Sustainable Mobility: Will MaaS replace private car use?

In this article, Robert Bichsel, Product Owner for MaaS at Siemens Mobility, and Svenja Katharina Weiß, Marketing Coordinator at Hacon, shed light on the relationship between private cars and Mobility as a Service (MaaS).

It is easy to forget that life without a car was actually considered the norm almost everywhere in the world and astoundingly only a few decades ago. Of course, now, especially in industrialized nations, it has become more common to own a car due to affordability – but not everyone can afford to own and maintain their own personal vehicle. Nonetheless, many car owners are wary of giving up the perceived freedom and comfort that they have come to associate with owning a car. On the other hand, there is a rising awareness that passenger cars greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions – approximately 143 grams per passenger per kilometer – and they are one of the more environmentally harmful means of transportation. In addition to the high pollutant emissions which are increasingly becoming a concern, especially in densely populated urban areas, the large amount of space and infrastructure required to support personal car use comes at a high cost. New concepts for transportation beyond the private car are thus becoming a pressing imperative .

The relatively new concept of MaaS has been hyped as a possible solution to the problem – could mobility-as-a-service platforms completely replace the private car? With MaaS increasingly evolving from an academic concept into a real-world solution, the question to answer now is how to make this actually possible, what are the challenges along the way, and as how can we persuade drivers to make the switch?

Why it is so difficult to make the shift from using private cars

a) General conditions and infrastructure
In many countries, private cars enjoy extensive privileges that are often taken for granted: One such example of this is public parking spaces, which are often available free of charge or at low cost despite the significant maintenance costs involved for parking structures and their upkeep. If charges do become due, they generally rise more slowly than the prices for using public transport. Additionally the allocation of space required for flowing car traffic is often clearly in favor of motorized private transport, cannibalizing useable space for people. In the middle of the last century, many cities decided to become car-friendly cities and these infrastructural decisions made decades ago are still having impact upon the people who live there. Additionally, when it comes to innovation and funding, around 20 times more money was invested in research for motor vehicles in Germany (between 2009 and 2019) than in the development of local public transport. At the end of the day, personal cars actually cost our society a lot more than it may seem.

b) Choice of transport "on autopilot"
People who own cars will drive them. The use-based costs appear relatively low compared to the initial investment – especially if " hidden" costs such as depreciation or maintenance expenses are overlooked by the owner. Additionally owning a vehicle allows for full flexibility, couple that with having a car parked and ready to use right outside and it is easy to see why a car owner would not actively consider alternatives – except perhaps in the case of massive traffic jams, extremely poor parking facilities at the destination or evening activities involving alcohol consumption. Otherwise, grabbing the car key is a learned habit that is not going to just change overnight.

c) Functional value: door-to-door connectivity and maximum flexibility
Even if car owners decide to actively consider alternatives, this does not mean that they will opt for using a bus, train or sharing bike: This is because the rational/functional criteria that play a role in the choice of transport include time, availability, reliability, comfort, perception of safety and flexibility. The car performs highly in every category, especially when compared to scheduled public transportation. Among the biggest pro-car arguments is that it provides direct door-to-door transportation and has no departure times, etc. to consider. Hardly any mode of transport is competitive with the car when considered individually –or at least not on every route.

d) Strong emotionalization of the car
In addition to its functional value, the car also has a symbolic/affective value, which is further reinforced by extensive and often emotional advertising campaigns by the automotive industry. As already mentioned at the beginning, for many people a car represents a lifestyle of freedom and independence. Driving is considered fun and a social distinction (status indicator) thus these factors motivate individuals to purchase and use private cars. These factors are mostly independent of the quality of public transport services.

e) Conviction does not equal action
Many assume that an increased awareness of sustainability would also be accompanied by changes in behavior thus resulting in a substantial reduction in the use of private cars. However, studies show that this perception does not fully reflect reality. In principle, regardless of the reference group, the phenomenon of the attitude-behavior gap is well known. Reasons for the discrepancy between conviction and action can be, for example, a lack of information, a lack of conviction of the effectiveness of one's own behavioral change, or practical obstacles. The aspects mentioned in c) also play a role here. In other words, even in groups with a high level of awareness surrounding personal car use, it is not an easy task to achieve a change in behavior.

What can MaaS platforms achieve?

The core idea behind the MaaS paradigm is to always provide the  customer with exactly the mobility offer that best meets his or her needs in the current situation. In principle, this is initially "agnostic" in terms of modes of transport. Above all it promotes (and demands) the variety of mobility offers. Depending on the customer's needs, the private car can of course also have its place and its raison d'être within a MaaS solution.

The advantage of a MaaS platforms is that it can be a medium for implementing mobility strategies and can be used by municipalities as a targeted steering tool to encourage users to switch to public transport and other more environmentally friendly and efficient modes, but in what way?

As mentioned, no other single mode of transport is as flexible and convenient as the private car. However, if different means of transport are offered for a range of situations and if they are linked in intermodal travel chains, the competitiveness improves significantly and MaaS platforms provide this level of integration. The broader and more orchestrated the multi- and intermodal offer, the more attractive it is as an alternative to the private car. The crucial part here is that the different modes do not cannibalize each other but complement one another in a meaningful way. Public transport, with its large capacity vehicles, offers the most efficient way to serve busy main routes and corridors. First and last mile and low-frequented areas are best served by increasing flexible transportation such as sharing offers and on-demand services. Serving the customer from the first to the last mile of a trip is of great importance, because if door-to-door routing is competitive in terms of time, convenience, and flexibility, then using a private car will have direct competition.

