MaaS Appeal: Urban Transport’s Near or Distant Future?

Written by David Burroughs, News & Features Writer, International Railway Journal
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London’s Oyster system, which allows passengers to travel with a contactless bank card as well as a ticket or Oyster card, is one of the most accessible systems in the world. Photo: Shutterstock/Ceri Breeze

INTERNATIONAL RAILWAY JOURNAL, MARCH 2020 ISSUE: (MaaS) Mobility as a Service has been touted as the natural next step in the advancement of urban and intercity transport. But while strides have been made in the development of many of the integral aspects needed to make MaaS a reality, implementation is still lacking. Why this is the case, and what needs to change?

Ticketing has come a long way over the past 10-15 years. After decades of issuing paper-based tickets to show that a fare has been paid and access to a network should be granted, the public transport industry has begun to embrace new technologies designed to make a visit to a ticket kiosk or vending machine a thing of the past. These include contactless payments, QR (Quick Response) code- and app-based tickets, and account-based tickets that provide passengers with the ability to hop on and off different modes of transport with ease.

But the consensus is that more can be done to improve access for passengers, and make it easier to get from A to B to C. These include improving first and last-mile access, increasing the interoperability between different modes and operators, allowing passengers to use a single ticket across multiple legs of a trip, and improving the range of information available to allow passengers to easily see how they can get from their current location to their destination in the fastest, cheapest or most economical way.

While strides have been made in the development of many of the integral aspects needed to make MaaS a reality, implementation is still lacking.

Combined, these advances come under the umbrella of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a term that covers two different streams. The first is the development of a system that allows passengers to travel from point-to-point using whatever mode of transport best meets their travel needs, all while using a single ticket. The next step is providing this service on a subscription-based model, where an individual pays a fee each month or year, which entitles them to use a variety of services as much as they like.

The term is loosely based on the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. For example, instead of purchasing songs or albums individually, consumers now purchase a monthly subscription that allows them access to the complete iTunes or Spotify library. The question is, can this model be transferred across to the transport industry, and are passengers willing to pay up-front for a service that would let them hop on any bus, train, streetcar, taxi/rideshare or e-scooter for a fixed monthly price?  

To make this system work, it is crucial to have the support of multiple operators that are willing to collaborate for the benefit of passengers, while still ensuring their own services remain viable. Some of the systems that form the basis of MaaS are already in use, and have been for years. These range from subscription-based models covering multiple modes with a monthly fee, to token-based systems where passengers ride multiple modes in one journey before they are charged a single fare at the end.

Technology

The development of the technologies needed to enable MaaS systems have come a long way over the past few years, with a number of innovations such as QR codes, contactless cards and mobile-based tickets now an everyday reality.

At the Transport Ticketing Global 2020 conference in London in January, Corethree, Cubic and Conduent Transportation were among a number of manufacturers and developers who unveiled a range of new products aimed at easing the transition from standard ticketing to MaaS-focused systems. This included a new NFC (Near Field Communication) mobile-ticketing activation and validation solution from Corethree, which is the size of a postage stamp, and can be stuck to any location such as the door to an LRV, train or bus to allow the validation of mobile tickets. The company has also developed an SDK (Software Development Kit) and API (Application Programming Interface), which allows operators to integrate end-to-end journey planning and mobile ticket purchases into an app, providing a comprehensive mobile ticketing solution.

However, if this technology is already available, why hasn’t it been widely introduced?

Esteban Galuzzi, transit and transport undersecretary for the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, says the two major barriers to the implementation of MaaS are policy and pricing—the standards and policies that allow and control the implementation of the system, and the way the fare is paid for and split between the operators.

In some ways, there are already services that make parts of MaaS available. Take Citymapper, Google Maps or Uber for example. These services increasingly provide an overview of a range of options to get from place to place using a variety and mixture of modes, along with timetables and alternatives such as walking directions. But what these services lack, or mostly lack in the case of Uber, is a fare and ticketing option, with passengers still needing to purchase a ticket for the various parts of their journey.

