et al).

So far, despite all the fervour and theology about MaaS, what’s been achieved on the ground so far is rather less clear cut. At scale take up of MaaS (as originally defined as packages of mobility) is difficult to find. Indeed, we are at a point where the future of MaaS is still to be determined. It could be a system that steers people towards greater use of cars or away from them. It could make travelling easier for all, no matter their income, disability or location, or it could make mobility easier for tech-savvy, city centre dwellers and harder for those who are already excluded and marginalised. It could be a great concept that takes off at scale or one that people don’t need or want in practice.

Our report identified three factors that will determine the future of MaaS. The first is the topic that nobody seems to want to talk about when it comes to MaaS – which is money. The challenge for MaaS (where this means packages of mobility) is how you price the package at a rate where all the different providers involved make a return at a price the punters are willing to pay. Not easy unless either the public sector or the private sector is prepared to take a hit to ensure that cost is kept low.

A purely private sector-led MaaS could be prepared to burn cash in the short term in the hope of establishing a profitable monopoly in the long term. A purely public sector-led MaaS may be willing to do the same because the outcomes are worth the costs.

And then there’s the awkward question of how many people want to buy a package of mobility in the first place, rather than pay as they go – and who are they? Not clear yet. However, I always remember speaking to the person who runs the MaaS offer in a German city where the transport authority has been doing what is now described as MaaS for years and he said he thought it was good to be able to offer it, but it’s a niche product. He said most people will get a taxi when they want one rather than pay up front for access to taxis they may not use. One radical viewpoint on the economics of MaaS is that the real breakthrough would be to fuse MaaS with the pricing of road use to put paying to use your own car on contested and congested road space on the same app and pricing framework as for public transport, taxis and car hire.

The second make or break for MaaS is access to data. This factor is much more commonly covered in the debate on MaaS – so I won’t go into detail here. But with data now commonly seen as the earth’s most valuable commodity there are some big questions around how you get to the point of ‘if I show you mine will you show me yours?’

The third determinant is around the extent to which wider environmental, transport and social goals are encoded into the objectives of MaaS schemes. So, alongside the consumer benefits of a MaaS scheme to what extent does it relate to the wider goals that cities have to become healthier, greener, fairer and more prosperous places? For example, will MaaS schemes encourage people to make more short journeys on foot or by bike (good for public health and for reducing road congestion) or will they subtly promote the use of modes which can be more readily monetised for profit (such as taxis). The same risk is there for public transport if MaaS schemes promote taxi and hire car use at the expense of buses in particular.

Another big question is the extent to which MaaS schemes will also enable everyone in a city region to access opportunity or whether they default to targeting wealthier, city centre living early adopters?

If MaaS is about more than just those who already have the luxury of choice on transport (and much else besides), how could it be adapted to provide affordable options to low income groups?

Or how could it be used to precisely target information about transport options that work best given the nature of a person’s particular disabilities?

And in relation to this to what extent could MaaS dovetail with the concept of Total Transport to also incorporate currently silo-ed provision of social services, education and non emergency patient transport services to provide a more efficient service overall?

How MaaS evolves may also vary between the very largest city regions in the world and the rest. The world cities are those where the impacts of the big tech ‘platforms’ are being most widely felt. The world cities also have the most clout and resources to assert themselves if they so wish. At a time when housing costs are already the number one public concern in many of these cities, Airbnb is turning precious private and public housing stock into quasi-legal flop houses and pouring more petrol onto the flames of extreme financialisation of housing in the process. Meanwhile, on transport there is evidence that Uber and equivalents can eat into mass transit use (particularly in the US). And now there is the potential (depending on how MaaS develops) for Californian corporations to usurp the city’s role as trusted and impartial provider of transport information and access in the process, they are potentially also extending their control into cities’ transport planning role. In short, the world cities have some big decisions to make about the big tech platforms.

In the UK the role that second tier city regions play on MaaS may also be a product of their different circumstances and aspirations as they may well be hemmed in by their, as yet, limited influence over the core of any MaaS offer – public transport. This role could also be hampered by the hollowing out of local government by recent national administrations which means the resources that even some of the larger city regions have at their disposal to engage with issues like MaaS are highly constrained. However, we still suggest ‘five tests for good MaaS’ in our report that could be a useful frame for any urban area to think about MaaS:

  1. Does it incentivise public transport use?
  2. Does it reduce congestion and pollution?
  3. Is there a culture of openness/data sharing?
  4. Is it socially inclusive?
  5. Does it encourage active lifestyles?

