Mobility as a Service – why people are just getting on with it, writes Alistair Kirkbride
Going to conferences is a bit like going on holiday. You try to work out how it’s going to unfold and what it’ll be like by reading blurb, but it’s the sense that emerges that is important to try to capture. My “holiday snaps” from the recent Smarter Travel Live 2017 conference  were: bike share is exploding, Local Authorities don’t go to conferences at the moment and MaaS is flexing its muscle as the idea grows and differentiates. Bike share covered several pages in the last LTT [ref], the drought of Local Authority engagement is telling (but of what?), but let’s focus here on the evolution of MaaS.
Whether MaaS is a platform or a way of thinking was well debated at Wocomoco 2016  and elsewhere. Over the last year, the West Midlands pilot of Whim  is demonstrating that it is possible for MaaS to exist in the UK regulatory framework, not that it won’t identify snags that will need some work to resolve. The recent Landor MaaS survey publication demonstrates neatly the differentiation of the core idea of MaaS into multiple scales and contexts. The recent launch of MaaS Scotland  shows the rapid shift to a nation-scale swagger of the idea. Perhaps more importantly, MaaS Scotland is almost explicit in not trying to define how it will unfold; this in itself is significant as it demonstrates the wide opportunity for the shaping of future mobility. UITP held a workshop on MaaS at the same time as Smarter Travel Live.
So MaaS is everywhere. Or is it? Let’s look at three aspects that were implicitly on show at ST Live: MaaS defined by outcomes, “Just get on with it” MaaS and “boutique” MaaS.
Firstly, it was refreshing – and somewhat relieving – to hear an increasingly coherent debate about how public benefit needs to define how MaaS unfolds. Like autonomous vehicle development, the sector is asking how pubic benefit will be realised through MaaS, and who will be responsible for delivering the (non-commercial) outcomes. The debate is still live as to the role of the public sector in MaaS development: as the MaaS operator (unlikely) or as the body that sets parameters (via regulation or licensing of some form; desirable but deliverable?). There is an awareness that the public sector having to play catch-up to innovations that head in the wrong direction (such as Uber) is undesirable, and can still be averted. The West Midlands Whim pilot and MaaS Scotland both demonstrate constructive partnerships between the public and private sector who together can help shape the path between innovative idea and useful agent for how people travel. The approaches might be different (a small scale pilot vs a strategic national-scale partnership), but the core idea of mixing what is best about public and private sector approaches and roles is common to both.
What is not yet resolved is a clear understanding of what a MaaS future means in terms of tackling existing social and environmental problems of and related to transport. Like many innovations, MaaS can frame compelling pictures of a better future; realising these will still need some pretty meaty intervention and hard political decisions, as well as the public coming round to the idea of behaving differently. The ITF Transition to Shared Mobility study  demonstrated the (modelled) scale of benefits of radical shared mobility in Lisbon on access and environment. More importantly, it also highlighted explicitly what would be necessary to realise the benefits. This has not yet been done for MaaS.
The second MaaS development – spelt out in the Landor MaaS survey – was more of a realisation of “just getting on with it”. There was a quip at Smarter Travel Live that if we waited to get all of our ducks in a row on MaaS, they would be swept away by the Next Big Thing. As the idea of MaaS has emerged, there has been a sense that we were going to have to wait for something(s) to happen before MaaS would be a reality. This might have involved city-wide co-ordination or vision, the realisation of bottom-line benefit among operators or the confidence among MaaS advocates that the public was ready for it. There has perhaps also been an implicit sense that MaaS needed to be “MaaS-pure” – the idea of a mobility account that really is competitive with car ownership in terms of cost and convenience. Waiting for utopia can be at best stifling, and worse used as a mandate to not do anything. Just getting on with it is the license to work within and towards the idea of MaaS, but not to be constrained by MaaS-pure.
“Just getting on with it” can mean many things. The West Midlands WhimApp pilot shows that with the following wind of a committed local public sector, “pure” MaaS can be realised in the UK, if on a small initial scale. Landor’s annual survey of MaaS included examples of where mobility accounts can work fairly easily in a variety of closed contexts such as workplaces. Indeed, shifting to MaaS-type mobility accounts for employee travel provides a new set of opportunities to maximise reductions in environmental impacts of travel choices.
