Making Shared Mobility Seamless

By: Sandra Phillips (c) 2021

Imagine opening an app on your smartphone that shows you all the different options of getting from A to B.

Sounds like a dream, right? Welcome to a concept called multimodal integration or Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS). The MaaS Alliance has defined it as “the integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand. Customers have access to a menu of transport options, be they public transport, ride-, car- or bike-sharing, taxi or car rental/lease, or a combination thereof.”  It is the freedom of getting anywhere you like, whenever you want, with just a few simple taps on the screen.

You can see all the bus routes in one place whether they’re in your own community or the neighbouring one. You can easily identify whether a taxi, an Uber or even a volunteer driver could pick you up the fastest. If you had to do a large grocery run, you could book a car share vehicle or if you’re feeling athletic, a shared bike. On top of that, you have access to a 24/7 customer service program that backs any ride you just booked with a guarantee and you can pay for it all via this one app.

Why is multimodal integration important? Transportation has favoured personal vehicle ownership for decades resulting in congestion, poor air quality, and a financial burden for many. In Canada it is also responsible for 27% of all GHG emissions. Shifting people out of their personal vehicles is a must if we want to combat climate change. Shared mobility, e.g. carsharing, or bike sharing, or public transit are very effective ways of doing that. Yet by being disconnected it makes it harder for users to move between different alternative modes. MaaS essentially is a Swiss Army Knife for your transportation needs: you have different vehicles available, depending on what you want to do. 

I had the honour of supporting the Shared Mobility Compass Card – a joint initiative by TransLink, two carshare (Modo Co-operative, Evo Car share) and the local bikeshare Mobi by ShawGo. The Shared Mobility Compass Card used the existing farecard technology which can now be used to get on a bus, access a carshare car or unlock a bike from Mobi. During a 10-month pilot, over 60% of participants shifted their behaviour and were using the SMCC instead of their personal vehicle. Additionally, over a third of participants have tried a new transportation alternative. Based on the success, we got approval to launch a public-facing pilot this year.

But real-world multimodal integration projects are still rare and most of the projects are based in Europe. Why is that?

Personally, it took me a while to understand that creating MaaS takes time, patience and a lot of willing parties to collaborate. I grew up in Switzerland, in a small town of 10k residents,and in a 1 car household. My dad worked shifts so my mum normally didn’t have access to a car. But that didn’t stop us from getting anywhere – even heading towards the mountains was possible. That’s because the public railway provider, SBB, is essentially the world’s oldest MaaS system where buses, trolleys, trains, gondolas and passenger boats have been integrated into the regular transit pass for decades.

So when I moved to Vancouver in 2008 and I had to get a taxi to downtown I thought – as any young, ambitious person would – we can fix that. I touted the idea of integrating it into the regular fare card in every interview I had – at car2go and later at Evo. Only to be met with blank stares. It wasn’t until 2017, when the ecosystem of options was large enough with 1800 bikeshare bicycles and over 2,500 carshare vehicles plus skytrains, buses and passenger ferries (and a very visual TED talk), that people could finally see the vision and buy into it.

So for multimodal integrations to be successful you need a few things:

1) You need a reliable and diverse amount of supply of shared mobility options. When I was hired by car2go in 2010 to coordinate a feasibility study to see if Vancouver was the right city to launch their next service in, less than 8,000 people had a membership because there were very few cars. Today more than ⅓ of Vancouver’s population has a carshare membership (that’s over 225k members), Vancouverites have access to over 2,500 carshare vehicles and more than 1,800 bikeshare bikes: shared mobility has become part of the fabric of Vancouver’s transportation landscape.

2) Once there is enough supply that people can rely on, you need to connect the different disconnected systems. While you need technology, technology is NOT what makes MaaS successful. In fact, finding a local leader willing to take a complex project like this on, is a top priority. In my opinion, public transit agencies are the best natural choice because they already provide transportation services.

3) Next, it’s all about partnerships between different providers (that all have different business models and goals) and establishing trust between private and public operators. This is where I strongly believe in a ‘bottom-up’ approach, where local transportation providers are part of the decision making from day one. It’s not a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ it should be ‘build it together from day one.’ Because if the community is not in the driver’s seat and invested in the outcomes, the program will not be sustainable. Lastly, and most importantly, it’s about providing the best customer experience that will allow people to shift out of their personal vehicles.

The combination of these three strategies will launch us down the right path: towards urban transportation systems that will continue to become more sustainable and equitable, as well as being more resilient in the face of whatever big disruption confronts us next. But today’s policy decisions matter and need to be made quickly. We can’t linger indecisively at this fork in the road for long. In the wake of COVID-19, transportation services and cities had to think differently about how they manage and operate their services. We saw just how quickly governmental and policy changes happened overnight to close roads, open bike paths and find ways to support their users and essential workers in their mobility endeavours throughout the crisis. We believe that cities should take the learnings of the initial months of the pandemic seriously.

Integrating shared mobility with their existing public transit systems, should become part of the urban planning makeup, alongside active and public transportation systems.

The future of sustainable transportation is shared mobility, in its truest sense of the meaning. Seamless and integrated mobility options that are easily and conveniently accessible to every person that needs to move from point A to point B.