Walled garden or open mobility? What this means for MaaS

With the rise of mobility as a service (MaaS) and alternative transport modes, the transportation landscape is changing fast. New business models and ways of operating have emerged. But some fear it could lead to a walled garden scenario, where providers create their own closed ecosystem and don’t share data and information with others.

According to Techopedia, “A walled garden refers to a limited set of technology or media information provided to users with the intention of creating a monopoly or secure information system.” Such an approach restricts user choice and how they utilise a solution. 

Closed ecosystems

Apple and Microsoft are amongst the tech giants to be criticised for creating walled gardens. As mentioned in an article on ZDNet, iOS applications can only be accessed from Apple’s app store and Microsoft came under fire for pushing its own browser on their devices. These companies are by no means alone; history is littered with examples. In the telecoms industry, only phones manufactured by the telecoms provider could be used on their network. In the world of internet, AOL created their own walled garden to keep users locked in.

Now the same appears to be happening in transport. Concerns are being raised about the rise of walled gardens in the sector as highlighted in an article by Freight Waves, particularly with the burgeoning micro-mobility market. David Zipper, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, also commented on how Lyft blocked users of third-party app Transit from accessing New York’s Citi Bike. In the Citylab article, David states, “The battle is about more than one company’s efforts to drum up a little more business: It’s about fundamentally different visions of how people should access the growing number of modes available to navigate cities.”

It’s this difference in opinion that could impact the future of MaaS if the citizen and the needs of society are not placed at its core. In our Women in MaaS article with Crissy Ditmore, Director of Strategy at Cubic Transportation Systems, she talks about the need for a combined framework, a MaaS Operating Model, which provides ‘…a defined level of data-sharing that meets a targeted policy goal in favour of the public good.’

She goes on to say, “It’s about creating solutions that meet people’s needs including health and physical limitations. It’s also how you ensure tourists – who aren’t everyday users – can access a package of services without a monthly subscription and that the elderly remain integrated with society.”

The issue for MaaS

That’s why a walled garden approach is an issue for MaaS and mobility in general. Indeed, at the 2019 Transportation Research Board Conference which looked at micro-mobility, Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) said a private walled garden would be the worst outcome.

Data openness is key to making MaaS work but access and ‘ownership’ of data are often closely guarded by organisations. This means that third-party MaaS app providers cannot offer users access to a full range of transport (and may find access or data is pulled at a later date). In turn, travellers can’t plan their entire trip chain and manage their journey efficiently. It makes it impossible to get notified of issues along the way and quickly see new alternative options for the rest of their journey, with the potential for payment or refunds to happen automatically in the background.

Flipping between different apps to find the best routes and transport options will effectively lead to frustrated users. If organisations look to maintain control over how travellers access mobility options, it could lead to higher costs and less price competition, making it difficult to compare prices or for a MaaS app to deliver results that reflect the true cheapest option based on all transport available in a geographic area.

A Transport & Environment briefing document comments, “There is a risk that users booking trips for all their mobility needs through one app would only access a curated mobility offer – so-called walled gardens – that don’t necessarily reflect the most sustainable or cost-effective available option. Companies like Uber integrate many services in their app, ranging from personal mobility (JUMP) to food delivery (UberEats), which could exacerbate the ‘walled garden’ phenomenon.”

Understandably, organisations look to bolster their position to increase revenues, profits and market share. But their behaviour raises a question over whether they might end up diverting travellers to their own offerings at the exclusion of other providers. This could also affect public transport, which is seen as the backbone of MaaS, and would certainly not be in the best interests of the end user.

Embracing open mobility

Openness is key to the success of MaaS, encouraging data-sharing and interoperability. It provides the opportunity for innovation, along with better products and services for the end user. This is why governments and groups such as the MaaS Alliance and TravelSpirit are key to the future of MaaS. Finland, for instance, passed legislation to enable MaaS, provide a framework for the transport of the future and to open up data.

As Reetta Putkonen, Director of Traffic and Street Planning, City of Helsinki points out in an article on Intelligent Transport, “If your business is related to MaaS or you own a bus company, you need to open your data in terms of certain interfaces – that is the new law. There is also a law that has helped to open and streamline all the different payment interfaces. If I buy a ticket from a company for a bus journey, my ticket can and will be integrated into other services too.”

It’s this openness that we need to continue to foster; to encourage more collaboration between public sector, private sector and advocacy groups, ensuring mobility solutions are accessible and equitable. Public policy also aims to reduce carbon emissions, relieve congestion, make our cities (and rural areas) smarter and encourage people to opt for more environmentally friendly forms of transport. MaaS can support this vision if it’s allowed to flourish in an open mobility environment.

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