MaaS transit: The business of mobility as a service

Amid declining ridership, transportation agencies find new software partners

In 2019, St. Louis Metro Transit was struggling to keep customers. Uber and Lyft, along with dockless shared bikes and scooters, had flooded streets, causing ridership to fall more than 7% in a single year.

The agency didn’t try to fight for attention. Instead, it embraced its competitors.

Metro Transit dropped its internal trip-planning app, which had been developed with the Trapeze Group and directed riders to Transit, a private third-party app that offers mapping and real-time transit data in more than 200 cities. That app also included micromobility and ride-hailing information, allowing customers to not just look up bus schedules, but see how they might get to and from stops — or ignore the bus altogether.

The following year, Metro Transit partnered with mobile ticketing company Masabi and added a payment option on some bus routes. Now, the agency is planning an all-in-one app where customers could plan and book end-to-end trips across trains, buses, bikes, scooters and taxis and plans to select a vendor shortly.

“What we do best is transporting large volumes of people on vehicles and managing mass transit,” said Metro Transit executive director Jessica Mefford-Miller. “On the software side, there are a lot of players out there doing great stuff that can help us meet our customers where they are and make trip planning as easy as possible.”

St. Louis Metro Transit isn’t an outlier. As transit agencies seek to win back riders, a flurry of platforms — some backed by giants like Uber, Intel and BMW — are offering new technology partnerships. Whether it’s bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling these mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility.

Whether it’s bundling bookings, payments or just trip planning, startups are selling mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings as a lifeline to make transit agencies the backbone of urban mobility.

Third-party platforms have become more appealing to transit agencies as they scramble to keep buses, trains and rail full of customers. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ridership and total miles traveled has declined since 2014, including a 2.5% drop from 2017 to 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate this trend as more people continue working from home or shy away from crowding into buses and trains.

“This is like Expedia, the idea of seeing multiple airlines in one place to comparison shop,” said Regina Clewlow, CEO of transportation management firm Populus. “A lot of operators are looking at the question of whether that would give them more rides.”

But that the private growth could come at a cost, potentially injecting private concerns into what should be a public good, Metro Transit’s Mefford-Miller cautioned.

“If we let the market handle this planning on its own, a company might only do it for someone with a digital device or a bank account or only help people who don’t need special accommodation,” Mefford-Miller said. “That’s why we have as an underpinning an equitable and accessible system. It’s the underpinning before we choose any tools we use.”

The players

Amid the swarm of new startups there are a few giants. One of the biggest established players is Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based defense and public transportation company. The firm already controls payments and back-end software for hundreds of transit agencies, including in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, and in January launched a suite of new products under the brand name Umo to expand their offerings.

The package includes a customer-facing multimodal app, a fare collection platform, a contactless payment system, a rewards program, a behind-the-scenes management platform and a MaaS marketplace for public and private offerings. Mick Spiers, general manager of Umo, said the goal is to offer a “connected, integrated journey.”

“We’re uniquely placed as an independent, trusted third party that can be the data broker for a journey focused around the needs of the user,” Spiers added. “The journey we create has no commercial interest for us.”