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West Midlands pilots the UK’s first MaaS

First publishedin ITS International
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Whim West Mid MaaS app
The Whim West Mid MaaS app covers all modes of travel including bus, tram and train

Mobility-as-a-Service is being piloted in the UK’s second largest metropolitan area and will shortly be opened to the travelling public.

A fully operational Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) offering is being piloted in the West Midlands region of the UK. Covering seven local authorities which make up the West Midlands metropolitan area and population of 2.8 million, the service is being provided through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), Finnish company MaaS Global and several local transport operators.

Chris Lane, head of Smart Transport for TfWM, says it is very early days and even the pilot is currently being tested by eight ‘Alpha users’ (described as ‘individuals who know how the public transport system works’) trying the system and checking for bugs. Within the next few weeks the service will go live to a limited number of early adopters before the full service is launched later this year. 

The initial pilot will include buses, trams, taxis and car hire, while rail services are awaiting final sign-off and discussions are underway about where the first bikeshare locations will be sited. All the integration work has already been done and these additional modes will be added into the alpha services as soon as possible. A wider bike share is being investigated for the West Midlands which will be integrated with MaaS and other mobility services. 

The Whim West Mid app combines all-mode trip planning with a points-based system for payments and ticket purchase. Having entered their start (or current) location and destination, the app gives the user travel options (including cost, time and greenest) and when the chosen option is selected, the virtual tickets are put into the ‘Ticket Drawer’. The requisite number of points are deducted from the contracted monthly allowance. There is also a ‘W’ button displayed on the app for a taxi-hailing service, to buy tickets directly or to hire a car. 

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Gett taxi hailing app
The Gett taxi hailing app is integrated into the West Midlands MaaS app

While the Alpha testers are using the points system, it is likely that when the service opens to the public it will use a pay-as-you-go option with a monthly bill for the transport consumed. The monthly packaged points system will follow later. “Experience from Helsinki was that people were initially reluctant to go straight for a package and almost wanted ‘try before they buy’,” says Lane. “We are trying to build Helsinki’s learning into what we do in the West Midlands.”

Alpha testers report that the system is working well with most feedback regarding improvements and streamlining rather than failures and in the meantime, thousands of bus drivers are being trained to recognise and understand the mobile ticketing. Once a viable service is available, attention will turn to enhancing the individual’s tailoring options.

The root of this initiative goes back to mid-2015 when the city councils of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, and the metropolitan councils of Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Walsall formed the West Midlands Combined Authority which then created the TfWM. The new transport authority commissioned a study of how MaaS would work and could benefit the region. Having predicted a positive outcome, the report was then passed through the political side of the authority to gain political support, which it did - albeit without funding allocation.

Throughout that process TfWM continued working on the concept and its research highlighted the work being done by MaaS Global

“We went to MaaS Global and said ‘would you like to come to the West Midlands - and by the way we have no money’, and they did. I think it was because we are innovative, had political support and were prepared to put in the effort to make it work,” Lane says. 

Transport provision

Buses in the West Midlands are privately operated by 23 companies (TfWM funds 10% of the routes as socially necessary services), and the authority created and facilitates the West Midlands Bus Alliance. This alliance comprises the region’s bus operators (the biggest being National Express) which meet to collectively agree how to improve services in the area. 

“We use our relationships with bus operators and experience of existing multi-operator ticketing schemes to take the MaaS concept forward,” adds Lane.

Initially only National Express services are included in the Whim West Midlands app as the company covers 92% of the routes, has already adopted mobile ticketing and is big enough to provide the investment required to develop the scheme. Lane stresses once the ticketing is working smoothly, he expects to incorporate the other operators’ routes into the app through the existing multi-operator ticketing system.

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train travel
©Arenaphotouk | Dreamstime: Train travel across the whole of the UK will be bookable via the Whim West Mid MaaS app

Once the service is live, other transport operators can be added to the Whim app. “Nothing is exclusive,” says Lane.

