The smart city concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) has had a relatively slow take-up in Australia, probably because of the country size and population density.
Australians rely on their vehicles to travel longer distances, and public transport infrastructure lags far behind Europe’s. Ridesharing companies gained some traction but mainly at the expense of established taxi operators.
Australian MaaS and public transport advocates often look admiringly at Finland, where the Whim app acts as an integrated platform for personal transport.
The app enables Helsinki residents to travel around their city of 1.4 million on shared bicycles, cars and scooters, or plan their public transport journeys.
It is part of a push to make Helsinki less dependent on cars and make the city — already rated as one of Europe’s most livable — one of the most advanced in the world.
Whim, which has also launched in Vienna and Antwerp and drawn funding from big corporates such as BP and Mitsubishi, is one of the best examples of MaaS currently operating globally.
Making sense of transportation payment
Australia has been considered a laggard up until now, but an initiative announced last week could begin to change that perception.
In the nation’s most populous city of Sydney, residents will be able to pay for Uber, taxis and share bikes with their digital Opal card — the public transport card introduced in the last decade by the State Government for use on trains, ferries and buses.
The Opal card is the equivalent of the pioneering Octopus card in Hong Kong, a model emulated by London’s Oyster card, Toronto’s Beep card, and Manila’s Beep card.
In an initial trial, 10,000 Opal customers will be incentivized to use multi-modal transport throughout the city. They’ll be offered an AUD 3 credit on their cards if they use public transport and at least one other transportation mode within the same hour.
The trial is part of Sydney’s Future Transport Technology Roadmap, which includes plans for electric car charging stations and hydrogen-powered buses.
Stopping traffic congestion
Andrew Constance, the Minister for Transport in the New South Wales government, says the idea is to create “cross-pollinating platforms” to reduce the amount of traffic on the road.
“One of the frustrations we experience, particularly with our bus commuters at the moment, is the city has grown to a point where you just can’t go from one point seamlessly to another on one mode,” said Constance.
“What we are doing is incentivizing the interchange, so less people drive.”
There’s no doubt that initiatives to cut Sydney’s traffic congestion are well overdue. Until COVID-19 halted population growth, Sydney was growing fast and, in response, was building a new generation of inner-city apartments, driving up population density.
The State Government initially responded with the tried and tested solution — more motorways — but more recently, an ambitious public transport plan has emerged.
With the Opal trial, the potential exists to build an aggregated MaaS platform that is commercially agnostic and allows people to book and plan transport modes to move more quickly through the city.
It will, in turn, take pressure off roads, speed up supply chains and ultimately be good for the economy, not just the quality of life.
Steering economic growth
If the traffic is congested, this creates bottlenecks that work as a brake on the economy. Data analysis shows a historical link between traffic data and economic growth, but that long term trend is starting to change partly due to MaaS.
In North America, historical data has shown a close correlation between Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) and Gross Domestic Product back to 1936, the earliest year when the Federal Highway Administration began collecting VMT data.
Apart from World War 2, when national resources were devoted to the war effort, VMT and GDP have moved in tandem trajectories but began to diverge around 2003.
The reason? Greenhouse gas emission policies date from around that period, as does diversification of other transport modes.
Moving toward the future
In the future, reducing the time for urban trips rather than miles travelled is likely to have a more accurate correlation to economic growth. MaaS platforms are one of the keys to that.
Australians may even start to take to share bikes and scooters. There are indications that this may begin to happen in smaller cities such as Adelaide, where electric scooters are ubiquitous.
Only three years ago, tens of thousands of share bikes were removed from Australian cities’ streets as unwanted pollution. Now, the bikes are electric, are connected to MaaS platforms and supported by new bikeways.
Smart cities are enabled by a combination of infrastructure and good transport options, but innovative technology can bring all that together and deliver the ultimate benefits.
Australia has never been particularly good at this, but perhaps things are starting to move in the right direction.
Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].
Image credit: iStockphoto/moisseyev