As the ongoing climate crisis forces us to become more aware of our carbon footprint, people are beginning to shift away from traditional modes of travel – once dominated by private diesel-chugging cars – in favour of public transport options. But in a nation like the UK, where transport networks have been historically fragmented, could technology play a role in enabling this societal shift? After trialling different iterations of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), Ross Basnett, strategic account director for Mobilleo, a subsidiary of tech provider Fleetondemand, believes the platform might just be the solution
How would you define MaaS?
For us, it’s relatively simple: it’s one platform with multiple travel modes, and the key thing is integrated booking and payment – the ability to actually plan, book, and pay for your journey all in one place, without having to use lots of different apps or timetables to try and put a journey together.
In Mobilleo’s case, it also incorporates other things like hotels and car hire.
Exactly. We class car hire as a travel mode, so it’s an option that’s given as part of the wider selection that the user can choose from. Hotels support a lot of the work that we do because the system was designed as a B2B product initially, and hotels are a really important part of that for a business traveller.
Why did you start as B2B and are now shifting to B2C?
B2B is the company’s background; we’ve always worked on a B2B basis on the products that we have outside of Mobilleo. When it was first developed, it was with the business traveller in mind.
I joined the company towards the end of 2018, and it was very apparent early on that the developments we’d made for the business traveller translated really well to city MaaS, and to some of the aims that local authorities have around reducing congestion, improving air quality, and getting people out of single-occupancy cars. One of the aims of corporate MaaS is to get people out of company cars, so really, it’s not that different.
And because it translated so well, it was actually a really easy conversation to have with local authorities. We said: ‘This is the product that’s actually built, it’s in the market already, and it’s ideally suited to what you want to do.’ Since those early conversations we’ve had a huge amount of interest in Mobilleo, most of which was built throughout 2019 and is really starting to take off now.
Where do you source the data used by Mobilleo to display travel information?
It depends on what you mean by that. In terms of actually accessing transport modes, we spent three years developing Mobilleo just due to the sheer amount of integrations required to be able to provide a wide breadth of services. In terms of data sharing, we agree what data the customer – for example, Highland Transport – needs, and we make sure it’s in line with GDPR. We will then put together a data-sharing agreement, and effectively build our reporting around the requirements of the customer. It’s all GDPR-compliant; the end users sign up to the terms, where it’s clearly stated that on the basis of this project, data is shared between Mobilleo and whoever the stakeholder is – Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), etc.
How can you ensure that an SME like yourselves won’t be overtaken by a larger, more established company – say, if Booking.com decided to expand into the MaaS industry by harnessing the infrastructure it already has?
There’s nothing stopping someone like Booking.com from wanting to break into that market, but there are a lot of reasons as to why they couldn’t necessarily do that easily. Firstly, it took us three years to develop Mobilleo due to the numbers of integration required. There is such a disparate, fragmented [transport] market in the UK specifically that requires a high volume of integrations to be able to provide a joined-up service.
Then, in terms of engagement, we work on a partnership basis with a number of other operators – the likes of Enterprise Car Rental and Enterprise Car Club, Stagecoach, Trainline, etc. – to approach and engage with those public authorities. This way, when we approach them, it’s not just Fleetondemand with its tech platform; it’s actually a consortium of services that can provide comprehensive MaaS to a city or to a region.
Do you think partner organisations like TfGM and HITRANS are utilising MaaS platforms like Mobilleo as a way to rectify the fact that the transport network in the UK has been historically fragmented?
I think MaaS is effectively a shortcut for authorities to join transport services together – and it’s extremely hard to do that otherwise. Even just looking at bus travel, for example: it’s very difficult to get bus companies to really want to work together in order to provide joined-up services. But a MaaS platform actually builds that by default in linking those services together, and the algorithms that sit behind our platform will join together multiple disparate providers into one integrated journey.
Doing that outside of a technology platform – in other words, doing it in the real world – is really difficult. So yes, it’s very much a way for authorities to join together services that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
Is that why you would consider this type of technology ‘disruptive’?
Absolutely – otherwise, you will get a lot of the ‘same old, same old’ investment in infrastructure around roads, which is just not a long-term solution. It would be almost impossible for any authority to bring together those services and have integrated timetabling, for example, without some sort of technological platform.
This contrasts quite a bit with countries like Switzerland, where they already have that seamless transport integration in place.
That’s a great example. There are improvements happening soon with open data on bus services; that’s definitely going to be a start. But you will still have fragmented services and bus companies that are effectively unwilling to work with each other. They tend to work in competition. Trains are more regulated, but where bus services aren’t regulated – such as outside of London and potentially Manchester in the future – then it’s very hard to bring those services together without some intermediary platform like Mobilleo.
