MaaS: 'It's been much easier to convince politicians than we expected'

As she leaves the Mobility as a Service sector, Piia Karjalainen explains why the user must continue to be the focus – and why we haven’t yet even seen half of the innovations available 
Mobility as a Service / August 11, 2021
By Adam Hill
Piia Karjalainen MaaS
Karjalainen: 'The biggest hype is already behind us'

Piia Karjalainen has headed home: after seven years in Brussels, the former secretary general of MaaS Alliance - the public-private partnership which promotes the take-up of Mobility as a Service worldwide - returned to her native Finland in June. There she will focus on the digitalisation and decarbonisation of maritime transportation with Wärtsilä Voyage, based in Helsinki. 

Before she left, ITS International caught up with Karjalainen to get her thoughts on how the concept of MaaS has changed since she started in the sector. It has been a large part of her career: before joining Ertico as senior manager for the MaaS Alliance, which now has more than 100 member organisations in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, she worked for the European Parliament and the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications. 

“My whole career in transport has been mainly as a civil servant in the public authority side, and in policymaking and with the association,” she says. This means that to some extent it feels that her next role is a “new beginning, a second career”.
So, she’s excited by the new opportunity but also sad to leave a sector in which she has invested so much. And with cities as diverse as Sydney, Jakarta and Bogota announcing MaaS projects recently, she is leaving at a time when it feels as though MaaS is beginning to take hold.

What can we learn from MaaS?

There are learnings that she believes she can take from her MaaS background into maritime. “In MaaS, we have been dealing a lot with ecosystems where you really have the multi-stakeholder collaboration and quite seamless joint efforts by the public and private sector so I think that is similarly needed now to make the transformation in maritime shipping.” She will need buy-in from ship owners, ports and others in the maritime sector.

“That more collaboration-based approach is something that I can benefit from – and, of course, then also how you can deal with different European Union institutions, international organisations, what are the commitments and what are the political drivers. That kind of understanding, I hope, will be similarly important and useful anywhere you go in the transport sector.”

She has a great deal of experience in bringing together a number of different stakeholders, and trying to get them to move in a similar direction.

“You can really be most impactful when you build different clusters and collaboration with the other, strong technology providers and those who want to be the first movers from the industry and customer side,” she insists. “In learning by doing, with successful pilots, you can speed up the scale of the roll-out.”

“The pandemic - however unwanted and unexpected it was - has been accelerating the demand for MaaS"

Disruptive thinking and disruptive technology are long-term interests for Karjalainen. “One of my drivers is that we should be able to use technologies to make our societies and world better: a better place to live and better place to interact,” she explains. “So therefore, it all starts from sustainability and how we can improve the environmental performance of everything we do.”

In her new role she sees digitalisation and decarbonisation as key elements, along with artificial intelligence, different energy sources and automation: “That is definitely something where we will see a lot of development advanced in the forthcoming 10-15 years.”
Making this break into a new sector gives her the opportunity to look back at MaaS and consider the major changes she has seen over the last decade, from conceptual discussion to accepted part of the mobility mix.

Why do politicians like MaaS?

She thinks the speed with which MaaS has built up credibility as a transportation option is “quite surprising”. She has found policymakers receptive to the idea. “I think that it has been much easier to convince the politicians and get the political point for MaaS than we expected,” she muses. “It's coming from very strong environmental pressure and the fact that we really need to find good solutions for decarbonisation and making our transport more sustainable - MaaS has been benefiting from that because it's a useful tool in our decarbonisation projects, providing better services for the users and at the same time it helps us to achieve the goals that we need to achieve.”

Crucially, she thinks, MaaS is more competitive than other tools in the transport policy toolkit, such as congestion charging or road tolls, “which basically limit or restrict the behaviour of the individual, instead of providing better services for them”. 

It also helps that the MaaS concept itself “has become much more varied in terms of different operational models, business models and target customers or target segments in the market so the the concept has become much more rich during the past decade”.

The fact that it’s not just a European discussion anymore is also important: with its ability to adapt to different environments, MaaS is going global. In particular, why does Karjalainen think that cities in Colombia, Indonesia and Australia have in the last few months declared their faith? 

“Generally speaking, I feel that the pandemic - however unwanted and unexpected it was - has been accelerating the demand for MaaS, or at least it has been creating more room for positive disruption, and room to do things differently than what we have been doing in the past. So at the political level, we have seen things happening in six to nine months which typically have been expected to take 10-15 years: when it comes to how we have reallocated some space in our cities, how we have been investing in cycling infrastructure and so on. All the investment in the digitalisation of public transport and transport systems, and also investment in different contactless payment systems - it facilitates and accelerates MaaS. So suddenly we have – or soon will have -  much better preconditions for MaaS in several places than we expected.”

Has MaaS reached maturity?

