a bike rider and bus riders in Seattle.
In Seattle, car ownership is down and bus ridership is up. But technology didn't drive this shift: more transit funding and better service did. Elaine Thompson/AP

There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

“Mobility as a Service” boosters say that technology can nudge drivers to adopt transit and micromobility. But big mode shifts will take more than a cool app.  

Fewer concepts are trendier in urban mobility circles right now than the idea of “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS). Boosters of the concept hail it as a means of weaning commuters off privately owned automobiles via technology platforms that allow them to easily book and plan trips across an array of urban transportation services—including transit, bikeshare, ride hail, e-scooters, and more. If you can make MaaS platforms painless to use, the story goes, people will happily ditch private cars, leaving our cities cleaner and safer.

That’s a laudable goal. But is technology alone capable of achieving it? Without the support of a mix of policy carrots and sticks, it’s hard to see how.

To understand why, please join me in a quick thought experiment. Think of a friend who drives herself to and from work every day (this shouldn’t be difficult; more than three of every four Americans do) but who could feasibly switch to another mode if she chose to.

Got someone in mind? Good.

Now, which of these four options would be most likely to compel your friend to stop driving to work? 1) Doubling the frequency of public transit in her city; 2) creating new protected bike lanes for the length of her commute; 3) doubling the cost of parking permits at home and work; or 4) launching a new app that lets her plan and pay for trips across all available transportation services (other than driving).

I’ve asked this question to many of my own friends. Their choices vary, but I have yet to meet anyone who picks the fourth option.

It’s not that MaaS apps like Transit App, Whim, or Berlin’s Jelbi aren’t helpful in nudging people away from driving—they are. It’s annoying to have to flip between apps to find the cheapest or most convenient way to get between two places; by removing that hassle, MaaS platforms lower one barrier to living a car-free lifestyle.

The problem is that this particular barrier isn’t the highest one. After all, seamlessly choosing across transit, e-scooter, and bikeshare isn’t that helpful if the bus only runs once an hour, or you have to ride that scooter or bike on a street shared with cars and trucks zooming by at 45 miles per hour.

“You can’t create the mode shift cities are looking for without repurposing infrastructure,” says Jeff Marootian, director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation, which has been adding dedicated bike lanes and micromobiltiy corrals in the nation’s capital. He supports the MaaS goal of reduced car dependence—but “technology alone won’t get us to [the vision of] MaaS.”

Still, most MaaS discussions to date revolve around the technology, not the asphalt and rails that these mobility services rest upon. One framework attempts to define levels of MaaS sophistication, culminating in Level 6, where “inputs and outputs of any journey will help feed and derive other dynamic interfaces.” The model makes no mention of transit service levels or street infrastructure. Neither does the description of MaaS offered by the MaaS Alliance, an industry-supported advocacy group, though it does note the “new business models” MaaS could launch. Indeed, it’s understandable why software and logistics companies might see more market potential in integrated mobility platforms than in new bike lanes or expanded transit service. Such incentives may explain some of MaaS’s technocentrism.

Politics also nudges MaaS conversations toward technical solutions. After all, no one “loses” when it becomes easier to travel across urban transport services; drivers’ commutes are unaffected. That wouldn’t be the case if public officials took a step like the third choice above: removing subsidies for workplace parking. Such a move would be a powerful MaaS enabler—making car trips more expensive implicitly makes other modes relatively cheaper—but it would likely be a tough sell for an elected official.

The first option, increasing transit frequency, has a different but comparable problem: It requires new taxpayer funding. But the experience of Seattle suggests how powerful an effect transit expansion can have on vehicle ownership, a key MaaS goal.  

In 2008, Seattle voters approved $17.8 billion in transit funding, followed by an additional $53 billion in 2016. That allowed the city to make huge upgrades in transit service. The share of households living within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute transit service rose from 25 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2018. Transit ridership has swelled since, and the newest census data shows that Seattle posted the single biggest drop in the share of households owning a car among the 50 largest American cities this decade, from 84.3 percent in 2010 to 81.2 percent in 2018. While acknowledging that causation is hard to prove, Benjamin de la Pena, chief of strategy and innovation at the Seattle Department of Transportation, says he “certainly believe[s] there’s a strong correlation between the increased provision of transit and the decline in car ownership.”

Few metro areas can marshal the billions of dollars Seattle invested over the past decade. But there are plenty of cheaper policy options that can nudge people away from cars. Cities can construct the kinds of protected bike lanes and dedicated micromobility parking that D.C.’s Marootian referenced, and they can follow the lead of New York and San Francisco by closing central thoroughfares to personal vehicles while leaving them open to other modes. Transit agencies can remove policies that prevent riders from bringing bikes on board trains and subways, and they can build micromobility parking at their stations. Cities could even raise revenue through their MaaS strategy: Suddenly doubling parking costs may be politically infeasible, but a gentle upward drift in the price of resident parking permits might not be.

And, of course, cities can support the MaaS technology platforms that bring together all the various modes and services. Indeed, these services could entice people on the margins to leave their car parked in the driveway, and one day they might accommodate fleets of autonomous shuttles and taxis that futurists anticipate. But we should be realistic: Without supportive policies and investment decisions, the smartest MaaS technology in the world won’t be able to liberate cities from our reliance on automobility.  

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