Public sector and public transportation leaders have welcomed a recently published Department for Transport (DfT) consultation on mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), but made clear they will need access to open data for all forms of transport to develop effective services.
MaaS apps provide support for the public in finding different modes of travel and have the potential to deliver on the two biggest challenges facing national and local authorities – combating climate change through reducing the number of car journeys and returning the UK to economic health – and services are already operating across the UK.
For example, the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS) in Scotland is a collaboration between the Highlands authority and transport software house Mobilleo. The vendor is also working with Transport for Greater Manchester. Milton Keynes Connect is a demand-responsive transport system for one of the fastest growing communities in the country.
The private sector is not being left behind. Milton Park business centre in Oxford has a journey planning app and shuttle bus that connects the complex to the Didcot Parkway train station, and oil firm BP has deployed a MaaS system in Greenwich, London.
David Wilde, former CIO of Essex County Council and Westminster City Council, says: “Local government is ready for MaaS. The big question is whether the transport industry is ready?”
He says that across local government there is a new understanding that transport improvements cannot only focus on the major cities.
“It is about authorities working together and working in a joined up way. Combined authorities can step into the MaaS space and show their value.”
He adds that the work done by Andy Burnham and Andy Street, mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands respectively, demonstrates this; and that the distribution of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, has ensured plenty of authorities have some cash.
But there is a view that much more is needed on the data front, backed by legislation, for MaaS to succeed.
“Data can predict demand and place transport where it is needed,” says James Findlay, former CIO at DfT and now co-founder of advisory firm Stance Global. “Authorities need more understanding of usage to develop hypotheses and create feedback loops from travellers, then they can adjust transport policy.”
He adds that many urban and rural areas of the UK suffer from transport poverty, preventing those that need work from being able to travel to employment, and this is closely related to the Government’s levelling up agenda.
Findlay and Wilde cite Transport for London (TfL) for its open data achievements, and the organisation’s approach has led to the Citymapper platform launching in the capital.
The Government has made attempts to improve bus transportation and there has been progress at opening up data from bus operators to support the change. In 2017 it passed the Bus Services Act, which requires bus companies to publish information on routes, fares, timetables as open data; and the DfT has announced plans for a bus open data service and backed a pioneer project that began late last year.
Transport advisor Beate Kubitz says allowing local authorities legislative control of transport in their communities has direct economic benefits: “In Europe they can look at service location and provision and that allows a local authority to support the local economy,” she says.
But MaaS also requires open data from a range of local transport options, such as rail operators, park and ride venues, and community bicycle and scooter services; and not all of these are in the public sector.
In May 2021, the Government announced the creation of Great British Railways, a national body to be responsible for setting timetables, prices, the sale of tickets and managing the nation’s rail infrastructure. It said the organisation would bring about a “revolution” in ticketing but made no mention of open data or integrating rail travel with MaaS.
Other transport modes
Meanwhile, there are no regulatory demands to date on the private bike, scooter, ride hailing operators and car clubs to be open with their data.
“It is a big challenge that in the UK most transport is delivered by private firms, and it is difficult to get an agreement with them to volunteer sensitive information like timetables and pricing structures,” says Paul Curtis, director of Vectos, a consultancy in transport planning and infrastructure design.
DfT is aware of this and states in its consultation document: “For MaaS to work, data sharing arrangements need to be in place between transport operators and MaaS platform providers, and the data shared should be of sufficient quality to provide the most accurate travel information to the user.”
It also recognises that with no standards, data processing is complex and expensive for MaaS platform providers and that the cause of this is that each transport mode is separately regulated. The department is aware that data is at the heart of digital monopolies and that modern travel operators such as Uber, the ride hailing firm, will not want to share data, which is their core business asset.
Federated system challenge
Wilde identifies a further challenge: “We have such a federated transport system that it is difficult to route revenue through the ticketing system. We haven’t got multimodal ticketing the way they have had in Europe forever and a day.”
He says the private sector is not afraid of increased regulation as it provides predictability in the business, and local government needs to become more customer-centric in its thinking, and how it operates transport services that support MaaS.
“There are a lot of park-and-rides that close at 8pm, so that means that if people go out after work, they cannot use the park-and-ride,” he says. “Don’t make the car an evil thing, but you can decrease time in the car and increase mass transport.”
Other factors need to be taken into account. “A lot of local authorities are rural, and the demand is very different,” Findlay says; and Wilde makes the point: “Having dirty great diesel buses running around with three people on them is not the answer.”
Maurizio Catulli, senior lecturer in sustainable innovation at the University of Hertfordshire, warns local authorities and MaaS operators that they have to consider the needs of women. In an article in The Conversation he writes:
“Women are still less likely than men to use MaaS. Women are more likely to be the prime caretaker of their household, meaning that they have multiple errands to run, often requiring multiple journeys within a shorter radius.
“They’re also more likely to need space to carry shopping, prams and car seats – and children – which many MaaS offerings do not cater for.”
This all shows that for MaaS to succeed there has to be some broad thinking about factors affecting people’s use of public transport, and open data and legislative changes in the entire transport sector.
Without these, local government faces the risk of implementing a nice looking app on top of an out of date and unsustainable transport system that cannot benefit local economies or the environment.