Whether we are on the verge of a MaaS movement, or experiencing MaaS delusion, is not yet clear. But what is clear is that city regions will have a key role to play in determining whether MaaS is fool’s gold or the real thing.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

A new era for active travel?

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Active travel is entering an exciting phase which is seeing investment on a new scale. However, with the upcoming Spending Review, there is also some nervousness around revenue funding streams and ensuring that we can continue the good progress that’s been made. These were two of the topics of discussion at our recent active travel meeting in Birmingham, hosted by our member Transport for West Midlands.

At these meetings we like to get out and experience new walking and cycling infrastructure first hand. So, on this occasion, we had a ride along the new A38 route, and back along the canal network.

As someone who has ridden many urban cycling routes as part of my role, I have to say that the A38 route was an absolute joy. The road is one of the busiest through the city centre, and not one that I could have imagined cycling along at a leisurely pace before. But the new route allows just that. In particular, the tree lined section down the middle of the road felt safe, relaxing and enjoyable. The scheme is direct, with good journey times into the city centre.

We returned to the city centre through the University campus and then down the canal. The canals in Birmingham are a great natural asset, providing direct off-road routes into and out of the city centre. It was encouraging to see the number of people commuting and enjoying leisure activities along this route.

Cycle lanes and Let's Ride Day

Yet it’s not just in Birmingham where exciting active travel developments are taking shape – they’re happening all across the Urban Transport Group’s network. High profile active Travel Commissioners (or equivalent) have been appointed in London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire, raising the profile of active travel at the local and national level.

Transport for Greater Manchester was our first member outside of London to adopt this approach and they have made startling progress since. Its Bee Network – the UK’s largest cycling and walking network championed by former Olympic cyclist and Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman – will now cover up to 2,000 miles. A large proportion of the recent Transforming Cities Fund (over half) is being devoted to helping deliver this. This funding statement would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago.

And just this month, Leeds’ new £7.9 million city centre cycle superhighway opened, adding an extra 4km of segregated routes to the city’s growing cycling network thanks to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s CityConnect programme, in partnership with Leeds City Council.

However, active travel still continues to attract relatively low amounts of funding in comparison to other modes. Last week, the Transport Select Committee published its findings to the Active Travel Inquiry in which they call on Government to play a stronger central role. The Committee identified that the Government will allocate just 1.5% of its total transport spending on active travel and called for a dedicated funding stream for delivering improvements which will increase levels of walking and cycling and increase total funding for active travel. This is something that we fully support. As Ben Still, Managing Director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority and our lead Board member for active travel said, “walking and cycling have a key role to play in the imperative of reducing carbon emissions from transport, as well as offering wider health, social and economic benefits to people and communities. With the right funding deal and leadership from national Government, we can ensure active travel delivers a win-win for people and the planet.”

Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

Northern Ireland is getting ahead

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Of the four main constituent parts of the UK, only one of them saw bus use grow last year. It is the same one on track to having a smart and fully unified ticketing system across all forms of public transport, and which has also seen the use of its rail network double in 10 years. That’s Northern Ireland, where after decades of being sidelined as car dependency took hold, public transport is back.

The posterchild for the new found assertiveness and visibility of public transport in Northern Ireland is Belfast’s new Glider BRT system which spans the city east to west with a branch into the Titantic quarter of the city’s docklands. As a visitor to Belfast you can’t miss this striking new addition to Belfast city centre’s imposing street grid. Residents have taken to it too – it’s winning over passengers and raising the wider status of public transport in the process.

Glider works because it’s been thought through. It’s on-street and unguided but this format for BRT works in Belfast because of the specifics of the road network and the geographies served. These artics don’t get to give their rubbery midriffs much of a work out because the roads they serve are mostly straight, which makes the experience of using Glider feel more rapid transit. Some of Belfast’s roads are not just straight they are also wide enough to slot bus priority in without too much fuss (the city centre’s streets are also, helpfully, on a grid pattern). Where the roads narrow as they pass through inner city communities, getting bus priority in was trickier – however, rather than attempt to barrel bus lanes through for the benefit of suburbanites, the opportunity was taken to renew local streetscapes, giving local high streets a boost in the process.

