With a goal of increasing mobility, contractors and their transportation partners are testing new concepts like autonomous shuttles to gauge their viability. - First Transit

With a goal of increasing mobility, contractors and their transportation partners are testing new concepts like autonomous shuttles to gauge their viability.

First Transit

In March, First Transit announced the additions of Tina Morch-Pierre as sr. director, innovation and technology services, and Derek Fretheim as sr. director, national innovation, to help evolve its mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) and emerging transit technologies practice.

METRO recently spoke with Morch-Pierre and Fretheim about transit’s understanding of MaaS, how contractors can help agencies embrace and evolve new pilots, and more. 

How has the idea of MaaS evolved here in the U.S., and how well do you feel agencies understands the concept today?

Fretheim: The industry is starting to focus on customer experiences, and from our side, it really depends on how the agency wants to approach mobility within their marketplace, what their role is, and whether they have other agencies that are connected to them. The idea of mobility-as-a-service is continuing to evolve. I think most of the agencies are recognizing it's not a technology play, so to speak, it's really a set of services that are unique to their marketplace and help their riders move from place to place. Agencies are starting to realize it's important to embrace mobility-as-a-service, especially as the private sector is starting to build things like scooters, bikes, and other types of services that can connect with the typical transit services they provide. How it grows ridership, how it works with first-mile, last-mile solutions — it’s become more of an ecosystem solution, as opposed to an idea that we should build an app that helps people get from Point A to Point B.

Morch-Pierre: Based on our clients, it's still corporations, universities, and airports that are all looking for mobility-as-a-service. You will see in those industries, they are looking for the scooters and carsharing and how to connect to public transportation, so it’s really expanding. Across the board, there is a good knowledge of what's happening out there, the question is how do we start?  That's where our clients are at right now — do they start by getting an app or changing their fare policy and structure to be more regional? Or, by combining these services? How do we define what our customers are really going to need? I think a lot of it has to deal with what they understand, but they need some instructions and some directions on how to get there. And to that point, there is not one formula. In every region and area there are different demographics, so they are all going to be different. Even if you take the same size area, you can't assume that what you built for mobility-as-a-service in one area is going to work for the other.

When agencies are putting something out to bid, are they looking for a specific solution, or are they looking for something where you look at their system to assess what may work for them?

Fretheim: I think the first question we ask is ‘What set of challenges or problems are you trying to resolve?’ ‘What's the customer’s side?’ ‘What are the data sets that you're looking for, to improve quality of service?’ We try to set up a foundational approach to understanding what the important parts of what our agency partners are looking for, and since we're a trusted advisor, they really lean on us to help them through that process. Both Tina and I have deep experience here, and there are others in our company that have deep experience in this area. So, we pull in those subject matter experts to help focus on what the quick wins are. And then, what are you building for today, and what do you need for tomorrow, right? So ensuring that we're future proofing the service that gets delivered through the app, or through the service set of policies that they need to have in place with respect to how do you go about introducing mobility-as-a-service into the marketplace. So you build a mobile app. Contactless fare collection is something that's key right now, given the state of COVID, right? So, once you build that, how do you go about ensuring that you have a validation solution in place or ensuring that you aren’t putting additional stress on your coach operator. In other words, what are the nuances to introducing the app and the service that you're wanting to promote within the marketplace.

Morch-Pierre: And if they're introducing new modes of services, not just bike sharing, but I'm going to pay attention to microtransit, we provide them the lessons learned and the things to look for. Not only just regarding the technology, but also do they have their marketing campaigns together. What does your communication campaign look like to be able to connect with your customers? Have you formulated a focus group of customers to make sure that you are putting a zone in, or that they fully understand the app? And let's not forget our own operations team. Did you speak with your drivers to let them know what's going on and how it operates and works? And if you've heard me in conferences before, I'll say this time and time again, when you educate your operators, first and foremost, they're going to be your sales team. They are going to be the ones that are going to help the customers as they board the various modes of services to use it effectively. These are some of the things that we talk about in depth with our customers. We do a needs assessment. Sometimes, we do a full-blown workshop because they ask the simple things that you just asked. Are they looking for a full solution? And do they need some assistance with their roadmap? Sometimes they don't have the staff to be able to do the work themselves, and so they look to us to help them put it together.

During this process, are there misconceptions you must dispel on their end? I mean, do they commonly think that that MaaS will solve a certain issue that it won't necessarily?

