Why must public transport reinvent itself to offer citizens better access – and how it can be done? Carl Adler suggests some answers
Good transport systems cater for all people, but by that standard, most fail. Limited bus, train, tram and metro services mean far too many citizens cannot travel where they need to or when they need to.
Such a lack of good connections affects some more than others. For people with disabilities, travelling often means navigating challenging parcours fraught with insurmountable obstacles like stairs or gaps between platforms and vehicles. Seniors, pregnant women or those who tore a ligament playing sport face many of the same issues, even if perhaps only temporarily.
More often than one would think, perfectly healthy citizens face difficulties getting from A to B in straightforward ways. Cars are great for those who can afford them; for those who cannot, getting around is often a pain.
Access to opportunities
Where people depend on their own vehicles – by choice or by lack of it –, public transport systems are often underfunded afterthoughts. Plagued by inconvenient schedules, few routes, creaking infrastructure and outdated rolling stock, public transport is no fun, doesn’t deliver what is needed, and often at prices that many cannot afford.
So what can close the wide gap between existing services and the connectivity citizens need? How can transport ensure that people have access to the opportunities around them – from attending better schools to accepting higher-paying jobs, from quick access to medical services to a wider choice of shops?
Digital platforms that link citizens with mobility options are one important way to bridge that gap. The buzzword making the round in this context is “ Mobility as a Service”, or MaaS. MaaS platforms are digital venues, mainly applications, that aggregate information on transport services from different sources. These can include mobility solutions from the private sector, such as ridesharing or e-scooters, as well as public transport options.
Don’t worry, be mobile
With MaaS, users need not worry about who provides which service and contact them separately. A MaaS app is a one-stop digital shop into which users in search of the best possible connection enter their destination and then book an option regardless of who is behind that service: hailing a taxi, renting a shared bicycle, or purchasing a tram ticket – all happens in a single app.
Don’t worry, be mobile: MaaS platforms take the pain out of organising trips that require multiple types of transport managed by different operators. Users can grab an e-scooter to ride to a subway station and at the other end hop into a taxi for the final lag – all managed and paid for within a single MaaS app. For people living far from transport stations, such enhanced last-mile connectivity can make the difference between using public transport or taking a car.
Several countries have introduced MaaS systems over large areas and managed to overcome the traditional divide between public transport and other mobility solutions; often innovative services proposed by start-ups. These platforms can be refined by using user data to see where and when different people travel, however data must be used in a manner which does not infringe on individuals’ privacy. The sort of data used and the way it is shared is a new and challenging issue for policy makers to address. Through careful and mindful policymaking, however, MaaS has the potential to make transport based on other options than private cars and mobility as a whole more attractive and more inclusive by better catering for older citizens, those with mobility impairments or people living in rural areas underserved by traditional public transport.
Flex the ride!
In many parts of the world, dedicated transport services serve specific groups of people who, for one reason or another, have difficulties using public transport. School busses are a well-known example, but there are also fleets of vans available for physically impaired people or for the elderly. So, in fact, costly and fuel-consuming services with few users have been created, sometimes duplicating public transport services simply because the latter do not cater sufficiently for special needs.
Some countries and regions have integrated transport services that users call when they need them into a single platform. Called “demand-responsive transport” (DRT), these systems work with algorithms that merge several individual requests into a single trip. That way, operators can run fewer vehicles on the same routes.
FlexDanmark is the world’s most-used DRT system. Founded by five Danish transport operators, the system works across Denmark. The central dispatch system through which all ride requests flow enables the operators to use fewer vehicles for the same number of passengers. The system cuts costs for the providers, but it also often leads to shorter wait times for users. Riders use the platform to make 16 500 trips each day.
Innovations like MaaS and DRT promise to make citizens who have been cut off from shared transport options more mobile and give them access to new opportunities. They are a big step in the right direction – but they alone will not deliver inclusive transport. Opening conventional transport systems like trains, buses and metros to all citizens will require targeted action by policy makers. The data generated by using these platforms can improve service but must be managed responsibly. With new solutions comes great responsibility but an even greater potential to include more citizens in society.
Carl Adler is a recent Master’s Graduate from Sciences Po Paris’ Urban School and is Digital Content Editor and Co-ordinator at the International Transport Forum.
The International Transport Forum publishes cutting-edge research on making Mobility-as-a-Service a reality. Learn more from the latest ITF work, which includes case studies