Mobility Techs Must Serve Public Needs’
The article below was first published in the September edition of Local Transport Today
SYSTRA’s Martin Higgitt tells Deniz Huseyin what steps should be taken to ensure emerging transport technologies put the customer first
Central government and transport authorities need to do more to engage with the private sector to ensure that Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is truly customer-based, says Martin Higgitt, Market Director Sustainable Travel and Transport at transport planning consultancy SYSTRA.
“I sense at the moment the government is standing back,” he says. “There is this laissez faire attitude to let the market take care of innovation. The public sector needs to be involved. Of course, it needs to let the market innovate, we know that specialist developers are best placed to do that, but the public sector needs to steer these emerging technologies so that they deliver public benefits.”
MUTUALLY ASSURED BENEFITS
This partnership approach could follow the example of the ‘dynamic parking’ trial in Los Angeles, says Higgitt. The system determined how much parking would cost depending on demand, which in turn encouraged drivers to park in areas with more capacity. “The transport authority in LA commissioned the private firm to deliver it – they made money out of operating the service, the public benefited from finding free parking spaces quicker and the authority benefited from reduced congestion and better utilisation of parking spaces. This shows how the public sector can effectively engage with emerging technologies rather than just leaving it to its own devices.”
There is also the need for strong public sector engagement in the development of autonomous vehicles, believes Higgitt. “The government must play a stronger role in guiding how a move to automation should be deployed. It will be a disaster if self-driving vehicles simply come on stream as replacements for private vehicles. You could see non-drivers becoming car owners, which means you’d end up with huge amounts of additional traffic.”
Far more preferable would be the deployment of shared autonomous vehicles as part of a mobility package, he says. “You might book an autonomous vehicle for the last leg of your journey for example. If they are used in that mechanism – complementing rather than rivalling mass transit - they have the potential to be really beneficial and substantially reduce congestion.”
Higgitt warns against “closed transport models” where private monopolies prevent the growth of other businesses to the detriment of customers. The case for openness in MaaS is set out in a new white paper by TravelSpirit, a community organisation that SYSTRA supports.
“We need to lobby for data to be opened up,” says Higgitt. “Otherwise, the default mode will be that different commercial providers come into this space and will take a monopolistic approach.”
He notes that app services such as Uber have caused significant disruption not only to traditional taxi firms but also to marginal bus services. “This could affect evening bus services running at lower frequencies, which are a little less robust than peak time services. Some taxis are now offering prices that are getting closer to the public transport ticket prices while offering a service which is more convenient.”
AN INCLUSIVE SERVICE
The taxi app model is, on the surface, good news for the public. “It’s easy, isn’t it? The customer just clicks their app and a taxi turns up in a few minutes. But what about the people who don’t have the app and rely on the bus service? If the taxi service undermines the bus, this new mobility will reduce accessibility for those outside the system.”
This might include people from older age groups and those on lower incomes. Some lower income groups have a high rate of smartphone use, but might be less likely to have a traditional bank account, which might create challenges for signing up to such a mobility account, explains Higgitt.
Many of the technology developers are almost wholly focused on the technology rather than the benefits for the end user, he says. “A lot of people think that once they have developed the tech it is a case of ‘job done’. But that is just the start of the job. Once you’ve built a system, if it’s going to be genuinely inclusive, there’s a big marketing job to be done to encourage and enable different groups of people to sign up to these systems. That’s when they really start to provide a public benefit.”
Transport appears to be lagging behind other services in offering the customer convenience, he adds. “We’ve had cases of people trying out a weekly ‘taster’ bus ticket. They were very pleased with it until they stayed out for a drink one evening and when they went to get their bus found it was a subsidised bus service that did not accept the ticket!”
There is a pressing need for an “aggregator that allows customers to seamlessly purchase tickets across all legs of their journey”, says Higgitt. “In terms of really taking sustainable travel to the next step, it has to offer the level of service that customers are increasingly expecting and experiencing in other parts of their lives.”
New ticketing systems should also take into account that flexible working is becoming more prevalent, Higgitt believes. He refers to the Fleximobility project that highlights the rise in part-time work and the gigging economy, which often involves people splitting their time between different workplaces. “It may be that one day someone might take the train and then jump on a hire bike and another day they’ll take the bus. A season ticket wouldn’t be worth it if, say, you are only working three days in one location and a couple of days somehere else. We need a transport system that recognises that people’s travel needs are more flexible.”
A major determining factor in getting people to give up their cars and switch to MaaS will ultimately be cost, says Higgitt. “People often write off the purchase cost of a car as well as Vehicle Excise Duty, maintenance and insurance. But if you do take those into account there is certainly room to play with to offer a bundle for seamless mobility that is considerably less than private ownership.”
He cites Finnish start-up MaaS Global, which is developing mobility packages that compete with car ownership, and is currently involved in a major trial in the West Midlands.
“MaaS Global ultimately sees people buying mobility in the same way they do utility bundles. You buy a package to suit your needs and the aggregator does away with the pain of transferring from a bus to a train to a car club car.”
The government should offer MaaS operators incentives to encourage them to serve customers outside of big cities, suggests Higgitt. “This could be around performance related outcomes - if we spot a corridor or an area of town where there is lower bus use or capacity on the public transport network we could encourage a Mobility as a Service provider to grow the patronage. You could possibly deliver incentivised payments based on growing the market.”
These new technologies tend to be introduced in big cities where there is a critical mass of potential customers notes Higgitt. “Transport for London were right at the vanguard with real-time information. The first trials went on corridors with the highest frequencies because that was where the business case was best.”
But real-time information is far more valuable in areas where services are not so frequent, he argues. “If you’re living in a rural area with a bus every hour, real-time information is much more useful, so you know whether you’ve got a one minute wait for your bus or you’ve just missed it and have another hour’s wait. So, where the biggest benefits to customers are and where the business case for these services to develop is best are not necessarily the same.”