MaaS platforms both link different modes of transport and simplify the processes around them by offering a central touch point for "plan, book and pay". This makes taking a trip with a MaaS platform significantly easier and decreases the complexity so that hardly any arrangements need to be made and thus the trips can be better compared to using a private car. The willingness to switch is correspondingly higher with low bureaucracy.

Digital platforms offer almost unlimited possibilities for so-called nudging, i.e. the use of subtle (non-economic) incentives to influence behavior. For example, environmentally preferable connections can be prioritized, the calculated CO2 emissions can be integrated into the information by default, gamification elements are available for integration, personalized recommendations can be issued, or push notifications about new mobility offers can also be played out to help encourage users to switch.

What challenges do MaaS players face?

Despite all its potential, it cannot be assumed that MaaS will turn the mobility behavior of diehard car users on its head overnight. Rather, new offerings will stimulate rethinking and relearning overtime. In the end, a mixture of push and pull measures will be necessary for the transportation turnaround to succeed. MaaS platforms will primarily serve to strengthen public transport. In parallel, the hidden privileges of motorized individual transport listed under a) must be made transparent and dismantled. In order for MaaS platforms to effectively contribute to a decrease in car use, several things need to be considered:

MaaS platforms should highlight the diversity of transport options. To do this, however, they themselves first have to gain recognition and convince potential users to try out a MaaS app. In short, smart and comprehensive marketing is urgently needed. The value proposition should be formulated in a concrete, target group-oriented and appealing way. A public transport commuter who already uses the app of his local transport operator on a regular basis must be addressed differently than someone who only has touch points with public transport twice a year and otherwise makes every trip by car. The habitual car use addressed in b) requires attractive incentives which can be created to explore the variety of transportation options. There is also an opportunity here to present mobility as a lifestyle and to create emotional approaches to public transportation and New Mobility similar to those used in the automotive industry. BVG (Berlin), for example, has been very successful with this kind of marketing effort.

MaaS offers are primarily designed for urban areas. At first thought, this statement seems to be relatively true, because the transport services offered in urban areas are generally more comprehensive. Simply put - there are more possibilities to connect. There is also the assumption that some services, such as sharing services, can only be operated profitably in an urban environment. Just because cities already provide relatively good alternatives to the car, doesn’t mean that rural areas should be ignored just because dependence on cars in rural areas is often very high and will most likely remain so. Cost-efficient solutions like on-demand transport in rural areas can act as a feeders and fetchers to public transport, which can help decrease car use in rural areas as well.

The objective of MaaS platforms should be to offer ALL people mobility options that are tailored to their needs. Delivering the highest possible level of accessibility is therefore a necessity for both the MaaS app and the mobility services it contains. One example being people who are unable to walk long distances, in this case, the car is particularly attractive because of the door-to-door transport. Here, it is immensely important to make the first and last mile of a trip comfortable and to provide reliable information about the accessibility of vehicles and stops.

(Private) cars should not be left out and stigmatized in the design of MaaS solutions, but should be integrated in a meaningful way. This can include, for example, mapping park-and-ride scenarios in the routing, seamlessly handling the payment of parking fees via the MaaS app, and integrating car-sharing services. Pure car routing as an alternative to intermodal routing should also be selectable in a MaaS app – ideally with transparent and complete presentation of costs (flat rate per km for wear and tear and depreciation, expected parking fees) and time expenditures (parking time, predicted travel time from parking option to destination address) as well as Co2 emissions. Thus, at least a fair comparability can be established.

Conclusion: Small, but determined steps

Making private cars obsolete in the near future is not a realistic solution and it may not be entirely required in order to create a sustainable future. In order to work toward eliminating pollution a systematic change is required that involves various solutions, including new methods of propulsion to cut emissions in private vehicles. More importantly, smarter and more democratic urban planning is needed so that improved space and resources allocations ensure a higher quality of life for the people. Either way, incremental steps are key to making an effective system for the future and the most probable scenario is that car use starts to become more selective and a complement for other more efficient modes of transportation, eventually becoming just one of many options in the mix. What makes MaaS so important is that it has the potential to help replace the over use of private cars and give individuals more effective and sensible options to choose from, all the while removing complexity barriers so that people can rethink taking their own car when they travel.

Key findings: 

  1. MaaS platforms succeed in creating alternatives to the private car by multi- and intermodal bundling of mobility offers that are competitive under rational criteria.
  2.  For this, it is crucial that the platforms solve the challenges of the first and last mile efficiently and conveniently, for example by integrating on-demand transport.
  3. In order to bring about actual behavioral changes in the wider population, however, MaaS initiatives must not only offer practical services, but also address their target groups emotionally.
  4. The operation of the MaaS app should be as intuitive and time-saving as possible for the end user in order to avoid "bureaucratic" entry hurdles.
  5.  Successful MaaS solutions cannot be implemented on a solo run, but require close cooperation and communication between all stakeholders. Integration and collaboration are fundamental principles of MaaS. For this reason, MaaS and motorized private transport should be understood less as contrasting concepts and more as complementary or even overlapping concepts.