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Editor Dan Miller

The Future of Driving: Transportation as a Service

Posted by Dan Miller on April 11, 2018
zoobus to the Helsinki Zoo in Finland, picture
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In Finland, the Whim app helps users get from point A to point B by public transit and car-sharing services.

What would it take for Americans to give up their cars? That was the question of the day at the recent Redefining Mobility Summit in San Ramon, Calif. (AAA was one of the sponsors.) State and local policymakers, transit planners, and technologists had gathered there to discuss the future of transportation. One answer to that question could be something called Transportation (or Mobility) as a Service.

The reason the question was raised in the first place: The typical American car is an egregiously inefficient form of transportation. It spends 95 percent of the day parked somewhere, doing nothing. Though it usually has room for four or more, it carries an average of 1.5 people per trip. And it spews about 28 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day.

Those are just some of the reasons that many policymakers, planners, and techies think the privately owned and operated automobile should go away. But what would be in it for car owners and drivers? Why would they want to ditch their beloved buggies?

The consensus among Summit attendees was that, while environmental and health benefits might persuade some drivers to do the right thing and give up their cars, the mass of Americans would only do so if the alternatives saved them money and time.

Of course, there are already plenty of alternatives, at least in urban and suburban parts of the country: In addition to taxis, public transportation, carpooling, and bikes, there are newer options such as ride-sharing services (a la Lyft and Uber) and shared cars (such as AAA’s Gig Car Share service in the San Francisco Bay Area).

The keys to making those other modes of transportation truly compelling alternatives to the car, said speakers at the Summit, is to make it easy for people to find the right combination of transportation services for a given trip—bus plus ride-share for the commute to work, say, or car-share for a weekend getaway—and to make those services affordable and easy to use.

That's exactly what Transportation (or Mobility) as a Service (TaaS or MaaS for short) purports to do. Its potential advantages to drivers: No car or insurance payments, less money spent on gas, less time spent in traffic jams. 

Such services aren't just a techie fantasy. As the woman who asked that “what would it take” question—Jonna Pöllänen of Finland’s MaaS Global—and others at the Redefining Mobility Summit explained, TaaS is already a real thing. You just have to go to Scandinavia to experience it.

In Helsinki, you can tell MaaS Global’s smartphone app, Whim, where you want to go and when, and it will figure out how to get you there without your own car. Because MaaS Global has partnerships with local transportation service providers, the app can not only tell you how to make your journey, but also make all the necessary arrangements and then let you pay for them (by monthly subscription or by the trip).

Another panelist, Christina Hvid, CEO of Denmark’s Rejseplanen (Journey Planner) service, explained how it ties together up-to-the-minute data for all the transportation options in a given area and lets you know which ones will get you where you want to go most efficiently.

Could such services succeed in America, land of the solo driver? Nobody knows yet, but some larger trends are making it more likely.

For one thing, the driving population is aging. As baby boomers get older, and their driving skills start to deteriorate, there will be a greater demand for alternatives to the car. (This is one of the arguments made by proponents of self-driving cars.)

At the same time, younger people are showing less interest in driving. One study found that a quarter of people aged 20 to 24 had no driver’s license—compared to 10 percent in 1983. Given that same cohort's comfort with using technology and shared transportation (such as Uber and Lyft), you have a big potential market for MaaS.

But what about you? What would it take for you to give up your car? We'd love to hear about it. Just go to the Via Facebook page and tell us what you think in the comments.