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More than 50 percent of the world’s population live in major metropolitan areas, and more people are coming. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 70 percent. And these cities are the economic engines of the world. According to the consulting firm McKinsey. “Six hundred cities — the City 600 — are projected to generate more than 60 percent of global growth to 2025.”

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Accommodating this growth is a major challenge for transportation agencies tasked with moving people into, out of, and around urban centers. Most can’t build more roads or highways. The challenge is to find ways to move more people with fewer vehicles.

MaaS Opportunity

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is often presented as a kind of “holy grail” for transportation. Most envision MaaS as a single mobile app that provides one-click booking and payment for complete door-to-door journeys using any mode of transport from any provider, from scooter to commercial air carriers and anything in between.

Ridehailing giant Uber has jumped into the MaaS market, positioning itself as the “Amazon of transportation.” It wants to be the mobility version of the retail giant that sells just about every product imaginable from its website.

Public or Private

Should a private business be in charge of what transportation options people see and purchase? That’s an important question for cities that have a mandate to provide accessible, affordable transportation for all. The U.K.’s Urban Transport Group looked into MaaS models and urged caution, citing three major concerns:

Many new mobility services, including peer-to-peer ridehailing, have grown at the expense of public transport. And private businesses have little incentive to address social, environmental, and health concerns of residents. It has become clear that traffic is getting worse in cities, not better due to these new services. Giving them more control of how people access transport doesn’t seem like the best next step.

Investment Opportunity

A healthy public transportation system is critical for growing cities. New mobility services like ridehailing, robotaxis when they arrive, autonomous shuttles and micro-transit must be integrated into a robust mobility infrastructure if cities are to accommodate the growth that is expected in coming decades.

While some like to complain that public transportation loses money and that private services could do better, that’s the wrong math. Transportation is a means to an end for most people. Few people ride a bus or drive a car just for the experience — they use transportation to get somewhere like work, the doctor, a restaurant, or a friend’s home.

Getting people to work is one of the chief goals of public transportation, and the benefits to businesses, cities, and employees go far beyond the fare box. The capital and operational costs associated with public transit would be better viewed as an investment in economic development rather than as a simple business cost. The Union Internationale des Transports Publics(UITP), the world’s largest association of public transportation agencies, points out that “investment in public transport sparks a chain reaction in economic activity up to three or four times the initial investment.”

In the United States, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA):

U.S. householdsin auto-dependent locations spend as much as 25 percent of their income on transportation. A car that breaks down can mean the loss of a job. Reliable public transit lowers the cost of living for people with easy access to it, saving users more than $10,000 per year.

Solving the Last Mile

Public transportation is designed to move large amounts of people in and out of urban centers for work and play. Most do a great job at that. The challenge in many cities has been the proverbial “last mile” — the trip to and from transit depots that makes it difficult to use for many. This is where new mobility services, including ridehailing, have a chance to be game-changers. If more people are able to easily access public transport, more people are likely to use it.

What is crucial is that mobility services are connected, shared, and work with public transport. Cities should invest in the infrastructure and technology necessary to support a connected, multi-modal transit network that includes shared vehicles that can augment public transport. There is no reason that public entities cannot be at the center of MaaS offering, ensuring a level playing field for all participants. No, cities aren’t technology businesses, but they aren’t transportation businesses either. They partner with other providers and ensure that the providers abide by city requirements and meet residents’ needs.

Repurposing Urban Space

Cities are already short on roads and housing. In order to accommodate growth and support business and commerce, urban transportation will need to get smarter. New public and private transportation services can play an important role in enabling smarter mobility but getting there will require more investment in urban transit, not less. MaaS has the potential to help cities by making it easier for people to live car-free, with door-to-door trips just a click away. The potential to reduce congestion and pollution, and reclaim space currently devoted to the auto-centric infrastructure could dramatically improve urban quality of life.

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