In the shared transport sector, we are ever-more-rapidly seeing car sharing operations alongside docked and free-floating bike share in cities. These operations are complementary and mutually reinforce new urban mobility behaviours; it is only a matter of time before we see easy-to-deliver shared transport MaaS in urban mobility. Maybe one pathway to urban MaaS will be integration within the different sectoral components (public transport, shared transport) coming together, but that is probably too far to go in a single step for most places, so shared transport could just get on with it.
The third observation demonstrates this – that MaaS is differentiating into different types of applications, scales and contexts – “Boutique MaaS”.
One of the more interesting MaaS developments that pulls many of these points together has been in the Lake District. The public sector body (The Lake District National Park Authority) recognised that MaaS might provide a useful approach to unblock progress in changing travel behaviour. “Might” is important, in that no-one could know how it might work, but that there was value in exploring the MaaS idea in a new context. The context was visitor travel, and from the LDNPA (public sector) perspective, “public good” was focused on reducing the impact of transport on the protected landscape, enhancing the quality of the visitor experience and nurturing new forms of (locally rooted) enterprise.
The last ten years has seen significant investment in travel behaviour change programmes in national parks (e.g. LSTF in Lake District, New Forest and South Downs), as well as in other visitor areas (such as the Isle of Wight or Jurassic Coast). This has not only led to significant advances in visitor travel behaviour management, but to much better evidenced understanding of the potential for further change. It is well understood that when we are visitors and out of our day-to-day routines and locales, our travel choices are much more open to suggestion.
Visitor areas are increasingly integrating strategies for travel behaviour change into visitor experience. Indeed, use of the private car for many people is associated with day-to-day routine, which further opens opportunities for alternative travel options. If people (just) want a great day out, they don’t really want to deal with decisions about best ways of travelling.
Visitor travel therefore seems to provide fertile opportunities for MaaS. A key part of the thinking behind the launch of car club operation Streetcar in 2004 (subsequently acquired by Zipcar) was the idea of developing “service envy” i.e. the idea that they wanted to replace the envy for a product (a private car) with that for a service (flexibility, hassle free, cost savings of a car club). This underpins MaaS, in that it needs to provide a service offer so compelling that it is chosen over private car use (and ownership). In terms of just getting on with it, if visitors are more open to suggestion, then cracking MaaS for visitors might be a lot easier than for day-to-day travel.
The LDNPA worked with TravelSpirit to explore use cases for MaaS. Whilst some of these were fairly obvious, the prospect of a MaaS approach led in two unexpected directions. Firstly, the MaaS idea opens up all sorts of types of user markets that are the difficult-to-crack ones with regard to shifting travel from private cars. Secondly, MaaS doesn’t necessarily need to be hi-tech, or indeed need tech at all. The background work with operators to agree MaaS usage by clients could easily be realised using low-tech tokens. Coupled to this, the human-scale “concierge” (e.g. via visitor accommodation) emerged as a resource that could help introduce the idea and make MaaS make sense to visitors.
Interesting as this might be for the Lake District, it reveals three ideas that might fold back into MaaS development more generally, namely: it can open up new target markets to travel behaviour change and we don’t need to wait for full-MaaS platforms as MaaS can function (in some contexts) without it. Finally, we shouldn’t overlook the human scale when designing MaaS. We have known this for a long time in sustainable transport (try-out sessions, cycle buddies, workplace travel plan officers etc) and a session at Smarter Travel Live was dedicated to “the human element in a digital age”; we probably overlook it at our peril.
Successful MaaS needs to deliver on service envy, and there is robust evidence that shifting social norms mean that it could become revolutionary. The announcement of Richard Thaler winning the Nobel Prize for Economics is relevant here. His field of behavioural economics, popularised through “nudge” theory, has provided a new economic language for the pesky inconsistencies that characterise real human behaviour. MaaS, service envy, and the power of suggestion that resonates with people’s norms opens the wide new field of mobility. Any change as fundamental as this provides an new crop of chances to make things better, not just different.