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How cities, transit agencies, and companies are using MaaS data standards to rewrite the rules of app-based transportation
The world is flush with new mobility technology. In the past decade, carshare was followed quickly by bikeshare and ridehail, then scooters, mobile fare payment, and on-demand transit. If these systems work together, the promise of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) could change our cities for the better. But the transportation promised land of a seamless mobility system that’s more convenient than your car still feels distant.
And yet, there is a way forward. Consider this handbook your how-to guide for getting mobility apps and services to connect with each other.
Photos courtesy: RideCo and LA Metro, MoGo Detroit, Dayton RTA and Masabi
Each operator, transit agency, and mode of transportation often has its own app, and they rarely work together. A number of operators require you to use their own walled-off version of mobility, only making certain options available if you use their platform. Add a disconnected and inscrutable fare payment system to the mix, and even the most devoted car-free urbanist is likely to give up in frustration.
Despite these challenges, there’s an opportunity to do better by riders. To illustrate the different paths our digital mobility future might take, consider another ubiquitous app-based service: communication. Right now, much of the mobility world behaves like Facebook Messenger: apps are built on closed technology that doesn’t connect with other players. Whether you want to or not, you’re forced to download one company’s app just to send messages to your friends and contacts.
But there’s a different way of doing things, and it’s one of the Internet’s greatest success stories: email. Whether you have a Gmail or a Yahoo! account, an account from your employer or one from your school, you can choose whichever email program you want and your message will get to its destination, even if the recipient uses different software. Email works this way because it was built upon open data standards that all providers use to connect into the larger network.
So how do we ensure that mobility ends up working more like email, and less like Facebook Messenger?
Adopting email’s approach and building a foundation of MaaS data standards would steer the development of Mobility-as-a-Service in a positive direction, creating a mobility system that’s more competitive, accountable, interoperable, equitable, and sustainable. It would also make public procurement more effective, helping public agencies stay nimble and avoid getting locked into technology vendors that don’t deliver.
Few if any technical obstacles stand in the way of achieving this vision. What’s needed now isn’t a disruptive new app or service. To build MaaS, both public agencies and private companies need to prioritize connecting our existing mobility options, using email-like data standards so all the pieces fit together.
Luckily, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Open mobility standards have been built before, and they’ve proven successful. The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), for example, allows transit agencies to share schedule and real-time information with apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Transit. Despite initial skepticism within the industry, even from transit agencies themselves, GTFS has become nearly universal for fixed-route service and is now one of the world’s most widely-adopted mobility data standards.
A similar shift is now needed to bring together the other pieces of the MaaS ecosystem. This handbook lays out a path forward so the public and private sectors can ensure that transit payments, bikeshare, ridehail, taxis, microtransit, and carshare can follow the open pathway blazed by GTFS. Across all modes of transportation, there are living examples, highlighted throughout this report, of how operators, public agencies, apps, and not-for-profits are working together to integrate mobility services and create the building blocks of open MaaS.
No matter the role your organization plays, there’s something you can do to help build a mobility system that’s more sustainable, equitable, open, and connected. For app-based mobility, ensuring that Mobility-as-a-Service is built on a foundation of open data standards is an important first step. Let this be your guide.
We have a stake in this. GTFS made transit information accessible, and a pair of developers in Montreal started building Transit in 2011. Since then, we’ve focused our time and energy on building the best possible app for riders. Our experience has shown that a world in which open data standards are ubiquitous across the mobility system will encourage companies to focus on building the best user experience, rather than racing to corner the market and see how many transportation services can be captured under one company’s lock and key.
Too much of the existing MaaS literature is premised on the idea that “one app to rule them all” will save mobility. So far, that hasn’t proven true. The reality is that no single organization can do this alone. We dedicate a lot of the space in this handbook to highlighting the wide array of public, private, and not-for-profit actors who are building an open mobility ecosystem. We’re excited for you to get to know them.
Lastly, the pandemic caused unprecedented declines in transit ridership, and forced everyone to face enormous uncertainty. Despite dramatic pronouncements that public transit is irrelevant in a post-pandemic world of driverless car tunnels, we continue to believe that sustainable mobility will be central to reviving our cities and fighting climate change. This moment of upheaval might just contain the seeds of renewal for urban mobility. Let’s get to it.
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