Mobility as a service: The value proposition for the public and our urban systems

The concept of mobility as a service (MaaS) seeks to integrate physical transportation services (such as bike sharing, public transit, car sharing and ride hailing) with a digital platform (or several platforms) that can plan and manage the entire user journey.

MaaS is an area of keen interest and debate for transit and city planners around the world. New MaaS initiatives—especially private-sector offerings—seem to surface daily. Consider new data platforms such as Coord, developed by Sidewalk Labs, and the Transportation Mobility Cloud, developed by Ford and Autonomic—not to mention relatively longer standing physical services such as ZipcarDropbikeLyft and Uber. Yet the impacts of these combined services on our transportation networks and urban systems are not always clear.

MaaS is critical. Planned well, it can offer major benefits for cities, including reducing congestion and improving the economics and flexibility of—and accessibility to—existing transit services. There are also potential environmental and health benefits, particularly if single-occupancy vehicle usage is reduced and active transportation (walking and cycling) are further encouraged.

At the same time, it’s unclear whether MaaS can deliver all that it promises, particularly if its deployment results instead in more vehicles on the road, reduced public-transit ridership or walkability, and/or exclusionary pricing models that leave out major segments of society, among other possible impacts. Although planners are usually well aware of such implications, the approach to date has largely been reactionary, which means that the MaaS ecosystems that have developed do not yet have the guidance they need to satisfy a broad or inclusive agenda for our city systems.

Throughout late 2017 and early 2018, MaRS Data Catalyst and Arup Canada set out to further understand the promise of MaaS digital platforms and the measurable impact of associated physical services. Questions we considered included: Do such platforms increase vehicle use and/or reduce active travel? Are MaaS services replacing trips that would otherwise have been made by public transit?

Our approach was to review the existing literature to determine whether there were trends in the impacts being observed. We also conducted a set of semi-structured interviews with 14 mobility experts to better define the value proposition of MaaS from the perspective of service vendors, consumers, transit agencies and governments generally. A cursory scan of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) context was also undertaken.

The following are our key findings.

  1. MaaS deployment and outcomes vary by region and depend on socioeconomic and demographic attributes, overall trip patterns, and the quality and coverage of existing transit. In particular, the availability of regional communication infrastructure, and of real-time data to support planning and services, are key to widespread application.
  2. The value proposition associated with MaaS depends on the nature of the trip being served and the type of service provided. In some cases, discrete impacts have been observed; for example, car sharing seems to associate with reduced car ownership and reduced private vehicle use, whereas ride hailing has at times increased urban congestion and vehicle-kilometres travelled. Contrasting impacts were also observed: in some cases, ride hailing was found to have a complementary relationship with public transit and, in others, a competitive relationship. For consumers, cost, time and convenience sometimes improved and, at other times, these attributes declined. Overall, the evidence base in this area to date is small, meaning that impacts need to be interpreted and applied with caution. Further inquiry is needed to collect and analyze data and especially to do so in keeping with the regional context of interest.
  3. With respect to stakeholder perspectives, the value of MaaS for agents can involve trade-offs (one group benefits at the cost of another). Currently there is no clear or consistent means to prevent negative trade-offs between agents. That said, there are areas of joint value and opportunity, particularly when serving certain segments of the trip market, like healthcare delivery, and/or through promoting the evolution of the user base to be more inclusionary. Collaborative models or operating frameworks have not yet consistently emerged, which is complicated by the baseline of uncertainty and jurisdictional variability (as identified in Points 1 and 2).
  4. When it comes to the GTHA context, the region consists of 30 separate municipalities and implies all manner of land uses and density gradients, with associated implications for the type and degree of MaaS services that are applicable. The fragmentation of current service provision—10 autonomous transit agencies, one provincial agency and one regional transit service—also complicates the picture. Chronic underinvestment in public transit has made it challenging for these agencies to address other priorities; however, MaaS services have continued to proliferate, whether or not public transit or planners have been engaged.

Overall, we recommend that governments and planning authorities in the GTHA become much more active in guiding the evolution of their respective MaaS ecosystems. This can be achieved by including planning for more robust prototyping, managing the impacts of operations on congested streets, developing a model operating policy that defines the minimum expectations of value for stakeholders, and facilitating innovation by the private sector in accordance with that policy. Done well, these steps offer the GTHA and Ontario the potential to become leaders in North America for defining partnership frameworks between the public and private sectors that provide mobility services to underserved segments of the community.

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