Interest in MaaS from the world’s emerging economies is reflected in the membership of MaaS Alliance, she says. “There is a lot of interest and I think it is a question of the maturity of the concept. It has taken some time in Latin American cities and countries to decide what is the MaaS model which would work for them. But now clearly they are more ready to go for it. In MaaS Alliance this year we have got new members from Buenos Aires, from Metro de Medellín from Colombia, so they are confident that MaaS will be part of the mobility solution for their residents in future.”

Latin America does seem to be a coming area for MaaS, and it is interesting to try and understand why that is. “It's always a combination of different drivers and maturity in technologies, political thinking, different external pressures,” she says. But maybe the coronavirus pandemic has given city authorities the courage to take more ambitious steps to transform the way they want to move people around.

Other MaaS hotspots include Japan, Karjalainen adds. But one country in which the concept hasn’t really taken hold is the US – although she believes the Biden Administration’s public transport priorities could create an environment which is more favourable. “It is about the service model we have been promoting and what kind of service value chain we want to create,” she begins. “Public and shared transport options should be the backbone, because that is the only very cost-efficient way to move big masses of people. So the first question in the US is if there is good enough service when it comes to public transport, and it's in very rare cities where they are in that kind of situation right now. Of course in the biggest cities they have really good metro systems and public transportation, but if you leave the cities then it's quite difficult to build anything like that.”

“MaaS has become much more varied in terms of different operational models, business models and target customers”

It is sometimes suggested that, apart from factors such as the physical size and vast suburban spread of many cities on the North American continent, the automobile is just too important in the US psyche to allow for MaaS to take hold. But Karjalainen has an interesting insight into the attitude of automotive companies – at least in Europe – to MaaS. “The automotive sector has been basically very, very supportive of MaaS,” she says. “While maybe it’s the public transport sector who we have had some challenges to convince – that was something I didn't expect, I would have thought that it was the other way around.”

That said, the automotive industry has urgent technological changes to deal with at present, such as connectivity, automation and electrification. “They are now directly changing the demand and the landscape where they compete,” she adds. “MaaS and shared mobility will come maybe as the next wave in five to 10 years, but still I think that it's integrated enough into the roadmap of the automotive players, and they see it will be coming.”

Karjalainen has frequently said there is a need for a regulatory framework to help develop MaaS and she reiterates that, in the European Union states and her native Finland, the buy-in from policymakers “has been stronger and faster than we ever thought”. 
“In the case of Finland, it was quite evident that MaaS is very good match for their policy framework, being a country where they don't have their own automotive industry, where they are very committed to provide sustainable transport solutions, and when they were they were constantly looking for opportunities to make the transport system more efficient and really ready to also rely on digitalisation.”

Sustainability targets are a real driver of MaaS and the European Commission, the most important legislator on the continent, is a willing partner. “They want to understand what they should regulate in order to facilitate MaaS,” she insists. “I think they have a really sincere will to enable MaaS and environmentally- and economically-sustainable solutions for better urban mobility.”


How do you define MaaS?

And so to an even more fundamental question. Would ‘integrated mobility’ or ‘combined transport’ be a more easily understood description than MaaS? Does the word ‘mobility’ confuse people who don’t understand it relates to transit and transport? Karjalainen recalls her time working in the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications. “I still have some very, very early exchanges of emails when we tried to define what term we should use: should it be Transportation or Transport as a Service?” she laughs.

“It was one of our directors who decided that, yeah, let's go with ‘MaaS’, it’s Mobility as a Service. I think what we wanted to highlight was that it’s a really transformative and disruptive way that the different mobility services are produced - but also how they will be consumed. And we wanted to use the term to really highlight that, for the first time, we want to look at it from the user’s point of view - not so much from the structures, but how it will be made available for the users. [The term] MaaS should really give an impression that it's so simple and so easy from the user point of view that they don't have to care about what are the modes behind it, and how it all works; it’s just really, like, ‘click and go’.”

So is Karjalainen optimistic about the journey that MaaS is currently on? In terms of the hype and ‘sexiness’ of the concept, she says: “I think we have passed the peak point already and we are going towards more critical discussion around implementation - the biggest hype is already behind us and now it's really time to make it happen. I'm still very optimistic when it comes to the roll-out of MaaS: I would say that two years from now we will have MaaS available in all the bigger European cities or capital cities.”

Formats of MaaS will vary, with the largest cities providing a highly competitive environment for a number of service providers, while in medium-sized cities, where there is neither the space nor need for so many different players, “it can be a more locally-led development”. 

“Also I hope that we allow time for the market and the industry to develop and not try to regulate it based on current knowledge,” she concludes. “We simply don’t know where we are going - we haven't even seen half of the innovations yet. It just takes some time to really test what is attractive for the users - because keeping the focus on the users is really something that we now have to learn to do. And it takes time in our value creation to try to remember that and not to get stuck in how things are organised.”

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