SkedGo’s Head of Marketing Sandra Witzel analyses how Mobility-as-a-Service technology can provide much needed solutions for the transport sector post COVID-19 and asks industry thought leaders for their views to get out of this crisis. Read part 1 of this series here.

With the mobility sector facing an existential crisis, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, MaaS can act as the technology-based, data rich saviour that emboldens transport users and operators alike. 

In the aftermath of COVID-19, the world will never be the same again, with structural, political and economic changes that will endure long after the virus has been eradicated. In this brave new world, transport in the broadest sense will be one of the most affected areas. No-one is certain how life and the economy will ultimately change, especially as the virus is still in its ascendancy in some parts of the world and a vaccination could be years away. But it is almost a certainty, at least in the short to medium term, that there will be fewer journeys, taken less often, using shorter routes, at lower cost on average.  

Added to this drop in volume-based demand, there is likely to be further pressure on revenue from a reduction in funds available for travel. The journeying public – many under virus-fueled financial pressure – will look increasingly for cheaper options, causing further declines in transport related spend. 

The biggest change in the nature of travel going forward is already emerging, with people – entirely understandably – favouring modes which offer some combination of space, safety, fresh air or individual confinement. Big winners in this world are walking, cycling and driving (personal transport), with early signs that shared micro mobility offerings (such as bike share schemes and e-scooters) could benefit. Losers are almost all forms of public transport, including buses, trams, trains and underground systems, for obvious reasons regarding crowding. Ride sharing has also been negatively affected, presumably from concerns around sharing a confined space with a stranger (the driver) or even multiple strangers (fellow passengers). 

“Certainly the need for more “personal transport” and safer multi-occupancy mobility options will increase post pandemic. There has been a huge increase in cycling but as it warms up e-scooter demand will increase and especially as longer distances will be covered”, says Sophia Nadur, Marketing & Innovation Director, Advanced Mobility Unit, BP PLC. 

This big shift presents a challenge for governments and the public alike. Although walking and cycling are desirable modes from an environmental and public health perspective, the current layout of cities and urban areas is often not suited to them. Additionally, due to a limited range and load capacity, they cannot cover all transport needs. Even more challenging is a potential increase in personal car use, as this mode is an incredibly inefficient and polluting way of transporting large numbers of people.  

“Most cities cannot function without core public transport. Yet these services have been hit hardest by efforts to limit contagion. The real and perceived risks of exposure to the virus have transformed the greatest plus of mass transport – the ability to move large numbers of people rapidly, efficiently and affordably – into a liability.” COVID-19 Transport Brief: Re-spacing Our Cities For Resilience, International Transport Forum

However, it is not all doom and gloom for governments and transport operators, because many of the basic approaches of MaaS offer ways out of this crisis. MaaS is a relatively young, evolving discipline and so it has an inbuilt capability to pivot and adapt to changing needs and wants. MaaS providers enable decisions based on data, on real facts often in real time, to help guide the transport world quickly into the new paradigm. MaaS takes a holistic view of the transport ecosystem, rather than focusing on one or two modes, enabling it to plan for the new ways different systems will interact. 

You have to legislate for 20/30/40-year horizons on the basis that COVID’s been solved somehow. Therefore I think we will continue our progression back towards mass and shared transport. I also think MaaS has a real part to play in that it’s creating that seamless connectivity between personal and shared mobility, and active mobility as well”, says Ben Foulser, Director KPMG UK 

The potential for MaaS to create a transport world that is stronger, not weaker, in a post-COVID-19 environment requires providers to quickly adapt and leverage their capability. To paraphrase the legendary management theorist, Peter Drucker, MaaS needs to ‘innovate fast or die’. In this article, three fundamental ways MaaS must innovate are outlined. 

