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Analysis | Engineers should be preparing for smart transport

MaaS Global's Whim app

Politicians have started to take an interest in data driven, integrated transport, with the Commons transport committee exploring how Mobility as a Service (MAAS) technology could make public transport more efficient.

Last week the Commons transport committee interrogated experts on MAAS, the one-stop shop concept for travel, which some say has the potential to revolutionise the transport sector. So should engineers be paying closer attention?

MAAS technology uses transport data to put all journey options for a passenger in one place, drastically simplifying travel planning. It means customers can buy a bus ticket, a train ticket and hire a car through the same app, covering every point of their journey.

Last month, the trial of a MAAS app called Whim started in Birmingham. This allows users to book taxis, hire cars, and buy train and bus tickets for the whole of their journeys using a pay-as-you-go or monthly payment plan. Meanwhile, Arup is working with the Finnish company behind the app, MAAS Global, to identify the most suitable world cities in which to roll out the service.

Although interest in MAAS is growing, engineers could be forgiven for dismissing it as an abstract innovation. But several mobility experts have warned that unless engineers and transport planners start designing for MAAS-led changes in customer demand, the benefits MAAS brings could be lost.

Technology research centre Transport Systems Catapult’s principle technologist for MAAS James Datson believes changes in passenger demand could lead to smaller buses and trains, and a spike in car sharing, meaning infrastructure providers will have to keep up.

“If vehicle shape and size is going to change, and if customer demand for travelling is going to change, those two things should be alarm bells to the people providing the assets because if they don’t react to how people want to travel, it’s going to hold back the benefits of MAAS,” he says.

“The innovators have done their job about really knowing what we want as travellers… but the customer experience will fall down when you’re either stuck in the same traffic or you’ve still got to walk a long way from the bus stop.”

WSP technical director for future mobility Giles Perkins agrees that MAAS will change customer behaviour, forcing engineers to design roads and public spaces differently.

“If we’ve got multiple point-to-point journeys from lots of places to lots of places, that isn’t necessarily how we lay our highway networks out now, because we like to have places for parking, places for taxis, places for buses etcetera,” he says.

“I think that’s a particular challenge for engineers and designers, and particularly those urban designers in the public realm.”

Perkins adds that road and rail engineers, energy professionals and planners, must all start working closer together as the lines between disciplines become blurred.

“It’s not as simple as it used to be, and I think that’s one of the challenges going forward,” he says.

Demand for joined-up transport is increasing. Last week the Department for Transport revealed that projects which improve road and rail connections to ports will be prioritised in the next funding periods, while Robert Bird Group director Terry Raggett recently told New Civil Engineer’s Airports conference the UK needs a “truly multi-modal transport strategy” to keep cities competitive.

But Datson warns that progress will not be made unless infrastructure providers create the right conditions.

“Digital innovation, which is what MaaS is, doesn’t fix physical connectivity,” he concludes.

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