Like a Good Diet, MaaS is about Balance

By Tim McGuckin, Executive Director, MaaS America

In the last year, Mobility as a Service has moved beyond the esoteric and, while not mainstream, it is at a point where most of us in the transport community understand its key elements (journey planning, real-time passenger information, and mobile payments – all presented via a smartphone GUI and driven by vast amounts of data) and how it’s meant to work. We know the players of MaaS in a broad sense: public agency owner-operators (of streets, transport infrastructure and public transit services), private sector (mostly venture-backed service providers of various ride-hail, ride-share and micro-mobility services) and, of course, the public. We’ve also become aware – most notably in large cities such as NYC – of the opposing impacts of ride-share on public transit, including reduced ridership, less revenue, skeptical elected official support, and reduced street speeds (due to more ride-hail vehicles increasing congestion). We mustn’t forget either the human costs of this development: the 80% reduction in the price of a NYC taxicab medallion (from an average of $1M to $200k), which is a factor in more than a dozen cab-driver suicides.

Though we cannot predict the future of MaaS and what it bodes for all key actors, what we have observed to date moves us past simple curiosity and passive observational awareness of the ramifications of this new paradigm. We are now at a place where we want to discuss and create solutions about how to make MaaS work, sustainably, for all of us.

By “all of us,” I mean not just public sector transit operators who may see MaaS as a grave threat to their paradigm, that being transport as a public good. I also count private sector actors – the inventors, innovators and yes, investors who come to the mobility space with money and a new paradigm for transportation, one shaped by the profit motive.   

Perhaps the biggest difference between MaaS and all prior transport systems and approaches before it is that both the public and private actors must have their needs fulfilled if this new hybrid paradigm is to succeed for us all. And it must succeed, as I see no alternative to MaaS. Why? Well, combining: 1) smartphone penetration rates of 96%; 2) large strides in AI, machine learning and data analytics, and; 3) low latency, high-data-rate 5G networks that enable real-time transaction processing with growing consumer demands for seamless immediacy and “mobile-first” services, there is no going back.

Most of us have noticed that, until recently, at least, advances in private sector-based shared mobility services have shot far ahead of public policy.  But as evidenced by Uber’s loss of its operating license (pending appeal) in London in November 2019, there is a push-back. This cancellation of what some call the ‘societal license’ that Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) may have taken for granted shows there is indeed a limit to the “ask forgiveness rather than permission” approach.

What MaaS needs to succeed is a question with potentially many responses.  Yet any list we come up with, in addition, MaaS needs trust. This means trusted communication between the main actors, and faith that no parochial view dominates. Further, while parties can talk ‘honest’ all they want, that does not mean they will come to terms. What is needed is a structure that allows actors to participate in a process deemed fair by and for all, one with the goal to create conditions where MaaS can manifest into its ideal form.

Whatever that form is, it will be shaped by the social, geographical and civic attributes of each region MaaS manifests in. Still, there are common elements of that framework, and at MaaS America, starting with MaaS-A-Con, that is the direction we’re heading in. MaaS America has created framework principles it believes MaaS platforms should reflect if they are to produce mobility services that are financially viable, broadly accessible, and dynamic in terms of nurturing the innovation environment required to ensure the availability of services people want to pay for. These principles are:

Inclusivity – The direct role of transportation is to enable the movement of people and goods. But indirectly, if you can’t move, you can’t contribute. The economy and our lives become stagnant. While I personally regard mobility as a right – a central human value – ‘moving’ is simply an economic must. Therefore, MaaS systems should be designed to enable more movement, by more people and goods – not less.

Sustainability – Financial viability is critical to the success of MaaS.  The environment is very important, but the need for mobility is more immediate for most people. And other, more effective actors can address the environment more directly. The ideal MaaS enables a variety of mobility service providers. Some of them will offer users ‘green’ mobility services that address environmental externalities, and the net byproduct of MaaS will be reduced SOV’s anyway, thereby reducing emissions.

Low Friction – friction is any process that removes energy from a system over time. When a system has friction, you must keep adding energy to it to keep it moving at the same rate. With MaaS, how do you remove friction? You remove friction by making an app easy to download, option-rich, and easy to buy. All this increases service quality and efficiency. Removing even small amounts of friction from the value delivery process generates major improvements in adoption and associated revenues.

Low Barriers to Entry – This specific type of friction makes it harder for a startup or existing entity to enter, expand, or improve their performance in a market. Examples of a barrier to entry include regulation, IP restrictions, data access and licensing. Requirements to enter a MaaS market should be clear and easy to navigate. They should not favor incumbents, ‘experts’ or dominant players. 

Balance – MaaS should acknowledge that the public are stakeholders in their infrastructure. For the most part, they paid for it (!) and as such have a say in how private enterprise extracts value from it. The ideal MaaS minimizes rent-seeking entities, which are entities that do not pay their fair share of ‘rent’ for use of the infrastructure. Likewise, the ideal MaaS, in the context of the public sector, would safeguard against unaccountable subsidies. This is not to imply subsidies are bad … in fact, an ideal MaaS permits the orchestration of subsidies that encourage the movement of the most people.

While the mission is on, MaaS America cannot accomplish it alone. It needs the experience, technical & policy expertise, and hard work of engaged people. If you are not yet a part of MaaS America, there is one thing you can do today to get involved: Attend MaaS America’s inaugural event, MaaS-A-Con, March 11-12, 2020 in San Francisco! For more information on how you can work to advance the American form of mobility, check out www.maas-a-con.com and/or contact Tim McGuckin, MaaS America Executive Director at [email protected] We hope to see you in San Francisco!


Interested in becoming an expert on one of the most popular topics in urban mobility? Check out these other UM Daily MaaS-related articles:

How Local and Regional Transit Authorities are Embracing MaaS: A Global Review

How Carbon Offsets Can Fund MaaS and Other New Mobility Solutions

Mobility Startups Want to Take Advantage of MaaS Platforms, But Are They Mature Enough?