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Angled view of an empty car park

What does it take to get rid of your car? Ken Cowan

If we put together taxi, Uber style e-hailing, public transport, bike hire, car hire and sharing, could we have freedom of mobility without car ownership?

The idea behind mobility as a service (MaaS) is to replace private car ownership with a service-based model where users pay one provider for all their mobility needs, either by monthly subscription or pay-as-you-go. It also blurs the boundaries between public transport and private ownership.

To compete against vehicle ownership, you need to deliver something better – a service that will enable users to get to work, the shops, the theatre, the weekend cottage, or to drop off the kids, in a way that is at least as effective and easy, and less expensive, than a private car.

The idea stacks up economically. Private cars on average are used only 5% of the time. Across Europe, people spend €300 a month on transportation, of which 80% or €240 goes on running a car. The cost of car use could reduce significantly if they were better utilised through sharing.

But attractive economics alone are not enough. To get people out of their cars you need to deliver something better.

A Finn with a background in civil engineering and transport planning, Sampo Hietanen was, until recently, chief executive of ITS Finland, the trade association for Finland’s intelligent transport sector. In this capacity he established an international reputation as the leading advocate for MaaS and he recently packed in the day job to set up MaaS Global, one of the world’s first mobility as a service providers.

Using MaaS Global’s Whim app, the West Midlands metropolitan area is the first region in the UK to pilot mobility as service. The year-long trial, with up to 500 users, follows the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by the West Midlands Combined Authority, transport service providers National Express and SilverRail, Birmingham City Council and MaaS Global. Other transport companies will be able to join the service in the future.

A profound change in attitude

MaaS is coming from a younger generation, who don’t see car ownership as an aspiration. They stay in education longer, leave home later and rely on the gig economy which means regular income is less secure. The rise of the sharing economy is changing attitudes to ownership; they don’t tend to buy albums and instead stream Spotify. That mindset spills over into attitudes towards cars. In terms of improving their access to mobility, the younger generation value their phones more than a set of car keys. It’s a quite profound change in attitude.

All about occupancy

Recent analysis published by José Viegas, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum, suggests that if self-driving cars were to become the norm, at today’s occupancy rate of around 1.2 to 1.5 passengers, then congestion and emissions will go up, not down, because more miles will be driven. But if occupancy rates doubled to 2.4 passengers, the same level of mobility could be delivered with just 10% of today’s vehicles.

Viegas explores what autonomous driving means for the future of public transport. Today’s public transport model, in which the operators decide where customers may take a bus and when, could become obsolete. But self-driving technology in conjunction with smart demand management gives public transport the power to break free of defined routes and stops. Autonomous on-demand minibuses running on broad corridors could provide the right level of service and achieve occupancy rates needed to deliver the wider benefits to society.

Giving up the car

For some, MaaS is a movement and the end game is to reduce the dominance of privately owned cars, particularly in cities. There is already an argument that car ownership doesn’t really make sense in a big global city like London. Parking is expensive and usually a nightmare, security is often a concern, congestion means it is quicker to take public transport, cycle or even walk, and then there are more altruistic motivations such as not wishing to contribute to the poor air quality and carbon emissions.

London, thanks to TfL’s almost unique powers (at least in the UK) of joining up transport modes, has what could be considered a proto mobility as a service offering. And here the evidence suggests that its residents are less-wedded to the car. Nationally around four in five families has access to a car, across Greater London this drops to around half and within inner city Islington it is just a quarter.

The system creates the space

While mobility as a service will have a profound impact on how we travel, it will have equally disruptive consequences for asset owners. If it pans out as many expect there will be fewer vehicles on the roads, generating less road tax. But each vehicle will be utilised much more, meaning the wear and tear on roads will remain the same. Potentially if the claimed benefits of autonomous travel and mobility as a service are fully realised we might end up travelling more because it is easier and cheaper.

A key question therefore remains: how are local authorities going to pay for maintenance when the established funding models are turned on their head?

MaaS, if structured in a certain way, could provide an income stream for local authorities to improve and maintain their assets.

There is, believes Ken, an interesting opportunity to manage local authorities through the equivalent charge with respect to road usage. Long term it is likely that the third party MaaS provider will have to pay and some kind of equitable charge of tax payment model needs to be developed. This could lead to some pretty leftfield thinking. For instance GPS tracking could mean Uber drivers pay more to use roads if they are operating when and where buses are running.

Extend that argument a little and GPS could enable a form of road charging that means drivers pay more to use congested roads when buses are running or air quality is worse than acceptable limits. In the UK, the government has steered firmly away from road pricing for the best part of two decades, but recent murmurings among senior policy makers suggests it might be back on the agenda soon – and this time round the technology to support it is proven and available.

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