Is an all-encompassing mobility app making a comeback?
By John Surico
Imagine an app on your smartphone in which every form of transportation you could ever need can be found. Tap a button, and you have your subway, bus or train ticket in hand. Another tap activates nearby bikes, scooters and mopeds. (Even the electric ones.) And another unlocks a rental car for the weekend or hails an Uber downtown.
This is the pitch of “mobility as a service,” or MaaS, a late-2010s craze that took the transit world by storm. It would be “the Netflix of transportation,” as proponents sometimes call it, one that would give you an all-access subscription to the increasingly busy world of mobility. And maybe, in turn, it would solve one of urban planning’s greatest foes: private car ownership.
Like many other so-called tech disrupters, the hype of MaaS has been cooled by real-world realities. Yet efforts still exist: In late October, Austria, for example, debuted its KlimaTicket, or Climate Ticket, where one annual price gets you aboard all public transit in the country. But such innovations have been the exception to the status quo.
Now, amid a pandemic that kneecapped transit ridership and renewed urgency over carbon emissions, MaaS — or some version of it — may be mounting a second act, though attempts at expansion face significant obstacles.
The story starts in Finland. Backed by the Finnish government, Sampo Hietanen, an engineer, started Whim, the world’s first MaaS “operator,” in 2017; Helsinki was the test site. “It’s a nice sandbox to try out things,” said Hietanen, smiling over Zoom.
Whim offers “mobility packages” in Finland’s capital: The Urban 30 (originally 99 euros, about $115, a month) got you unlimited public transit rides, price-capped taxis and fixed day rates for car rentals; the Unlimited (500 euros a month), as its name implies, covered pretty much everything. Shared bikes and e-scooters have since been added, with cheaper plans for each mode.
But packages take assembly. An operator, like Whim, has to corral “providers” (say, Uber or the local subway system) under one roof — a tricky task, to put it mildly.
“These modes are not designed to fit each other, but you need to get them onto the same service and somehow agree to that,” Hietanen said. On a technical level, the app has to sync the systems. “That was a tough one.”
Hietanen has since founded MaaS Global, which operates Whim in Tokyo; Vienna; Antwerp, Belgium; Turku, Finland; the West Midlands region in Britain; and all of Switzerland and the Flanders region of Belgium.
In Antwerp, in fact, Whim is just one of many operators offering seamless transit in app form. The city takes a market-based approach: Rather than elevating one app to users, a team there works with companies to create apps that meet users’ needs more precisely. (You will hear the term “ecosystem” a lot.)
“We want to support as many players as possible,” said Stijn Vernaillen, a MaaS expert who works for Antwerp. “But as a city, we are not going to build a MaaS application or solution and put that in the market.”
This is a stark departure from the early days of MaaS, when it was envisioned that cities, with power over transit systems, would fill the role of de facto app provider. But Vernaillen said this was not a good fit.
Antwerp, Europe’s second-largest seaport, frequently welcomes tourists, who would then have to download an app upon visitation. Travel, too, is often regionally or nationally focused, so a city-provided app could be limited. (New York state, for example, controls the city’s subway, bus and commuter rail systems.)
MaaS has had the most success in Europe, where mass transit is more central to everyday life than in the United States. But this summer, it made landfall in Pittsburgh.
About a fifth of Pittsburgh residents do not have access to a car, according to census figures. In that case, said Karina Ricks, the former director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, “necessity is the mother of invention.” The result is Move PGH, a platform still in its early stages.
“We looked around the country at cities where they had a plethora of different mobility offerings, and it was a little bit of chaos,” Ricks said. “It wasn’t necessarily user-friendly, either — you needed to have a transportation graduate level understanding of these apps and systems.”
So, Pittsburgh asked companies to pitch a platform that wove together its transit landscape. Spin, a shared e-bike and e-scooter company owned by Ford Motor Co., won the bid, although no public money is attached.
The platform, available through the Transit app, is still in its infancy. Users can plan routes that include multiple modes like Healthy Ride (bike-sharing), Scoobi (e-mopeds) and Spin itself. Public transit and e-scooters can be paid for through the app, but for the other modes, users are redirected to individual apps. (Ricks said payment for mopeds and bike sharing would soon be done through the platform. But car rentals and carpooling? Hopefully one day.)
“The goal that we’re working towards is actual fare integration,” Ricks said. “That it would be working as a single system from a price standpoint. That’s the holy grail, but we’re taking baby steps to that.”
Pittsburgh has created 50 “mobility hubs,” in-person locations where all the modes can be found; residents can jet off on a Spin or Scoobi from there. The city is also piloting “universal basic mobility,” where 50 low-income residents are being given “all you can eat” access, as Ricks described it, to public transit, bike-sharing and e-scooters. Discounts for e-mopeds, car shares and carpooling are also included.
“If people don’t need to worry about the cost of those individual services, or frankly, of transportation itself — if they can remain focused on trying to reliably get to work, doctor appointments or get their kids to school on time, and they don’t have to be price sensitive — do we get better social outcomes from that?” asked Ricks.
The question also harkens back to the original dilemma: Can MaaS lure people out of their cars?
So far, the evidence of a modal shift appears shaky. In Finland, Whim and other operators never amassed a huge following, and the pandemic reportedly battered finances. The last year and a half has not been a banner time for travel routines. And 2022 may not be either.
But compared to the car, a century-old invention, the concept of one-stop-shop transit is brand-new, Hietanen said; growing pains are only natural. “The one that creates dreams is going to win this,” he added. “And we can create dreams. We’ll just do it in a bit of different format.”
Time, then, to get creative. Can car-free transportation be bundled in other ways? There is at least one place in the United States that is making a strong attempt.
In September, Culdesac Tempe, a 17-acre development outside Phoenix that calls itself “the first car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the U.S.,” announced that residents moving in next year would have access to a mobility package that includes a Platinum Pass with Valley Metro, the local transit agency, with unlimited free rides on streetcars, buses and the light rail; free use of over 100 Bird e-scooters; and discounts on Lyft rides and Envoy electric car rentals. (There are also over 1,000 bike parking spots.) It is all included in the rent.