By Ethan Goffman – January 15, 2020

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) holds a lot of promise as a way to reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road as well as address equity concerns. MaaS is a way to integrate different transportation options in order to facilitate coordinating trip and route planning, mode selection, and payment, according to Andy Boenau, leader of the MaaS initiative at engineering consulting firm Stantec.

Bicycles, scooters, on-call vans, and ride hailing apps, should be used to get people to and from major transit. A recent study from the American Public Transit Association (APTA) about MaaS in Europe , describes MaaS as “a full range of mobility options in a single digital mobility platform, leveraging public transportation as the network backbone.” Ideally, MaaS will eventually supersede personal cars in getting us “from any address in North America to any other address in North America,” said Boenau.

Infrastructure that promotes transportation options such as a better bus system, conveniently located bikeshare and scooters, and walkability will make MaaS platforms more effective. Once fully operational, MaaS will provide the mobility and flexibility of an individual car without the expense, congestion and environmental impact.

This vision is different from the idea of autonomous vehicles on call to move each of us individually to all our destinations. A system with zero occupancy cars on the road that looks first to immediate, individual needs could induce more trips, sprawl, and congestion. Public transit can efficiently move large numbers of people and is a crucial element to include while working to achieve a sustainable transportation network.

Beyond level zero

How can different localities think about the implementation of Maas? A 2018 study by Jana Sochor et al. describes four levels of implementing MaaS. Level one includes multimodal planners, of which Google Maps is a rudimentary example; level two integrates booking and paying; level three has many layers, integrating a complete multimodal trip; and level four integrates policy goals, such as congestion charging. Sochor et al. point to “the need for decarbonization of the transport system, reduced congestion, innovation, and better accessibility” as important societal goals achieving a high level of MaaS will enable.

Most of North America is hovering around level zero, according to Chrissy Ditmore, Director of Strategy at Cubic Transportation Systems. Ditmore explained in a webinar that to move toward level one or two, the very first step for any transit agency is ensuring accurate real time information,. Simply having the scheduled time of arrival for a bus, for instance, won’t do, since if that bus is late it ruins the next step in the transit chain. It is also crucial to integrate with other agencies, such as metropolitan planning organizations, as transit agencies in isolation often lack the necessary authority. Public-private partnerships are also an important part of setting up a well-integrated MaaS system. Conversations between entities involved in MaaS need to happen as early as possible, as often as possible.

Two commonly discussed MaaS models are a monthly service charge for a full suite of services and a pay-as-you-go approach. The latter might incentivize customers to take the most efficient means of transportation, while a monthly fee might encourage overuse or the use of less efficient transportation choices. As a white paper by Cubic Transportation argues, “A pay-as-you-go model… is likely to encourage a more sustainable and denser use of transportation services.” The paper criticizes a subscription model as fundamentally flawed “given that the objective of MaaS must focus on improving the density of transit.”

Smart policy can also disincentivize single occupancy vehicle driving with a variety of tools such as “congestion pricing, parking regulation, land-use and traffic management policies,” according to a study of MaaS in Europe by the American Public Transit Association (APTA). For instance, according to the white paper by Cubic Transportation, governments “might charge the private operator for the privilege of using the road – a public asset – in pay-per-mile schemes.” Along with MaaS, such policies can lead to major changes in the way people choose to move around; individuals would pay for the unintended consequences of driving and this would fund more socially equitable and environmentally friendly alternatives.

Achieving transit equity

MaaS can end the isolation of those left out by our current dependence on individual vehicles. Seniors and young people are two groups without car access who would benefit greatly from MaaS, particularly as part of a complete, integrated transit system. Up to “26 percent of seniors don’t have a car and many avoid driving altogether due to disabilities or other physical limitations,” according to the Cubic white paper. A rural area with an aging population that had access to a complete and integrated transit system would have a much easier time connecting people which could have public health benefits.

The U.S. is behind many countries in making paying for various transit modes through a single smart phone app, according to Ditmore’s webinar on implementing MaaS, which makes it more difficult to move toward full MaaS. However, one area where the rest of the world does look to us is in designing for handicapped accessibility, as mandated by U.S. laws.

MaaS also needs to be designed for those who lack access to a smart phone, Ditmore said in the webinar on implementing MaaS. A single card linked to an account that could be refilled at different locations like a local 7-Eleven would be a useful and effective way to provide this service in the United States. Of course, getting the card to interface with different services, from bikeshare to rail, presents a technical problem, but a solvable one.

Arlington County is positioned to incorporate MaaS

Arlington has made important progress towards laying out the policy infrastructure for MaaS, and has long been at the forefront of transportation demand management (TDM). TDM means understanding travel behavior and decision-making, and providing information and guidance for people to use infrastructure in place for transit, walking, biking, and telework, which naturally encourages alternatives to driving and promotes better balance in the transportation system. “Arlington Transportation Partners has been working on that probably more than any like entity across the U.S.,” said Ditmore. For the past 20 years, “they were really at the cutting edge of how to plan in a different way how to incorporate demand.”

Arlington offers a variety of transportation options: walkable neighborhoods based around transit, a great local bus system, bus rapid transit, rail access, scooters and bike share. Residents also have an array of tools for finding the most convenient trip – by accessing real-time transit information through the WMATA Trip Planner or Google Maps to find the best route, or through the ART RealTime tool to know exactly when a bus will arrive. Residents also have at their disposal the ability to use the SmarTrip card to pay for bus or rail, and the Capital Bikeshare throughout the DMV.

Engineering a better future

MaaS may require a change in thinking for some policy makers and transportation officials and may also require some ingenuity and careful planning to facilitate its implementation. Andy Boenau has suggested that, “it’s challenging for city planners and traffic engineers to truly think about mobility as a service, because we’re so accustomed to intersection analysis and corridor studies.”

It’s reductive to think of MaaS as simply a better app, Ditmore said. Ditmore argued that MaaS has been packaged in a misleading way in the United States, that it is not primarily an app but a policy. Technology and sound policy are both needed to integrate different transportation options and to open up a world of mobility for all in clean, green cities.