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A vision for digital mobility infrastructure

Phil Williams, Director of Strategic Partnerships at open mobility platform Iomob, outlines a vision for digital mobility infrastructure which will be fundamental in the shift to shared, sustainable urban mobility systems.

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In the first article in this two-part series, I talked about micromobility, autonomous vehicles and electrification. We looked at the impacts they’ll have on cities, and how local and national policymakers might deal with them.

 

This was a good place to start – most conversation on mobility revolves around the types of vehicles we use, and how they’re changing. However, while vehicles are the most visible part of the mobility revolution, it’s actually the digital infrastructure we choose to build which will be most instrumental in the shift to shared, sustainable urban mobility systems.

 

So, if we need good digital infrastructure, what should that look like?

 

Mobility as a Service is the goal

 

MaaS (mobility as a service) is a foundation for effective shared mobility. With MaaS, instead of owning cars citizens can gain on-demand access to every mode and provider of transport in any given city. They might pay on a per-journey basis, or have a subscription for all their transit needs, similar to the way Spotify works for music.

 

You might ask why MaaS is needed. After all, journey planning tools like Citymapper or Google do the job perfectly, right? Not quite. With present systems, the user still needs to use many different proprietary systems to buy tickets.

 

With present systems, the user still needs to use many different proprietary systems to buy tickets.

 

In Barcelona, for example, there are more than 52 different mobility apps – one for each provider. This is inefficient and inconvenient for citizens.

 

MaaS systems aim to go one step beyond Citymapper. They allow users to discover new services, route across multiple forms of transport, and book and pay for that journey with a single click.

 

Because MaaS relies on the ability to get people seamlessly from A to B using several different transit types under a single payment structure, we need advanced (and open) digital infrastructure in order for it to become widespread.

 

Open or closed platforms?

 

To be transformative, digital infrastructure must be open. Closed, vertically integrated networks hoard customers and require users to have dozens of different apps to access similar services.

 

They can’t be joined together efficiently at the API layer (often called the ‘federated’ approach) because the systems only connect at the booking and payment level, rather than at the discovery and choosing levels.

 

In an open system, all providers have access to the network effect of the combined customer base.

 

This means they can focus on their actual product rather than customer acquisition. The result will be better vehicles, better service and more competitive markets.

 

Large providers can acquire additional traffic from the network to augment their proprietary audience. Small providers can connect to the large public transit audience, and focus on offering niche services that would be uncompetitive if they had to build their own digital services as well.

 

In an open system, all providers have access to the network effect of the combined customer base.

 

Citizens benefit because the best services are introduced to them, not simply the ones with the biggest marketing investment. Cities can ensure public transit is at the centre of mobility decisions.

 

Providers can also share and spread demand securely. Using blockchain contracts, one provider can on-sell a service (say, an e-bike ride) to another similar provider and charge commission per ride. This way, users are never let down, the original provider is rewarded for the work they’ve done and the loyalty of their customer, another provider makes some more money, and the whole mobility system is rendered more efficient.

 

After all, most citizens simply want the fastest, closest mobility option that meets their quality expectations. Quality can be enforced through interoperable rating systems, accessible by smart contracts.

 

Comprehensive, citywide and open MaaS platforms will benefit citizens, providers and city governments alike. Citizens will be able to access the most convenient, cheapest mode of transport whenever and wherever using a single app. Providers can service niche markets efficiently and compete on service instead of acquisition, driving up quality across the board.

 

Cities get systems that allow them to control mobility in real time.

 

Unlocking data value

 

Beyond convenience, digital mobility infrastructure has the potential to enable individuals to own and control their own mobility data. This can allow the value of the data to be shared with them, instead of being exploited by private-sector tech giants.

 

Importantly, this data value can be unlocked while still respecting privacy. Using blockchain-based systems, individuals have their own ID and encrypted key to control who has access to their mobility data.

 

If they choose to share their data with mobility providers or the city, they’ll receive a dividend or discount on travel. The same system they use to access their MaaS service could be used to bill them for road charges on the rare occasion they choose to use a private car – without having to know exactly where they’ve been on every journey.

 

Who runs the digital infrastructure?

 

For MaaS to have a positive impact in our cities, the best outcome would be for this open platform to be operated or sponsored by cities themselves.

 

With cities (or their transit agencies) as sponsors, public transit is placed at the centre of the conversation, providing the best value for the city and its citizens, and the greatest possible congestion mitigation.

 

If private providers operate the network, they can manipulate it into mobility outcomes that are negative for the city. This might include things like targeting profitable transit routes by offering competing loss-making services on a different mode, effectively driving down transit revenue which is needed to provide equitable services.

 

Under an open, city-sponsored model, the network effect will be shared, with no single provider or institution having dominance over the mobility system. Crucially, it will also solve the fragmentation we currently see in mobility systems, which is a product of a purely private company approach.

 

Compatibility with pooling and usage-based charging

 

Lastly, digital infrastructure could support pooling, the holy grail of congestion reduction solutions.

 

To reward pooling, we need to know how many people are travelling in a car at a given time. Privacy-focused blockchain technology could allow the number of passengers in a vehicle to be determined, and for the driver to be rewarded, without exact identities being revealed.

 

This unique innovation could allow cities to charge road usage fees based on occupancy, within dynamic road pricing systems. Without compromising privacy, cities could also gather information about citizens’ urban mobility securely and accurately.

 

What will good digital infrastructure look like?

 

To be effective, connected and meet the social and environmental outcomes cities want, a digital mobility infrastructure needs these characteristics:

  • It needs to enable true MaaS – end-to-end journeys planned, booked and paid for
  • It needs to be open, meaning that any legal mobility provider can join the network and offer its services through a single marketplace, driving efficiency and quality-increasing competition
  • It should be operated by, or in close partnership with the city or its transit agency, so that openness can be defended, rules enforced, and civic outcomes (like equity) considered

If these features are implemented with an open, commons approach in mind, cities will benefit hugely from an efficient, combined network effect powered by their existing public transit user base, which is typically large.

 

Be bold

 

Waxing lyrical about new mobility technologies is fun. They’re exciting. New scooters and improvements in self-driving cars make for great headlines. But the more important question is: how do we best use these new innovations?

 

Creating and investing in the right mobility technologies is the key to enabling the transition to healthy, sustainable urban lifestyles in the years to come. Shared mobility, a term coined relatively recently, is one of the pillars of this transition.

 

This means not only plugging the gaps in urban transit, not only dealing with present problems such as congestion but going one step further to rethink our entire urban transportation systems as an open network.

 

We need to “share” the mobility market – both from the perspective of mobility providers and users. For this task, open digital infrastructure is key.

 

We need to “share” the mobility market – both from the perspective of mobility providers and users.

 

We need city and national governments to be bold. They need to prioritise citizens’ lives and health by enabling a collaborative, networked value-based economy instead of the old, siloed, incumbent models.

 

Huge rideshare giants and incumbent transit operators will try to monopolise the mobility market. They can’t be allowed to do so.

 

If we use our ever-advanced mobility tech to allow us to continue living unsustainably, it will be an opportunity lost.

 

Will we go beyond what we can imagine now, and put in place smart policies and technologies to create more sustainable and people-friendly cities?

 

By 2025, we’ll know the answer.

 

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