Mobility subscriptions – what can transport learn from Netflix?

The way we access services is changing. From music to movies and even banking, flat-fee and subscription services are replacing pay-per-use. Think Netflix, iTunes and new digital banks like Revolut. If this can also be applied to mobility, it could encourage people to choose more sustainable transit. However, transport authorities are still lagging behind when it comes to introducing pricing that fosters and rewards customer loyalty.  

Transit subscriptions are nothing new. Fixed-price unlimited-travel public transport passes are available in many countries. And bike- car- or scooter-shares often work on a subscription basis, with different membership packages offering variable levels of access. What is newer is the application to multimodal transit, known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS).

MaaS involves fully-integrated route planning, ticketing and payment accessed through a single platform or app. i.e. no need for commuters to deal with multiple service providers. With the global market predicted to hit between 2 and 5 billion USD over the next decade, and car-centric cities unsustainable, several countries are working to implement it.

In Helsinki, MaaS Global’s Whim app offers packages from pay-as-you-go to unlimited monthly subscriptions. In London, Citymapper recently launched a subscription-based travelcard covering public transport, bikes and taxis, and aims to incorporate scooters and car-sharing in the future. In Singapore, multimodal transit app Zipster will begin offering subscription packages in early 2020, while Sydney is also trialing customized MaaS subscriptions. However, for the dream to become a global reality, two things need to happen:

Firstly, urban car use needs to become much less viable, something many cities are working on. Secondly, MaaS must step in to fill the gap, providing seamless, wide-ranging geographical and timetable coverage that answers the majority of users’ mobility needs.

Committing to a subscription is a leap of faith and a gamble (how many of us pay for unused gym membership?). Therefore, commuters will only sign up after using services on a pay-per-trip basis for some time, when they are sure of coverage by on-demand transit anytime, anywhere. Simply put, when MaaS rivals the perceived convenience of the car. That’s why it can work best when it covers fixed needs like the daily commute or first-mile, last-mile connectivity, for example connecting suburban areas to transport links.

Making MaaS subscriptions the norm is possible but it will require continued innovation, public-private partnerships and willingness to collaborate on the part of authorities for solutions to be fully effective. In an ideal world, startups with the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to adapt can provide technology solutions for transit authorities to improve infrastructure and services. For example, Shotl’s technology is being used to digitize and run local minibuses on-demand in Barcelona.

Access to commuter data is also essential for public and private entities to understand how people move, identify gaps in the market and tailor services and products accordingly. In a forward-thinking move, the New South Wales government has made transport data publicly available to help foster innovation. However, much data is closely guarded by a handful of Internet or social media companies and access is more difficult.   

MaaS subscriptions have the potential to encourage greater use of sustainable transport. However, for this to happen, multimodal transit must be fully integrated and accessible via a single platform, equaling the car’s convenience in the minds of commuters. Shotl continues to collaborate with public and private entities to make this a reality and create the conditions for innovation to flourish.    

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