“How can MaaS adapt to stay relevant once the lockdown ends? It’s really simple, by understanding users and changes in their lives better than transport traditionally has, as well as learning the lessons from history… A key part of recovery is learning lessons, and developing resilience plans, and understanding how key partners and organisations have learned their lessons and what their plans are. This is where you will see how strong city partnerships for enabling MaaS really are”, says James Gleave, Director, Mobility Lab

Safety is the new speed

For centuries, speed has been arguably the key driver of journey selection, closely followed by cost. Trying to work out the fastest route from A to B or finding ways to increase the speed of transportation is at the heart of the industry and MaaS providers offer advanced journey planning systems that can help users and providers optimise the speed of journeys. Beyond this, users can now identify the best journeys for them based on a host of features. For example, SkedGo’s technology allows for decisions based on occupancy, speed, cost, carbon footprint and convenience. 

Now, there is a new factor that has rapidly risen in its importance: user safety. With many people avoiding mass transport due to safety concerns, there is a huge opportunity for MaaS to provide transport options that are safer, with issues such as levels of crowding, spacing between travellers, cleanliness and local incidences of infection increasingly important. From an infrastructure perspective, in the longer term this might include changes to the design of mass transport vehicles and carriages, along with shifts in the layout of roads, and pavements. But in the shorter term, there is a need to share information on the relative ‘safety’ of routes with the travelling public. 

“The fundamentals of MaaS… are still valid and the big challenge will be the way in which sharing can be handled under the new normal bio security landscape, (where biosecurity will become the new modal choice attribute.”

Professor David A Hensher, Founding Director, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS), The University of Sydney Business School

MaaS providers already offer travellers ways to know the current occupancy of certain modes of transport, with the ability to predict this not far away. In Sydney and New York City, SkedGo now provides occupancy information to allow users to make more informed choices on their trips.

However, a fine balance needs to be struck between empowering users, while not overwhelming them with safety-based information that actually puts them off travelling entirely, especially using shared transport.

“The capabilities that MaaS provides will be very helpful in managing return to work… but in a way that it doesn’t dissuade people from using public transport. I wouldn’t want some sort of social distancing indicator to dissuade people from using public and shared MaaS transport. It could have a deleterious effect by almost scare mongering”, says Foulser

Flexibility is not optional

One of the great benefits of MaaS thinking is the ability for users to tailor journeys to their own needs. This flexibility is even more important in this new epoch, with trends emerging such as home working, local shopping and the use of new forms of transport. People will be less likely to take the same route to work five days a week, to an office job at a central location. Rather they will mix teleworking with office visits, with also the potential for growing local hubs. This flexibility then needs to be reflected in pricing models: if people are only travelling a few days a week, why pay for a monthly or annual season ticket for example? 

“Flexibility (is required) in the numbers of days a week or month a MaaS subscription can be purchased, given the likely increase in working from home”, explains Hensher.

“We typically see people being careful when it comes to things like subscription packages for MaaS, thinking “am I prepared to part with 500 pounds for a subscription package when I am not sure I’m going to optimize the use”, says Foulser.

MaaS Global, the leading provider of subscription-based MaaS has reacted to this changed reality quickly and already adapted their pricing plans.

Across the world, cities as far afield as Bogata, Oakland, Lima and Milan are redesigning city layouts in a highly responsive, flexible fashion – often overnight – to cater for a greater need for the safety of space, for walkers and cyclists. 

“Many cities have rapidly repurposed streets to provide safe room for pedestrians, cyclists and other forms of light, active mobility. These “emergency cycle lanes”, also “Corona lanes”, act as safety valves which make essential travel possible and safe for those displaced from public transport. Unlike more permanent infrastructure, emergency lanes are rapidly deployed, sometimes overnight, without heavy bureaucratic processes … Such interventions mobilise existing resources such as traffic cones, plastic bollards, construction separators and temporary lane markings. Typically, they are deployed under the same rules applying to construction-related traffic diversion. They take advantage of reduced car traffic by reclaiming street space from car parking and travel lanes. Often, pedestrians are given space to walk on the carriageway and in some instances car travel lanes are narrowed.” COVID-19 Transport Brief: Re-spacing Our Cities For Resilience, International Transport Forum.