Speaking of Manchester, can you tell us more about your IMOVE pilot project?
IMOVE was a Horizon 2020, EU-funded project that was looking at MaaS on a multi-city basis. It included two elements: there was MaaS within the cities – which, in this case, were Madrid, Gothenburg, Turin, Berlin, and Manchester, where we had the biggest pilot audience – but they also wanted to look at roaming. For example: if I was in Manchester and went to Gothenburg, could I use my MaaS application in that city as well? There were quite grand aims for this project.
In terms of the Manchester project, we created a specific version of Mobilleo. We have the ability to white-label Mobilleo, so we created an IMOVE version of the platform – which, as well as our usual travel modes, also had some very local-specific content. We integrated Manchester Metrolink tram services, Stagecoach bus services, and the mini-bus service called Local Link which is run by TfGM.
Our intention was to discourage workers at Manchester Airport from commuting by car every day – Manchester Airport Group (MAG) was the end stakeholder. There’s a big pressure on carparking spaces at MAG, so the intention was to try and move people out of commuting in their car every morning to taking a different mode instead.
We set up specific travel modes, all very Manchester-focused, and we did see quite a shift into bus and tram travel. There was a great piece of feedback we got from one user, who said: ‘It was great how the app made tram travel available to me as an option, because I used to sit in my car and watch the tram go past me every day, and I just didn’t realise I could get the tram to work!’ For me, that’s a great example of how MaaS can influence people to make the choice to get out of their car and get onto public transport.
The trial ran for three months, ending in December. The end users of the project were volunteers who were typically car drivers. Out of the five cities involved in the project, we had the largest trial group. We saw some really strong bus usage, while tram was the second most popular – and anecdotally, there was some very positive feedback.
What’s the plan now? Will TfGM roll out IMOVE more comprehensively?
It wouldn’t be branded as IMOVE, since that project is complete now. But we are talking to TfGM about a wider-scale pilot, building on what we’ve done with IMOVE but looking at a deeper integration into some of the services and how we can roll that out to a wider population.
Is IMOVE different from Mobilleo in that it provides a bespoke local focus?
Yes, because the way we’ve built Mobilleo is to keep it very flexible. We’re very brand agnostic; we don’t necessarily put Mobilleo at the forefront of everything in terms of what the user sees. For example, with IMOVE it was all branded as IMOVE; with our HITRANS project [in Scotland], it will be provided under the HITRANS branding. We like to offer customers the flexibility of being able to personalise Mobilleo to suit their needs.
What this also allows us to do is add or remove different travel modes for that particular customer. In Manchester, for example, we included walking and cycling as active travel mode options, and we would also prioritise public transport options, such as buses over car clubs.
Would the app show car options if the user lives somewhere unreachable by public transport?
Yes, because it has multimodal capability – the algorithms that sit behind this are incredibly complex. The app would display all the multimodal aspects that you would need to complete a journey, so if you were driving to point A to catch some form of public transport, then that would be included in the result.
It’s interesting that you work under a different name everywhere. Why don’t you want to have a nationally recognisable brand?
This goes back to how we see good MaaS and bad MaaS. Particularly where we’re working with local authorities, all we want to do is have an extension to their services, so to speak.
For example, if we’re working with a council, then Mobilleo as a brand might not be recognised by the local residents. The council is a great name and a great trusted partner in terms of the services it provides, so it would have a greater impact in terms of getting users onboard. It’s great that Mobilleo is now a recognised brand within the MaaS market, but in terms of actual end users, we’re not too precious about putting that branding at the forefront.
Is that what makes good MaaS, then? Building it up as an invisible machinery that naturally powers a city without standing out as a specific private brand?
Absolutely – and it should always reflect the aims of the city, too. With TfGM, there was a big focus on the active travel element: how do we get people out of cars and walking or cycling? On that basis, we always prioritised the active travel option wherever we could and where it was a sensible option for the user – all under their branding, with their aims reflected. A different city might have slightly different aims; they might want more of a focus on bus, so we could prioritise that over other modes.
For me, good MaaS is actually where the MaaS platform and the partners that are involved in it actually reflect and help achieve the aims of the public authority.
Do you think that if MaaS is in place for long enough, people will naturally start to think more sustainably about their travel options – until it eventually becomes second nature to choose cycling or riding the train over driving a private car?
I think wanting it to happen because it’s the right thing to do is slightly more difficult. As much as I’d love to believe in human nature enough to think that people will just do it because it’s the right thing, it has to be convenient and it has to be cost-effective. We are doing this for the right reasons, because we do want to see a reduction in single-occupancy car usage, but the only way we’re realistically going to see that happen is by providing a platform that is just as convenient as the option to jump in the car.
