The Mobility as a Service (MaaS) environment brings a multiplication of transport modes: station-based and free flow car and bike sharing; moped sharing; electric scooter sharing; rideshare; Lyft; Uber; minicabs; Demand Responsive Transit; collective taxis covering defined areas on semi-fixed routes. As technology and hyper-connectivity exponentially expand mobility options, fuelling a shift away from cars in major cities, they can also be a source of headaches for transport authorities and local governments alike.

The most obvious question is regulation: for example, where and how free flow shared vehicles should be left to avoid being a nuisance on the public realm? Should cities build specific infrastructure, such as slow mobility lanes for mobility scooters? How to regulate the private hire market so that innovation is encouraged, but the perverse effect of increased traffic due to too many vehicles running empty while looking for clients on the streets is avoided?

A proliferation of privately-owned, independent and competing transport modes also raises the question of users’ access. At the moment, even the most advanced journey planning applications do not include ticketing or payment, so that users will have to download each operator’s app to access each option, although things are moving on this front, especially in the United States.

Finally, these new forms of mobility might end up taking passengers away from public transport for whole journeys (or part of them). In addition, flexible working arrangements, changes in shopping and leisure habits, stagnating incomes and reduction in public support are putting transport agencies’ budgets under extreme pressure, as highlighted, for example, in this London Assembly report on the Transport for London budget.

The role of mobility brokers

In order to ensure seamless access to the different transport modes and competing operators, it will be necessary to have a unified system that can process all ticket types and payments, and redistribute the income to the different operators. It will have to be a well-known and trusted brand, bringing the highest possible connection between operators and a high number of customers. It will also have to be capable of working across multiple geographies.

This is the role of the mobility broker: this entity will provide an online system that will allow access to all possible modes of transport within a region and access to all types of fares and ticketing options, both for regular and occasional users. Helsinki is leading the way through the Whim application, although not without controversy from the incumbent public transport operator and suggestions that the application might, effectively, increase mileage on city streets.

For cities equipped with integrated ticketing systems, such as the Oyster card in London or the Octopus in Hong Kong, this will be essentially an extension of the existing system.

Who are the mobility brokers?

The following question is who will these organisations be. Opinions are divergent here, and in fact there are multiple options.

An organisation like Transport for London (or similar transport agencies in other cities) could become a mobility broker with limited effort. These are trusted organisations which already securely manage millions of payments every day and have extensive experience in running and managing transport-related operations. When these organisations directly run services, however, there could be elements of conflicts of interest.

Journey planning applications (Citymapper, Transit, Moovit, Google Maps) are also obvious candidates: many of them already include all the traditional and many of the innovative transport solutions in cities and the only real step to becoming mobility brokers would be to add booking, payment and ticketing systems to the application (although this would bring a number of technological and administrative issues to be solved). Google Maps, for example, includes data on an incredible number of transport operators, from London Underground to small rural bus companies, although is not as advanced as other applications when it comes to multimodal journeys and innovative transport solutions.

Finally, some say that major internet players (the likes of Google, Uber and Amazon) could also become mobility brokers. These companies already have huge numbers of users and subscribers and have demonstrated the ability to successfully branch out to new services quite quickly.

It may also be that, within each region, there are multiple mobility brokers competing offering multiple services across different operators.

The impact on transport as we know it

As transport options increase and multiple private and public incumbent organisations compete within the same market, the main income on which public transport relies for operational improvements (fare income) is threatened.

Equality questions also arise, such as private operators only working in profitable areas and modes of transport, leaving the public with the burden of running only the loss-making services. As private operators in this scenario are free to set their own fares, this could become an additional inequality factor, leaving the most vulnerable users with less services and outside of the benefits of a MaaS ecosystem.

Conclusions: a new role for transport agencies?

There is a clear  opportunity for transport agencies to change their role and address some of the issues raised. For example, transport agencies could transform themselves from direct operators to market and network regulators, ensuring market access and network access to private operators across their geographies for an annual access fee (including higher costs for peak times or busier parts of the network).

They could also ensure that services are available equally through each area, avoiding discrimination between wealthier and more deprived areas.

The private sector seems to be gearing up to take maximum advantage of these opportunities: in order to allow full participation (and not just of the most connected and tech-savvy) in increased connectivity, transport agencies need to open up and start thinking what their role will be and how MaaS can support the solution of long-standing issues such as loss of revenue, loss-making services in low demand areas and first/last mile journeys.