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Demystifying mobility as a service

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Mobility as a service (MaaS) could have emerged with a catchier name. But behind the obscure acronym, there lies an intriguing proposal.

Projections for the future of transportation often focus on innovative new modes — whether that is driverless cars, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, futuristic hoverboards or personal jet packs. But the excitement around MaaS is the possibility it offers for integrating those modes — splicing public and private modes together into a personalized intermodal route for the individual user.

What does it promise?

MaaS boldly promises to create a “new ecosystem of personal mobility.” But what does that mean for your daily commute or school run?

The concept is structured around giving the traveler choices — the holy grail for catching the attention of millennials. Its “click-and-go” concept is tailormade for their world.

Introducing MaaS involves building a platform that gives each individual a menu of public and private options that they can combine to build a personalized travel schedule. It’s essentially CityMapper meets Uber meets Citi Bike, with a few extras thrown in.

That might mean you fire up an app on your smartphone in the morning, locate an available shared car on the next street and drop the kids off at school. The skies are clear, and your smartphone can direct you to a bike docked by the school, and you can make the rest of the journey to the office. Once the rain starts coming down, you might make the return trip home by a suitable rail-bus combination. All without ever having to buy a physical ticket.

Instead of the mode of transport, MaaS puts the user at the focus of attention, whether that be people or cargo.

The promise of the “optimized city”

Just like so many other areas of our daily life, KPMG boldly claim that “the future mobility ecosystem will be completely disrupted by technological innovation.” Like a Fordist factory, optimizing the “mobility ecosystem” will mean cutting out areas of inefficiency — such as the 95 percent of time personal cars stand idle outside home or work — and deploying those resources elsewhere, where they can be more productive.

The guiding mantra of “service optimization” means that MaaS fits neatly into the smart city ideology of “frictionless” cities. Smart cities are recalibrated in real time for people, goods and information to flow seamlessly through the city, and errors corrected autonomously.

Although there are many who raise doubts about the implications of this brave new world we are building.

What is driving it?

MaaS is being developed with the next generation in mind, and that generation exhibits a changing set of preferences for how we move around cities.

Despite the U.S. being the birthplace of the road trip, car ownership is in fact falling in popularity, even beyond the usual hotspots like New York. Millennials are shunning U.S. car culture in favor of ride-sharing apps and in recognition of the onset of an era of less car-centric planning.

Where the personal car is falling out of favor, personal technology items are taking up the slack. And it is this personal networked technology that allows MaaS to become a reality.

MaaS and “mobility equity”

MaaS is also not a purely urban solution. For rural dwellers, its flexibility allows more options for those living in areas where lower residential densities are not high enough to support regular public transport services

But as much as these systems present opportunities, they also present risks.

It is as yet unclear whether the setup will promote more sustainable public forms of transport, or whether it could in fact exacerbate car dependence at the expense of the environment. And if the smartphone-based system becomes the norm, what about those on the other side of the digital divide, such as the elderly?

How transformative can MaaS be?

Experimentation with MaaS in the U.S. has lagged behind Europe, where Germany, Austria and Finland lead the pack. However, once momentum builds, the new approach to urban transportation has the potential to redefine transportation, perhaps more than any individual mode innovation. This is transportation as mobility rather than modes.

It will also, of course, harvest vast reams of data that build up a finer-grained picture than ever before of flows around the city — which may be a positive or a negative, depending on whom you speak to.

Ultimately, MaaS could be an important enabler of sustainability — by getting closer to the level of door-to-door convenience of the personal car, perhaps even negating the need for the private car.

However, as with the dizzy excitement of all technological advances, we must take time to work out who is gaining from these technological possibilities. And who is left out.

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