Rail operators are increasingly incorporating alternative connecting modes of transport in their smartphone apps. Photo: DB (German Rail)/Oliver Lang

One operator that has made it easier for passengers to travel across modes in a seamless way is Swiss Federal Railways (SBB). In November 2019, the railway launched the “EasyRide” automatic mobile ticket system across the entire Swiss network, which uses technology developed by Fairtiq to allow passengers to travel without buying a ticket before commencing their journey. To use the EasyRide function, passengers swipe a button within the app at the start and end of their journey. The program records the distance they have travelled and which modes of transport they have used, calculating the lowest fare for the trip. If a cheaper fare such as a day pass is available, the passenger will be charged the lower price. Passengers will also be notified if they forget to swipe off at the end of their journey.

SBB EasyRide

EasyRide is available on SBB trains and most other railways in Switzerland, as well as on boats, buses and streetcars, and fulfills some of the basic requirements of MaaS—allowing passengers to travel across multiple modes in a single journey using a single ticket. The system has proved popular. Three months after its launch, SBB has seen more than half a million passengers register to use the feature, making more than 1.2 million trips using the automatic ticketing.

Another type of MaaS system already available is an “all you can use” service, where operators offer weekly, monthly or yearly season tickets. These types of tickets have been in use for years, but become much more complicated when trying to incorporate different operators into the system.

Bringing multiple operators together is one of the major challenges of MaaS, and one that has no simple answer. The conditions under which operators in different cities and countries are active vary widely, and what works for two or more operators in one city may not be suitable for operators in another. This is something Spanish passenger operator Renfe is looking to solve with “Renfe as a Service” (RaaS), which the company is launching in an effort to retain and increase passenger numbers as the country prepares for the liberalization of the rail market.

Renfe RaaS

Renfe launched a three-month trial with 500 frequent travelers on the Madrid-Barcelona corridor in October last year to test various features such as planning, ticketing and customer service before the platform is launched. RaaS will integrate various modes of public and private transport in an effort to provide better first- and last-mile connectivity for passengers. The initial test included Renfe, Cabify, taxi aggregator Karhoo, bus operator EMT, Barcelona Metropolitan Transport (TMB), the Madrid Transport Consortium (which includes intercity buses and metro), car park manager Saba and scooter provider Circa. This trial was a success and Renfe is now preparing a tender for an integrator to build a platform, which will include a journey planner, payment platform and ticket provider integrated into a single system. RaaS will also eventually be available in all cities served by Renfe’s trains.

While bringing operators together to collaborate on a single system will help to improve access for passengers, this will only go so far in convincing them that it is worth changing their travel patterns. To persuade commuters to leave their cars behind and place themselves at the mercy of public transport, they need reassurance that they will be able to reliably get to their destination more quickly or cheaply than if they had taken a car.

“In order to get them out of their vehicles, you have to show them what the journey looks like,” says Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Innovation Department Assistant Vice President Tina Morch-Pierre. “You have to incorporate traffic management, because if you’re going to take me out of my car, you’re going to have to let me know exactly what direction I’m going in. If you’re getting pushed the information of ‘here’s the traffic, it’s going to take you another hour to get to your destination,’ then what you want to do is to be able to offer an alternative. Why don’t you take public transit, and by the way here is a discount, or take this share ride service to your destination? Sometimes it’s cheaper, sometimes it’s faster, but you have to be able to provide the rider or commuter that level of information for their journey.”

In order to provide this level of service, operators must be open to sharing and making information easily available, either through their own apps or third-party services. This situation presents one of the as yet unanswered questions surrounding MaaS: whether this data should be standardized. Many remain split on this key question.

Not a Golden Bullet

While there is still much to be done to fully-develop MaaS, the CIO of Go Ahead, Enrique Fernandex-Pino, warns that while MaaS may well become commonplace in the future, there is a risk that the industry will spend too much time fixated on its development while missing the smaller, more simple fixes that it hopes MaaS might solve. He says there is a consensus in the industry that people will be quick to adopt MaaS in the same way they adopted other advances in technology, such as the switch from the BBC to Sky. “Everyone seems to be in agreement that this is the future, and I’m not so sure,” he says.

Fernandex-Pino is quick to stress that he is not against MaaS, and thinks that it is still a route worth pursuing. However, he warns that the introduction cannot be viewed as a fix-all for all the urban transport industry’s problems, and there are other solutions that need to be explored and developed alongside the development of MaaS. “I want to be very clear – I’m not saying this isn’t the future, I’m saying I can’t see this being the imminent future,” he says.

The biggest challenge for Fernandex-Pino lies in providing a complete “all-you-can-use” service across multiple operators. He outlined two models under which MaaS was likely to be developed among multiple operators, but says both models have certain levels of risks and problems.

The system would need to enable a passenger to travel on a bus or train and then switch to another operator’s bus or train before charging them a single fare at the end of the journey. One way would be to create a platform formed by multiple operators, which then acts as the middle man to provide the tickets and collect the revenue, which is then divvied back to the operators. “To be able to do this we are going to have to have some brokerage, and this thing will then calculate the allocations,” he says. “That’s going to be really expensive because it’s an additional cost. It’s complex because it has to work with all operators, who at the same time might lose customers because they’re going through someone else’s platform. Will all operators want to be part of it? I have my doubts.”

The second option, one that Fernandex-Pino sees as more unlikely, is for a third party to act as a “travel agency” that purchases fares in bulk, selling them on in packages to passengers. To make this option viable, they would need to sell all the capacity they had purchased while also hoping that passengers travel less often than expected. “That’s bordering on suicide, in my view, and definitely you’re going to need critical mass for that to work; you’re going to have to be Google,” he says. “I’m not saying that MaaS isn’t going to work. I’m saying it won’t work in the short-term, and a far more efficient way of serving customers is through interoperable and collaborative schemes.”

Exclusion

Another issue facing the implementation of a digital system is ensuring other easily-accessible tickets remain available. Any fare system must be able to cater to the widest range of passengers possible. If a system is completely mobile or bank-card based, it then excludes those in society who prefer or are not able to access these services—often the elderly or those who rely solely on public transport.

Even if the collaborative aspect of MaaS can be achieved, the question remains of whether passengers want an all-you-can-use style system. Speaking during the panel on MaaS, Mastercard Head of Global Transport Strategy Matt Blanks and Uber Head of Global Policy for Public Transportation Chris Pangilinan came to opposite conclusions on whether the public wants a subscription-based model.

“The subscription model is something that I think is going to be adopted once we figure out what is the right package to bundle up for that subscription,” Pangilinan says. “Especially in North America, people are already paying this ‘subscription’ to their automobile financiers, they’re paying $400 a month for their car payments, and then more for the insurance and maintenance and fuel and all that kind of stuff. But potentially, there’s a way they can bring that cost down and have a variety of modes available to them. There is a way in the future where people can say ‘Instead of paying my $400 or $500 a month on my car ownership, I’ll pay $300 a month, not have a car and have this entire selection of transit modes available.”

However, Blanks says that changing and unpredictable travel habits could mean passengers prefer to stay with a pay-as-you-go model. He pointed out that in the past, he had purchased a £2,500 annual ticket for travel in London, which allowed him to catch the same train from the same station each day. But since then, his travel patterns had evolved in line with the changes to the nature of his work, and he now had to catch different services while visiting different cities or countries, where his annual pass was not valid.

“So, subscription works for commodities like Netflix and mobile phones, but you look at travel and it’s a lot more agile than it used to be, consumers want different choices,” he says. “They are more price-conscious, and they look for different options. So consumer subscriptions might be there in the future, and all of our technology allows that. It’s customer choice, and that’s why we have to make it customer-centric. Rather than forcing you to pay $500 a month, you can choose, and go with a pay-as-you-go system.”

As always with MaaS, the emphasis must be on creating a service that improves the journey for passengers. Without getting them on board, any subscription ticketing model is likely to prove worthless.

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