Mobility as a Service: Why a change of mindset is needed

Over the last decade or so, city residents have seen their mobility options impacted by an ever-changing urban transport environment, influenced by the 4th industrial revolution technologies (electric, autonomous, shared), Internet of Things and 5G/smart phones, plus more. Whilst traditional modes have remained largely static, advancement of mobility technologies are creating new mobility variations like car sharing, bike sharing, on-demand transport, mobility Apps and ride hailing. This has created a far more complex mobility environment — far too complex for an average user to easily determine the optimal modal mix for a trip. The potential transport constraints and the need for efficient and effective mobility in cities cannot be overstated to avoid the transport constraints that cities will face in the future

In response to this changing urban mobility environment, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has emerged — only globally defined in 2018 — as a new comprehensive approach to these urban mobility challenges, and increasing prominence of other global initiatives like Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Climate Change agendas and SDGs.

What Is Mobility As A Service?

MaaS is not a technology trend but a new holistic user-focused approach for public transport development, largely unknown even by urban transport practitioners and with very limited exposure in Asia. Full understanding requires a change in mindset from what most experts were taught about urban transport principles. It requires thinking of the user’s accessibility needs (for mobility services) first for any urban transport system, not trying to justify developing individual mode-based solutions by forecasting user demand along a particular corridor or area. MaaS also supports the principle that urban mobility is a system, not simply the sum of individual modes that creates a transport network.

MaaS partially evolved from traditionally technology, Intelligent Transport systems (ITS), which provides technology solutions to a single or multiple modes — like common ticketing systems with payment, usually all within the control of one operator or owner. Whilst in the last 10 years technology has allowed these solutions to become more multimodal, in almost all cases the integration is imperfect as operators prioritize their needs or there is not a sufficiently strong regulator to ensure a holistic integrated approach. As far back as 2010, ADB was supporting ITS systems as part of Metro and integrated ITS developments that were operator focused. In 2015–17 I led development of an App based system for a Metro and bus project (not called MaaS then). Even the most recent Metro or BRT projects still take a technology approach for a single system solution and even the better projects still focus on ITS/technology solutions.

This focus on ITS and technology is largely still prevalent in Asia, where urban transport networks are largely still being developed, but through incorporating MaaS approach into an Asian developing city’s plans and projects, it will “future proof” these basic investments far better.

MaaS turns this traditional ITS approach to urban transport development to both a holistic and integrated system solution. MaaS should be thought of as an integral part of sustainable urban transport planning (masterplan) — MaaS will address public transport user demand aspects, whereas a masterplan should address total demand, including private only modes and its infrastructure. MaaS will also overlap into the “private realm” as many private transport modes are increasing being made available to the public, like car/ride sharing, bike sharing, etc.

MaaS should not be confused with emerging trending topics like Digital Technology (DT), “Big Data” and similar technology driven initiatives — these are in fact simply “tools” for part of a mobility solution. MaaS is a higher-level vision/strategic/planning approach, under which these “tools” are used. DT and ITS are just addressing simple problems. Big data is just using other new sources of data/information, but then you need Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning to interpret that data. MaaS actually provides the framework — purpose and objective — of applying that interpreted data and how it can be used (in planning, design, or operations) to increase mobility efficiencies to benefit users. The MaaS “provider” — public or private — will provide the public user interfaces/Apps.

Aren’t Apps Already Providing MaaS?

It should be highlighted that well known mobility Apps are becoming established in both developed and developing cities, including in Asia, and are a type of mobility services but not the same as MaaS. These Apps just overlap with the MaaS ecosystem. These popular Apps do provide a public service — giving access to private vehicles for the general public — and thus should fall under the same regulatory framework as taxis or other non-scheduled (informal) mobility services like the jeepneys of the Philippines, or motorcycle taxis of Vietnam, Indonesia and many other Asian countries.

Unfortunately, the success of these Apps is largely driven by private sector exploitation of both regulatory weaknesses and deficiencies in the wider public transport system. Whilst these Apps provide a much-improved level of access, flexibility, and convenience through user friendly App interfaces, they are fundamentally driven by profit motive so target specific groups within a city, and are neither inclusive, holistic nor affordable for >50% of the travelling public in developing cities. In fact they have a negative impact by attracting passengers who have a higher affordability level, thus leaving other public modes less viable to run. There is a real risk that these Apps become too established and permanently distort the urban transport services environment, which will disadvantage most lower income users in the long term.

[The “devolution” of these major private sector Apps — Uber, Grab, Gojek — into delivery and even financing to be successful only further demonstrates their profit driven motive (so non-inclusive) and further risk deprioritization of current, less profitable mobility groups as they seek to reduce losses.]

Ideally, MaaS provides the framework to provide all mobility services in a city, to create an efficient system. which include synergy between public and private entities. Understanding MaaS and how it applies in a city or country means appreciating several key aspects;

  • It is a holistic approach that puts user needs first when deciding on urban transport development, which importantly includes necessary policy and regulatory measures to create a conducive environment and a level playing field for any providers and operators — that address the complexities of new technologies too
  • It is a multi-level solution that can “grow” over time — from single operator solution (level “0”) to planning/booking/payment of all modes across a country that is linked to policy and private sector roles, and everything in between (Level “4”).
  • Various business models can be used — private provider, major operator, regulatory platform and different packaging for users. Ideal MaaS provides a framework to all operators and providers on an equitable basis to allow development of innovative solutions for all users or groups of users
  • Key role of all stakeholders in developing a MaaS ecosystem framework, so it is an inclusive system for all.

How To Develop Maas In The Real World

It is very complex to develop MaaS properly and comprehensively. To follow a piecemeal, infrastructure focused or “trending Issue” approach may result in short-term improvements in specific (small) parts of a city transport network, but these DT measures will be neither sustainable, nor improve livability nor green cities. A long term sustainable improvement requires MaaS to be the focus of any city’s public transport (technology) system and actual investments — along with holistic planning, capacity development and sustainable financing. Infrastructure alone (even with an extra technology component) will never achieve the decarbonization of urban transport needed. The importance of MaaS is recognized in the recent UN ESCAP Declaration of Sustainable Urban Transport.

City urban mobility is being led by experts that mostly have a good technical and logical outlook from their education and experience. Whereas the success of “MaaS like” Apps — such as Uber, Grab, Ola, Gojek, etc — is led by entrepreneurs or “disruptors”, who are able to see user needs and exploit mobility gaps in the market. This emphasizes the need for current mobility experts to embrace a “change of mindset” in order to address the evolving urban mobility environment now and the future.

Asia could simply evolve over the next decade or two from ITS/DT solutions as basic networks grow into MaaS later. However, cities have been “woken up” by these private sector Apps, which are not providing a holistic solution for societal good. Asian cities face the risk of developing a “two tiered” mobility system — one good system in which higher income users can afford the user-friendly solutions and one poor network that is underfunded and poor quality for the remaining (majority) of users.

Is this what any Asian city or development bank wants as a basis for a livable city mobility solution? If not, I believe greater application of MaaS is an important and critical first step in the right direction.

Robert Valkovic, Asian Development Bank

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