Transport’s connected future

Moving Well | Words: Nick Place | Illustration: Frank Maiorana. | Posted on 17 October 2018

Need a train, tram, bus or bike? A single app might soon connect all your transport.

Need to cross town but don’t feel like taking the car? Imagine this: you open an app on your smartphone and type in your destination. You watch the screen as an Uber or an on-demand mini-bus zeroes in on your location. You are driven to a station, and a train is there within minutes to whisk you to a major transport hub. Another train, tram or bus seamlessly links up, so that you’re within range of your destination address. Finally, another Uber, mini-bus, or maybe even a pre-booked bikeshare bicycle is waiting to carry you the all-important final mile.

Welcome to Mobility as a Service, or MaaS. It’s an evolving concept that many agree is the future of transport, using data and smartphone technology to provide a one-stop solution for all transport needs, no matter the mode, time or destination.

The major shift in thinking is that a user’s individual journey is the key.
Connected hand

The Mobility as a Service concept has two strong attractions. One is that all transport methods would be interconnected and working together, in real time, so that a commuter can interchange from one mode to another with the least possible “transfer pain”. The second attraction is the idea of consumers having only one app and one point of payment for all of their travel. You want to go from Frankston to Coburg? The app will plot the best possible journey and charge you one price for the trip.

The major shift in thinking is that a user’s individual journey is the key, not set timetables, driver rosters and other old-world limitations of existing transport options. Cities around the world are embracing the rise of data and the possibilities of cross-referencing complex streams of real-time information to be able to better synchronise and plan journeys from that individual’s point of view. Stuart Outhred, RACV’s senior planner mobility futures, describes MaaS as transport’s “Netflix or Spotify moment”, where data and technology disrupt the previous models. 

The sum of all these smarter decisions could be a much more free-flowing transport system.

But can it work? In theory, there is a lot of support for the idea in Australia. A major report compiled by iMove, a co-operative research centre comprising 44 industry, government, and research partners, recently found that MaaS would be embraced by younger Australians, who are smartphone savvy and up for early adoption. Call them the Uber Pool Generation. 

The benefits would include socio-demographic and mobility support for all, greater convenience than private vehicles as congestion worsens, and a strong baseline for boosting public transport capabilities. The basic idea is that by giving people better information about their transport choices, people can make smarter decisions. And the sum of all these smarter decisions could be a much more free-flowing transport system.

Sydney recently ran a year-long trial of on-demand mini-buses to drop passengers at transport hubs, by request. The usage numbers may have been tiny, but Transport for NSW deemed the knowledge gained from the exercise made it a success. 

In Helsinki, Finland, MaaS has gone much further. Using a service called Whim, top-tier users can tap the app to catch unlimited public transport of every kind, as well as take price-capped, unlimited taxi trips within a five-kilometre radius. 

An issue we may face in Victoria is the poor frequencies on much of our public transport system.

They are even able to book rental cars for no extra cost – for a subscription fee of €499 (about $790) per month. It sounds like a heavy financial hit but, as iMove managing director Ian Christensen points out, private car owners don’t often stop to consider just how much that vehicle costs per year to run, along with insurance, depreciation and other expenses (on average $209.50 per week according to RACV's 2018 Driving Your Dollars survey).

The creators of Whim say their research shows the fee is good value compared to the outright leasing of a vehicle or sole use of a taxi: “The aim is to enable mobility access: When you need (it), where you need it.”

But is Melbourne ready for MaaS? Both Stuart and Ian hesitate in their answers. Our city is definitely behind others in preparing for the idea. To work well, MaaS should see users zipping around town between connected modes of transport like Tarzan swinging on vines in those old movies. I don’t remember the movie where he had to hang aimlessly on a particular vine for 25 minutes while he waited for the next vine to appear.

“An underlying idea behind MaaS is using a variety of modes to get from A to B, and choosing a mix that suits the individual best,” Stuart says. “An issue we may face in Victoria is the poor frequencies on much of our public transport system, especially outer-suburban bus routes and services that run outside of peak times. There will be little incentive to transfer between modes if the time penalty is too great.” 

Everybody agrees that MaaS can only work if public transport is a key component. Almost one million people are in central Melbourne on an average weekday and the reality is that only our train, tram and bus system can potentially boast the “heavy lifting” capacity to handle such volume. All our public transport networks would need to be enhanced to deliver MaaS in all its potential glory.

People need to be getting a seamless experience across the whole system.

“Public transport is the backbone; basic geometry tells us that space-efficient transport is fundamental to urban areas functioning well. A future where new mobility services complement our mass transit network is really exciting,” Stuart says. 

“Demand-responsive bus services might be able to fill gaps in the route bus network, linking people to train stations in the outer suburbs. Bike share might be able to play a greater role in the inner and middle suburbs, feeding people to tram and train services.”

Ian Christensen wonders if the necessary deals can be made to bring all modes of transport into the MaaS concept and the app. Car-share companies, for example, are not beholden to the same sense of “public service” that traditional public transport is, whether in spirit or in contracted key performance indicators. They’re not even beholden to anybody in terms of how they use the valuable data they collect from tracking customer movements. 

It’s no wonder that the iMove report found most Australians were in favour of government oversight of fundamental data-sharing guidelines in any MaaS service starting up.

Meanwhile, a lot of our public transport is run by private companies with bonuses attached to targets such as running trains on time, rather than providing innovative and enjoyable transitions for individual passengers.

I think it will happen, but it might be a bit slower than everybody hopes

“People need to be getting a seamless experience across the whole system, irrespective of the company or agency that is providing them with each leg of their journey,” Stuart says. “This will require a very collaborative approach.”

Ian says the message he took from the iMove report is that MaaS is essential to develop better systems for our growing population.

“The need for it is high and there are already some poor-performing solutions on offer. It will get better and better and deeper and deeper so that adoption will continue to increase,” he says.

“I think it will happen, but it might be a bit slower than everybody hopes.” 

Mobility as a service so far

Helsinki, Finland: The city has a bold new app-based system, Whim, designed around Mobility as a Service principle, with one button for planning, routes, bookings, tickets and payments. Whim offers three levels of subscription, aiming to give customers close to unlimited public transport as an economic model. It covers everything from rental cars to bikes, as well as public transport options.

Sydney: A $20 million trial of on-demand buses started in Manly and surrounding suburbs, and was expanded to the eastern suburbs over the past year. Services were provided by a range of independent mini-bus companies and the users who took part paid $3.50 per trip, including free wi-fi and door-to-door service. Transport for NSW hailed the trial as a vital data-gathering success.

Gothenburg, Sweden: The city has a similar ticket system to Melbourne’s myki, covering trams, trains, buses and ferries. The Västtrafik system has sophisticated journey planning, with options including how many transfers you’re prepared to make, how long you’re prepared to wait at transfer points, and whether you’ll only go to stops with lighting at night. It works as a smartphone app and the service offers compensation if you’re delayed more than 20 minutes.

On the move in Melbourne 

Melbourne now has an app-based MaaS system. In February 2019, RACV released the multi-platform smartphone app arevo. Stay tuned for updates at