If the overall concept has been thought through then so have the details. Stops were reduced and standardised to be more like tram stops. All ticketing is off-board. The vehicles themselves are no nonsense Belgian Van Hools which iron out the bumps in the road for passengers. The smoother ride gives more of a rapid transit feel. They also have air con. Because having big windows to gaze out of is lovely, but being trapped inside a rattly greenhouse – not so much.

The off-board ticketing also has some interesting beneficial side effects. Firstly, it makes dwell times shorter and more regular in duration, removing the background annoyance of the stop-start nature of conventional bus travel – making the experience more like rapid transit. It also means that passengers who don’t like that kind of thing can avoid the interaction anxiety which comes from having to negotiate with a driver in front of an audience. Yet, at the same time human interaction, in less theatrical form (unless you are fare dodging), is retained in the form of roving teams of jovial inspectors.

The well thought through concept and the well thought through details mean the whole adds up to a lot more than the sum of the parts. It’s what FirstGroup’s FTR should have been and wasn’t – despite the hype and sycophancy from the trade press, Department for Transport and so on that greeted its launch at the time. This isn’t plonking fancy new bendy buses on the streets, and walking away – it’s a whole new Belfast thing. People say they are getting the Glider rather than saying they are getting the bus. Suburban shopping centres are giving Glider the credit for higher footfall. Before it was implemented the media said all that bus priority would lead to is the shuttering up of local traders. Yet now look at Ballyhackamore – on a Glider route and voted one of the best places to live in the UK. And it’s also doing its bit for bringing communities together as some people from nationalist communities have been travelling on it across to unionist parts of town, and vice versa. Some of them for the first time in their lives.

If Glider stands out in the city centre, there’s something else that’s striking to those used to the messy, shouty state of play in many GB city centres (with all those different buses in different colour schemes proclaiming the merits of tickets you can only use on their services). It’s the calm and order in Belfast of the interlocking network of bus services which serve the city and Northern Ireland more widely. Metro for frequent urban Belfast services, a new high spec ‘Urby’ network for longer distance commuters, Ulsterbus for local services across Northern Ireland and then the Goldline coach network for fast services between towns and cities. It’s an easy to understand network which experienced overall growth in patronage last year.

All of this is possible because, firstly, the vast majority of public transport services in Northern Ireland are provided by Translink (a state-owned corporation). And, secondly, Translink is carrying out its remit, which is not to use a monopoly position to manage decline but to get out there and ensure that public transport plays its part in delivering the wider objectives Northern Ireland has for a thriving green economy based on healthy communities.

The end of decline management is also exemplified by the transformation of Northern Ireland’s rail network. In the sixties Northern Ireland was no more immune to the brutalising of its railway system than the rest of the UK – leaving some districts without any rail service at all. Until the early 2000s this residual rail service was the domain of veteran English Electric ‘thumper’ units which dolefully and noisily trundled their way around a bare minimum of trackwork. When, finally, approval was given for new trains it unleashed an astonishing growth in passengers – a doubling in 10 years.

Meanwhile, bringing the whole rail and bus shebang together are two major projects. The first is a rebuild of the current hub of both Northern Ireland’s rail and bus network at Great Victoria Street. It’s starting to feel its age and both the bus and rail terminals are struggling to cope with surging demand; so much so that some rail services can’t be squeezed into it – such as the Enterprise rail service to Dublin. Everything is going to change, including the name (it will be rebranded within a broader regeneration site known as Weavers Cross), when it becomes a new, more spacious interchange topped off with a significant commercial development.

The second major project is the modernisation of transport ticketing. There are already 28 million smartcard journeys annually and nearly half a million active smartcards. As the modernisation project is rolled out across more types of services and ticketing projects, Northern Ireland is one of the frontrunner territories in Europe for achieving smart, simple and fully integrated ticketing across its entire public transport network.

Finally, layered on top of everything is a marketing campaign that stresses the intrinsic advantages of public transport for both the individual traveller and Northern Ireland as a whole. The predominance of the car culture in Northern Ireland (and the consequent tendency of Belfast to gridlock) can be an advantage here – as you are starting from a clean slate with a fresh proposition. The aim is to make public transport a credible answer for policy makers looking at where best to invest in tackling wider social, environmental and economic goals and for individuals’ travel needs. ‘Get on board’ as the strapline has it.

Northern Ireland really isn’t so different from the rest of the UK to make it an invalid comparator or to make lessons untransferable and the rest of the UK really needs to start looking at what Northern Ireland is doing on public transport. Because whilst you weren’t looking – they got ahead of you.

Jonathan Bray is Director of Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine.