Article Highlights

Key Takeaway:

Backers of mobility-as-a-service, or MaaS, have begun to promote their platforms as a way to enable customers to avoid crowded trains and buses and instead find transport options the customers might consider less risky in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Key Data:

The Covid-19 pandemic caused ridership to drop by more than 90% in some cities.

Organizations Mentioned:

• HaCon
• Siemens
• MaaS Global
• MaaS Alliance

(This premium article was originally published in April 2020. © Mobility Payments and Forthwrite Media.)

With Covid-19 lockdowns causing mass transit ridership in many cities to virtually fall off a cliff–with such cities as London, New York and San Francisco reporting drops of more than 90%–transport providers worry that some riders may not come back, even after the pandemic ends.

But backers of mobility-as-a-service, which seeks to combine multimodal trip planning, booking and payments into one app or platform, have begun to promote their platforms as a way to enable customers to avoid crowded trains and buses and instead find transport options the customers might consider less risky. 

“Covid-19 routing: People will avoid crowded (train and bus) cars, so let’s guide them toward the less-crowded routes, the less-crowded cars, try to space them as much as possible,” said Thomas Wolf, COO for HaCon, a subsidiary of Germany-based Siemens, which provides software products for public transportation, mobility and logistics. Siemens has provided MaaS technology to such countries or cities as Luxembourg, Dubai and San Francisco. “There’s something we can do about it. Information is available and these are real-life examples; it’s not fiction. We’re doing this already.” 

‘We’ll Have to Win Them Back’
Wolf, speaking in a webinar this week that Siemens sponsored, also noted that MaaS platforms can learn from passenger movements, making them better able to cater to the new realities, even after the pandemic has receded. “I think for the next months, tidiness, cleanliness, transparency are going to be key, because, let’s be clear, right now, people run away from public transport, and we’ll have to win them back.”  

He added that if public transit agencies haven’t yet introduced mobile ticketing, “now is the time.” Mobile helps people avoid touching ticket vending machines and exchanging money or paper tickets with drivers.  

Public transit agencies are taking other measures to reassure wary riders. For example, agencies operating or supervising municipal buses have been requiring riders to board throughrear doors. And they have been installing panels around the driver, even offering free rides to stop all exchanges of coins and notes or paper tickets with drivers.

But with the post-Covid-19 world likely being fraught with mistrust and fear for people, riders might opt to take more “personal mobility” modes of transit, such as cars, bicycles, scooters and even walking instead of taking mass transit, at least for several months after the lockdowns end and the pandemic subsides. Depending on their ability to integrate third-party transit providers, many MaaS platforms include all of these transport modes. It means users could choose preferences in MaaS apps for bike, scooter, car rentals or even demand-responsive transit vehicles, or DRT, if available in their route planning. DRT vehicles, such as minibuses, allow customers to book transit on vehicles that do not travel fixed routes.

“Social distancing will be here for quite a while and mass transport, which we’re obviously very keen on from an efficiency perspective and quality perspective, may actually be hit because of it,” said Ben Foulser, a consultant who leads KPMG UK’s government and infrastructure future mobility team, speaking on a podcast this week organized by the MaaS Alliance in Europe. “And there may be more of a demand for personal mobility, so we need to think about how we deal with that practically in the next 12 to 24 months.” 

Vasco Mora, advisor to the city of Lisbon’s deputy mayor for mobility, speaking on the same podcast, said that many people are realizing they can work from home full-time, having been forced to do so during the lockdowns. Even after the requirements for sheltering in place and social distancing have been eased, more employees will likely be allowed to work from home. This will reduce needs for certain public transit.  

“I think that this is an opportunity to rethink, restructure and plan for the next phase of mobility,” Mora said.“How can we project a better mobility for the future that contributes to the environment, also to the social proximation of people and to the well being of society as a whole?”  

He didn’t specify how mobility might be restructured but MaaS, which was originally designed to disrupt the transport industry itself, could play a big role in this restructuring. 

Public transit agencies see the need for substantial changes in their approach to offering service in the post-Covid-19 world, as well. For example, the American Public Transportation Association, which represents U.S. public transit agencies nationwide, announced earlier this month it had set up a Mobility Recovery and Restoration Task Force, with an “eye toward rethinking mobility as we know it.”

Included in the task force’s objectives is not only to restore core functions and financial stability to transit agencies but also to consider new methods, tools and approaches to reposition the industry’s “essential role in a post-pandemic mobility world.”

Mass Transit Remains Core of MaaS
Few people are suggesting that MaaS can be successful without public mass transit at its core. Indeed, for MaaS to succeed, public transit must be the backbone of mobility. Other transit modes, such as ride hailing and ride sharing, and bike, scooter and car rentals, are expected to be ancillary to mass transit’s central role. 

But Covid-19 is also hurting the early MaaS platforms, including MaaS Global’s high-profile Whim app in Finland.  

Sampo Hietanen, MaaS Global’s CEO and founder, noted in a blog earlier this month that since the start-up is in the business of moving people, “when people are not moving, we are seeing our sales drop to a fraction of what they were,” adding: “For any business this is the definition of a crisis.” 

MaaS Global, which soft-launched Whim in 2016, relies on Helsinki Regional Transport Authority’s buses, metro, trams and local trains for the core of its subscription service. It also offers taxis, bikes, car rentals, e-scooters. And given the fears people have about riding on mass transit, Hietanen noted that more people are using bike rentals and other micro-mobility modes on the Whim platform. He hinted that Whim will soon be offering alternative packages and “modalities,” in response to the crisis. He did not specify, however, and did not respond to questions seeking elaboration.

But any of Whim’s main subscription packages or its pay-as-you-go option will no doubt need to include public mass transit services, or they won’t fulfill the promise of MaaS. And many in the industry believe that given the central role that public transit agencies play in providing transportation, the transit agencies themselves will likely control many of the MaaS platforms.

Yet, Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the U.S.-based Secure Technology Alliance trade association–which has made payments integration with MaaS one of the major focuses of its Transportation Council–earlier said he believes the virus would slow rollouts of MaaS by public transit agencies, at least those in the U.S. The pandemic also would impede transit agencies from introducing other innovative services, such as fare collection with contactless EMV cards and NFC phones and mobile ticketing in general, he said. 

“The Covid-19 virus will be a huge step backward for all of these transit innovation plans, as the industry will suffer from huge deficits and lost ridership that it will be slow to recover from,” said Vanderhoof. 

It’s indeed likely that many transit riders will be slow to return even after the pandemic ends. MaaS backers, however, believe that if transit providers give people the choice of multiple mobility services, customized route planning and a unified payment within apps, they can win back the trust of their customers. 

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