Going back to the guy who was driving into work every day while the tram travelled past: he didn’t realise – until our platform was put in front of him – that it’s actually more convenient to jump on a tram and get straight to work than getting stuck in traffic. He may have all the great intentions in the world, but he was still just jumping into his car because he didn’t see the alternative. Until we show people those alternative options, they aren’t going to change their behaviour. We need to have a comprehensive suite of travel options to actually make the platform as convenient as just jumping into your own car.
People don’t understand the true cost of owning a car a lot of the time, because it’s hidden from them – things like depreciation, insurance costs, servicing costs, etc. You don’t see it all in one hit, so you don’t realise what the actual cost of that five-mile journey in your car is. The public transport option may look more expensive at first, when you’re not taking all costs into account. We really think that education is needed on the true cost of owning a car and how that compares to public or shared transport – and that’s when we’ll start to see people choosing not to have a car, or to leave it at home.
What would you say sets Mobilleo apart from similar platforms?
With Mobilleo, what always amazes me is the amount of content that we have onboard. We’ve got rail, we’ve got hotel, we’ve got air, we’ve got taxi, we’ve got car rental, we’ve got car club, we’ve got concierge services that give us airport lounge and chauffeuring, for example. The sheer scale of the content that we have outclasses anything else that’s in the market right now.
We spent three years building this product – and all that integration is what took the most time. To have a properly joined-up suite of services took a huge amount of integration. I believe that’s what gives us the edge. We’re definitely more comprehensive in terms of travel options in relation to our competitors.
What allowed you to get to this point? Is it a case of having an excellent team working behind the scenes?
Mobilleo isn’t the only service that we offer at Fleetondemand: we grew up as a corporate rental booking company. We have API links into all the major car rental companies; Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz, Avis, you name it – we’re integrated into them. We provide corporate booking tools and other services for those rental companies.
We’ve grown up around that API integration and user front-end service, so actually, MaaS is just an extension of what we’ve been doing for 10 years. The skillset that we have in the company allows us to move relatively quickly to complete an integration; it’s basically what we do for a living. The hard part is around how we present that to the user – such elements like journey planning – but in terms of actual content, we’re well ahead of the game.
It’s also fair to say that because of the kind of company we are, all the rental services we offer means that we need to have a really good customer service team in place. As a result, if you’re struggling to use the Mobilleo platform, we have a really strong support team that can help end users. For example, if you’re struggling with a booking, we can help you make that booking; if you have a complex booking or you need to book a group of tickets, we can support that as well. It’s not just a technology platform; there’s a lot of expertise that sits behind it. Whether it’s by phone, email, or live chat, we’re very open to customer contact.
So you’re already ahead of the curve in this market, but MaaS is evolving very quickly – meaning a lot of companies might jump at the opportunity in the coming months and years. How will you make sure you can stay ahead of the curve?
I think what you’ll see is that, over time, a MaaS application such as Mobilleo will evolve into something of a travel companion. It will offer not only the ability to book and pay for journeys, but it will also have in-journey support – an online assistant, almost, that tells you whether there’s been a disruption on a chosen route and offers an alternative option. As well as that, it will have linked services – the ability to book restaurant tables, for example – so that everything sits within one place.
What we also see as really key is gamifying the whole process. Thinking about local authority aims and ‘good MaaS,’ we want people to be more active – which would then reduce congestion, improve air quality, and make the population healthier. It’s a win-win-win, really. So how can we gamify the platform to reward good behaviour? That’s the real interesting area that we’re looking at right now. It might be something simple, like if somebody takes the bike rather than the car, we can reward them with a coffee from Costa.
Journey planning will evolve as well: how comprehensive are we in terms of journey planning and the options that are shown to users? What are the algorithms sitting behind that? How do we learn users’ preferences over time and tailor journey options for them? Let’s say there are a number of buses I can’t get onto, for one reason or another: how does the app learn that and stop showing them as an option?
I think MaaS apps will become more intuitive over time, but it’s still very early days. We’re ahead of the curve, but we have a lot of big-element roadmaps to make sure that we stay there.
People obviously benefit from having a system like that in place, especially if you bring in gamification and real-time assistance. How can cities themselves benefit?
There’s a climate emergency happening. The key aims for cities right now are to decrease congestion, improve air quality, decarbonise, and make the population healthier – because that then reduces strain on all services.
What MaaS will do – using gamification, making alternatives easily available, etc. – is naturally reduce that car usage. It’s all about motivating people to see the better option. At the moment, it’s too easy to just jump into your car without thinking about it.
