Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a hot topic – we’ve seen several companies trial MaaS offerings with mixed success – but will it really work in the UK? And could there be a model which works equally well both in and outside London?

The idea of MaaS is that people wishing to travel from A to B will be able to plan, book and pay for their entire journey via a single app or booking platform. Depending on the user’s wishes, the system will work out the best/cheapest/fastest/most healthy (eg using some walking or cycling) route. Having accepted the app’s suggestion, or refined it, the user will then be able to pay for the whole journey, regardless of which mode(s) of transport they are using. This could include a bike, car-share, bus, tram, underground or train – and, when they become available, new options such as autonomous ride-sharing.

Here are five factors which I think make the UK market a complex place to introduce MaaS:

1   London compared with the rest of the UK

Many factors have combined to make the UK ‘a game of two halves’ when it comes to transport. In particular, the Thatcher government’s transport deregulation bill affected the whole country, with the exception of London, which remained centralised and reports to the Mayor. This avoids any disconnect between the various modes of public transport in the Capital. In practice, this means that, whilst a number of companies fulfil services for TfL, the customer has to interact with only one platform – TfL – when it comes to planning and paying for trips using public transport.

2   The fragmented bus market

Introducing any transport change is tough enough in the Capital, where Transport for London is the ‘operator’ for all modes of transport – but, in other cities, with multiple operators, there is a logistical mountain to climb. In Manchester, for example, there are no fewer than 38 different bus companies for customers to interact with. Some routes are covered by several bus operators, with different fares being asked, and it costs more to buy a ‘day ticket’ to use any service than to buy individual tickets which allow travel with only one company. Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, is trying to introduce a more integrated system in the city, but it’s an uphill struggle.

3   The overly consolidated rail market

The customer experience is similarly sub-optimal on the railways, where the UK’s franchise mechanism allows different operators to compete for a particular route. Because franchises last for between 7 and 15 years, there is little incentive to innovate and operators are able to charge high prices without any commitment to good service.

One of my colleagues on a recent project was Dutch and he was shocked at the price of a bought-on-the-day return ticket from London to Manchester. A last minute ticket at peak time cost him £350; my ticket, bought in advance, was £165; but both these fares seem astronomical when compared with the most expensive ticket in the Netherlands, which could be bought on the day of travel and take you from one end of the country to the other. That ticket, for a journey lasting about 4.5 hours, would set you back a modest €28! It’s clear to see that the customer experience of train journeys in the Netherlands is completely different, because the rail infrastructure is managed and maintained by a government agency, ProRail, which awards a small number of operators concessions to operate trains.

4   UK incentives for private car use

Here lies another problem which may be particular to the UK. In many jobs, a private car is provided as a perk; alternatively, employees may be able to claim up to 60p/mile for using their own car. Unsurprisingly, there is no appetite to accept the alternative offer of a public transport travel card or even payment for cycling to work; the benefit of using a car for work has become a nice little earner, so who would want to change that?

But, unless we reduce private car use, our cities risk grinding to a halt, simply because their road infrastructure wasn’t designed to cater for the forecast capacity (taking population increase into account). The only way to achieve this is to provide an alternative which is as good as, or even more attractive with regard to cost, quality and convenience.

MaaS will drastically cut the number of single-occupancy cars, thus reducing both congestion and air pollution; it is something we have to do and we have to do it well.

5   On yer bike?

When Mobike, a dockless bike-sharing service which originated in China, was introduced to Manchester earlier this year, it was a disaster. ‘Free floating’ Mobikes ended up being vandalised, thrown into the canal or simply stolen, resulting in an embarrassing market exit. By contrast, Santander bikes, which have to be returned to a bike dock at the end of a journey, have been successful in London for years. We have yet to see the results of Uber’s recent launch of its Jump bike-sharing scheme; whilst these bikes are also free floating, their introduction has been accompanied by extensive consumer education, which may help overcome any negative reaction.

If MaaS has worked elsewhere, why not in the UK?

We’ve seen companies like Whim try to roll out a MaaS offering in the UK, with mixed success, but I do believe MaaS will be delivered in the fullness of time. However, potential market entrants need to heed the warnings above and not risk failure by simply trying to import a model which has worked overseas. The anomalies I mention here – lack of integrated platforms, widely varying populations, Mayors with strategies particular to their own cities, our love of the company car, etc – simply mean that only solutions which are tailored to the UK market will stand a chance of success.

So how can we get MaaS right?

The key thing, in my opinion, is opening an early dialogue with each city concerned to make sure any proposed scheme fits in with its existing (and future) transport system. Every city in the UK is different; we have challenges which don’t exist in other countries and cannot be ignored; no one scheme will fit all. The ultimate prize is enormous, because transport needs are enormous – but, whatever we do, it has to be done in the right way, by talking early and agreeing a way forward before jumping in with a ready-made ‘solution’.