The natural next step to build on this infrastructure change is for MaaS to integrate it into their journey planning systems. This could enable them to provide operators with data on how the changes are being utilised and offer the travelling public options that maximise space, ideally in real time as space usage changes. Although this might offer technical challenges, it’s the kind of area that a nimble, change-minded service should rise to.   

Another new consideration is the transport of goods. There may be less people travelling around, but in many cases there is an increase in the quantity of goods flowing through cities. People might not be going out to eat, but the food is coming to them. Likewise, trips to the mall might be down, but there is a huge increase in home deliveries of a wide variety of products. Typically, MaaS focuses on the movement of individuals or groups of people. But goods are shared users of the same transport infrastructure, so how does MaaS add this element to the equation?

“The MaaS sector has an opportunity and should think it through as a high priority to broaden its canvass of multimodality as illustrated by the huge increase in home delivery where goods and not people move (very relevant with increasing working from home), says Hensher. 

Data sharing and gathering is key

In order for MaaS to help lead the transport industry into a safer, yet still socially responsible era, having the right data will be vital. This may mean a shift in public willingness to share information, but this will only be achieved if they can understand the benefit to themselves and society at large. 

“As the response in China, Singapore, & South Korea post-COVID19 is showing in relation to health & economic recovery, having citizens digitally connected to each other and to authorities (especially local women-led ones like shequ) can be a positive thing. We speak a lot about civil liberties in the “West” but we then give away our data for free to private companies that, in turn, make trillions selling us stuff we don’t need and influencing our votes. We should ensure that data is also used to help us live better and move around safely if cities are to remain the beating heart of country economies in the future. MaaS platforms that allow for open sharing could be longer term winners”, says Nadur. 

Moreover, open data sharing between multiple players in the wider MaaS landscape will be vital to envisage some of the more future-focused ideas. This will require a fundamental alignment of goals between different entities, but surely the safety of the travelling public is a common cause to rally around.

Advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) will also markedly contribute to better data and better MaaS services. 

I think AI ​​will add to the MaaS industry, in particular with regards to sustainable mobility. AI can analyse things like personalization, prediction, crash detection and safer drivers and figure out how and where time is spent, in order to ensure the user gets the correct recommendations, and as a result build a more optimised structure. I think this is where technology is a real gift. I am confident that technology and AI prediction will create new opportunities for MaaS, to travel more, reduce carbon and improve quality of life.”

Korhan Saglam, CEO & Founder of AI Base Technology

Trials are already underway with, for example, the Canary Islands using AI and mobility data to track the spread of COVID-19 itself. 

Conclusion

In the 1900s, Albert Einstein coined one of his better known quotes, saying “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” A century later, our current crisis presents an opportunity for MasS to play a fundamental role in a transport environment that needs to rapidly change. 

Drastically changing user priorities and corresponding shifts infrastructure, both reflecting a pivot toward safety will test legacy systems and ways of thinking. However, by taking a flexible, open, collaborative approach, rooted in rich, responsive data, MaaS can shape the future for the benefit of all.  

“Providing robust reassurances of safety to the travelling public seems a fairly far flung idea at present. But imagine what could be possible if a wide spectrum of players – from government bodies to technology companies, vehicle manufacturers to public health authorities  – all worked openly together.”

Sandra Witzel, Head of Marketing, SkedGo

“Having worked with some of the smartest and most innovative companies and governments in the world, I can safely say that neither the public nor the private sector can meet these challenges alone. Especially now with the pervasive issues confronting us with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the looming recession and oncoming complications with the climate crisis. Together is the only way forward to co-create the new mobility normal that is equitable, sustainable and resilient. Let’s get moving”, concludes Timothy Papandreou of Emerging Transport Advisors in Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

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