MaaS is the Backbone
The question, “What will be the impact of COVID on MaaS in the US” was posed recently by my friend and colleague Kevin Borras, a talented ITS and Mobility Industry writer, earlier this year. It was for an article for Intertraffic. Since that article was published while back and I was only quoted a few lines, I thought it ok to share more here.
I felt privileged to be asked, as well as concerned. Given the diversity of the US, it is not possible to answer the question. I have only observations that support theories which may help people find their own answers. To begin:
The modern daily US commute – from the 1960’s on – has done more to shape and define transportation infrastructure than any factor since the mass adoption of automobiles and, following that, the post-war combination of GI Bill/FHA policies that nearly literally paved the way for the suburbs we know today. By ‘daily commute,’ it is important to know it is not the absolute number of commuter trips taken by people (federal data show people take more trips for shopping, errands, recreation, etc.), but the fact that commuter trips uniquely place high demand, across short periods of time, on size-limited facilities, as opposed to being more time and space distributed.
Because MaaS was conceived to provide new, platform-oriented strategies and tactics to manage travel demand, particularly commuter travel demand, to know the impact COVID will have on MaaS, one should consider the fulcrum to be the work trip.
We know all types of trips plummeted due to COVID. Some trip types were more inelastic – food shopping or doctor's visits, for example. Other types though will explode due to pent-up demand (e.g. leisure trips). But even when conditions permit people to return to work, the same degree of growth may not happen to the commute. Why? The pandemic has revealed that for a significant number of people, remote work productivity is equal to or better than office productivity.
As for impact, remote and flexible work arrangements will become a permanent option for some workers. Combined with: 1) lingering health & safety-driven distrust of crowded modes of mass commuter travel; 2) anecdotal evidence showing a % of people who rediscovered biking will stay as bicycle commuters, and; 3) the fact commuting is generally so disdained that a % of people will never return to it, this means COVID will permanently dent the demand for critical commuter infrastructure. While the percentage of commuters removed from the system may not reach even double digits, we know that marginal increases or decreases matter greatly in a context where systems are at capacity. We may not need to accommodate as much commuter growth, in other words. And MaaS will conform accordingly. In fact, any policy, technology, platform, institution or model that serves the commuter trip will have to change.
The next impact I see is more personal but perhaps more profound:
COVID will oblidge us to reflect on a particular popular narrative that many in the transport community tell themselves (and often stridently tell others) but perhaps no longer should. That narrative is “Public Transit is the ‘backbone’ of MaaS.” If a backbone is the part of something that makes it successful or strong, then MaaS would be in trouble. Despite hearing this phrase so many times over the years that it’s nearly become a proverb, it always sounded defensive to me – something that pitted one type of human agglomeration, and one kind of mode, against another. This is not only counterproductive but also quite inapt considering MaaS goes beyond mode and geography. America has no federal definition of ‘suburb,’ by the way. But as many American’s live within non-cities as do not. Suburbs require cars (MaaS-managed CASE ones, hopefully). Also, contrary to the pundits, cities are not ‘toast’ due to COVID. They will remain unique catalysts of technological and cultural innovation, with the assets to come out different, but stronger. In fact, as our relationship with work changes, it could increase the attractiveness of the city and accelerate what urbanists call the “polycentric city” (known also as the “15-minute city”). Here, cities become places where we work, live, recreate, shop, have a social life, etc. The additional daily trips taken across the polycentric city would, it seems to me, make MaaS that much more attractive and sustainable (financially) for the innovators and operators who create and offer services and, of course, the folks who use them.
To sum up, COVID’s impact on MaaS in the US will be a positive one, mainly because the proverb will be refashioned to read as “MaaS is the backbone – period.”