Taxis are vital for first and last mile transport and Uber was helpful to the fledgling service, sharing data about rides to and from the stations along Birmingham’s tram route. Lane says the authority continues to work with Uber on other services but the company didn’t want its services incorporated into the app. Taxi services are being provided through Gett – a ride-hailing and aggregating service active in the West Midlands used mainly by the UK’s iconic black cabs.

In operation, the service will be operated by MaaS Global and it will sign contracts with transport operators and hold the individual customer accounts. Under its agreement, the Finnish company will provide TfWM and operators with access to various metrics, dashboards and anonymised data to enable them to optimise and improve the services they operate.

Lane does not underestimate the importance of this data: “At the moment we know what the transport system does, it moves people from A to B – what we don’t know is, collectively, how they get to A and where they go from B. With this additional information, we can look to see if we can improve the services offered to the public.”

Previously TfWM had worked with local employers on sustainable transport and, once MaaS is available, will use its contacts to introduce MaaS Global before leaving the companies to discuss any commercial arrangement.

While working with the Finns, Lane says: “It has always been clear throughout the process that if another MaaS provider comes along and wants to provide a MaaS service in the West Midlands we will make introductions in the same way as we did with MaaS Global.” 

All transport operators in the Whim West Mids service are contracted to MaaS Global and it knows how many journeys have been booked with each company and at what cost. Lane says: “They sort out the payments, it doesn’t need to touch us.”

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seemless transport options
©futureGalore | Shutterstock.com: Seven local authorities, 23 bus companies, taxis, and bike share will provide seemless transport options for 2.8 million people in the West Midlands

Whim West Mid customers travelling further afield, can use the app to hail taxis in London, book train rides to all parts of the UK and hire cars in Europe. As to wider interoperability – be that other services or other countries – Lane believes this can be left to the market rather than using legislation. The latter scenario tends to favour large, nation-wide or even international companies rather than small regional and local players.

Regardless of size, once a transport operator moves onto electronic ticketing/ride-hailing, scheduling and so on, they can be included in MaaS and similar offerings but Lane sees a bigger obstacle – the authorities’ degree of control. “Authorities in countries such as Sweden want complete control while TfWM is probably at the other end, letting the market deal with everything - and there are many stages in-between. So it is not just a case of whether the technology works, but how do you operate and control MaaS in each country and individual authority.”

Once travellers in the West Midlands are using the app, Lane sees the possibility of influencing the way people travel by incentivising particular routes, modes or timing. He also believes that individuals, and authorities, can benefit by utilising some of the specialist vehicles already in service, such as wheelchair-accessible taxis. “If you can use a low-access taxi to take somebody with mobility difficulties to a step-free, level access tram stop, then they benefit and the local authorities benefit too. And as that person has the app, they know they can always get home again. This gives them the confidence to venture out and maintain their social network and independence.

In terms of modal interchanges, Lane says the existing infrastructure for bus, tram and taxi is satisfactory and much of it is step-free.

In September the pilot was expanded to 500 selected users over 12 months which will allow the authority to evaluate how it is working for the West Midlands and if there are any unintended consequences. MaaS Global is at liberty as a commercial company to expand the number of users with members of the public.

Other providers of ‘disruptive transport systems’ are talking to TfWM about pilots in the West Midlands region which could, but currently do not, include other MaaS providers. Says Lane: “With the UK’s legislative framework, any company wanting to provide these disruptive services can set up in the West Midlands with or without our approval. We would prefer they worked with us so we both can learn and improve the overall transport provision for everyone.” That said, if the pilot goes well the authority would be happy to continue its association with MaaS Global.

Lane: “We will evaluate how the new service is impacting the area and if something occurs that we are not happy with we can, use our partnership through the MOU to say to MaaS Global ‘is there something we can do about that’? Cooperation is by far the best solution although if we did need to do something about a situation we probably have the powers to do so.”

Once Whim West Mid is successfully providing a basic service to the public, the next steps could be incorporating new and additional transport services and looking to include tailored services for hospital travel and those with disabilities. Lane says: “Because all of our partners are commercial companies they will follow the money, so the question is can we prove to them that there is money to be made in providing bespoke services for these groups?”

If all goes well, that question may need to be answered quite soon.

Companies in this article

MaaS Global

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