Do you worry that data-focused companies like Google could overtake the work that start-ups have been doing in this space, because they already have similar mapping functionalities?
I don’t think we need to worry about that. Our focus is doing the best that we can do right now. It took us a very long time to get here, and as big as Google is, it would still need those integrations, particularly in the UK where everything is very fragmented. There’s an amount of time needed to get to market; I think we got enough of a head-start that we can concentrate on what we’re doing for now.
We work on a partnership basis with a number of partners, and we know we have a strong product. With that scale behind us, we’re in a very strong position right now.
Can you talk about the work Mobilleo is doing in Scotland?
Transport Scotland announced last year a £2m fund for MaaS projects. We put in a submission along with a number of partners, including Highland Transport, or HITRANS. We were lucky enough to win some funding from that. There’s still a lot of scoping going on right now, so I can’t give too much away – but in effect, what we’re looking to do is explore rural MaaS.
A lot of focus around MaaS has been on cities: how do we move people around urban areas, how do we reduce congestion, etc. But there is still congestion in rural areas too, as well as a reliance on sole-occupancy vehicles. So how do you make MaaS applicable in rural areas?
It doesn’t really get much more rural than the Highlands in Scotland, so we’re working with the Scottish bus services, Trainline, Stagecoach, and Enterprise to try to bring that together through centralised ticketing. We’ll be looking at CalMac Ferries and Western Ferries as an option as well. It will bring together all those Highlands transport operators and, in effect, try to do the same thing we do in urban locations by joining those services together a bit better; they are very disparate at present.
Do you expect to encounter challenges in rural Scotland where people don’t have access to the same level of connectivity as they do in cities?
That’s exactly the challenge that we and HITRANS see, and that’s what we want to quantify through this pilot. What we’re hoping is that by better joining services together, they’ll actually become more attractive to people who need to travel around. There is a big reliance on the car right now, and traffic is still an issue up there. What we want to do is the same we do in cities – reduce that reliance on sole-occupancy vehicles – but the only way you’ll do that is by making it easier to move around on public or shared transport.
What about in terms of older end users? A lot of elderly people who live in rural areas might not know how to use the app properly.
Absolutely, that’s a massive part of this – the demographic in the Highlands is completely different to the demographics in the centre of London.
There’s a lot of communication that needs to happen, and a lot of the user support will go into overcoming that concern. That goes back to the fact that we have a team that can do that. One of the things we’ll be analysing is how simple it is to access Mobilleo if you are an older person. We don’t know the answer to that at the moment, because MaaS is so new.
Anecdotally, you hear people in rural areas saying that there’s only one bus service a day. What MaaS will give us is a really good view on when services are actually needed. Bus companies haven’t had a lot of great data to go on; much of it is on gut feeling. If you have a MaaS platform showing that a lot of people at a specific location all want to travel somewhere else at a certain time of day, it gives you the evidence you need for a bus route. MaaS could ultimately help bus companies and other transport operators to define their service needs based on data, rather than based on trial and error. We really hope that the HITRANS project can be part of that.
What is the growth potential for Mobilleo in the UK?
With our partners, we want to be the de-facto mobility platform. If we’re being really, really ambitious, we want to be the iPhone of MaaS.
I say ‘us and our partners’ because we’re not just Mobilleo the technology platform. We are a partnership. We’re part of the Urban Mobility Partnership, which is a group of likeminded companies; we all have the same view on what makes good MaaS, and we all work together with authorities to define what those services should look like.
What we’re hoping to achieve is to provide the technology for a pilot today that then becomes a commercially viable option in the future.
Do you learn from the work of other MaaS providers in Europe and further afield?
Through our membership of the Urban Mobility Partnership, we’re linked into the MaaS Alliance, which is a European equivalent to the Urban Mobility Partnership. One of our members is on the board there. We are linked into that, so we do share learning.
Does that partnership ever get competitive, or do all partners work collaboratively?
We haven’t run into that problem yet, where we’re competing directly with another MaaS provider in a location. Given how new the industry is overall, there’s still plenty of room to move. It’s possible that it might happen in the future, but it’s not something that’s cropped up as yet.
Mobilleo is based in Leeds and Bradford. Do you feel proud of the fact that it’s a northern start-up importing this technology to the UK?
Fleetondemand describes itself as a proud Yorkshire company, so absolutely! It’s great that we have a really forward-thinking tech firm that’s not based in London or the southeast corridor. We have some really talented developers that sit behind all the work that we’re doing right now, and they are Leeds people and Bradford people. That’s brilliant to see.