Morch-Pierre: At times, yes. You must take individuals sometimes and not assume they fully understand what mobility-as-a-service is, so you must provide them education down the line of what it means and how it can impact the organization. Because it’s not just the operations personnel, but all the way up to your board members who we need to really understand what it means. The term MaaS, or mobility-as-a-service, I wish we can come up with another term now, because we've said it so much over many years, but it is what it is. We must educate them on how to do it. Sometimes, our clients really know, so when we talk about it, they just need someone to vet it out with. They just want to talk out loud to someone and make sure they are on the right track so they can continue to move forward. So, we not only help them as resources, but we do give them some validation, because that's sometimes what is needed is validation that they are on the right track.

Fretheim: One of the elements we focus in on is what are the expectations and outcomes that they want to accomplish? So helping them with KPIs and such because we take the crawl before you walk, walk before you run, run before you leap approach. Because if you try to do too much, then you potentially create a challenge for yourself by not having it in a cohesive, well thought out manner. 

You’ve touched on it, but can you discuss the importance of private partnerships in successful applications?

Morch-Pierre: I've only been in the private side of transit for a short time now. Before I was with First Transit, I was on the government side for more than 16 years. So, in my time here at First Transit, what I am seeing is that on the private side, we are nimbler. We can react. We can find solutions and get them implemented faster than on the public side. That's a given. We don’t necessarily have to go to the board or go through the stringent procurement process that the public side must. But the one thing we want to ensure is inclusiveness and accessibility. I think that's where some of our private entities need to look at a little bit further. I think that's the first and foremost on First Transit’s list is to make sure that any solution and implementation that we do is inclusive. 

Fretheim: One of the things we should recognize is mobility-as-a-service requires cooperation from both sides. To Tina’s point, the private side can be a little bit more agile and nimbler in making decisions and moving forward. And it's the difference between having what I call a baked in process where you have to do step one, before you do step two, and step two before step three, and so on so forth that we see on the public side. You've got pilot initiatives at the FTA, the sandbox programs, where they're seeking innovation. They are seeking ways to ideate and learn from implementations. And then there's a data sharing and lessons learned, realizing that what might work in Los Angeles may not work in Dallas, but we can learn maybe what not to do, or at least the pitfalls. But we can also learn from the successes. The marketing plans are always key. People underestimate the need to get the information out there and ensure that people understand what your goals and objectives are, and how they leverage the solutions that you're building. I really think the cornerstone here is really about cooperation, not just internally how you cooperate among different departments, but how do you cooperate with people in your marketplace, how you embrace ridership needs, how do you embrace the private sector, and then ultimately sustain a flexible mindset. Tomorrow is going to be different than it was today. We are seeing now that things change, and you must adapt that change agent, if that makes sense. 

As we look at MaaS as a tool for evolving mobility in cities and states around the nation, what is next on the horizon that will help propel the MaaS concept?

Fretheim: I feel you must look at how air travel is going to change here in the U.S. I think there are systems in place that are being considered, blockchain, for example, and other elements that are happening down the pipeline that we are trying to get ahead of. At First Transit, we try to prepare for today and plan. We often ask our customers what three years from now looks like for them, and some of them have a really hard time answering that question in some detail. They know where they want to be with respect to ridership and such, but when you really start talking about the innovation side, they may not have the luxury of forward thinking, which is what we do. 

Morch-Pierre: You must see what is disruptive and what is hype. And you still must pay attention to it, even if it’s hype, because it may turn into something down the road. So you got to follow the FinTech companies. Where is the money flowing? There are dynamic changes these FinTech companies are doing right now that is really affecting transportation. We must follow what's going on with blockchain and determine if we can use that as mobility-as-a-service. Is cryptocurrency going to be relevant to help our unbanked and underbanked? Because guess what, that's the wave of what's going on next. Look at biometrics. Can I walk into a train or a bus and pay for it with my face? Can it be done, yes. Guess who’s testing it? Moscow. Guess who does it every day? We do. If you have an iPhone, you're doing facial recognition every single day. If you are using Google, you are using your thumbprint every single day. So, it is happening. When will it affect transportation? That's something that we study to see how we can improve the system. How can we work with other third parties that are implementing these technologies? And not just technologies, but new processes. That's one thing that when we talk about innovation, innovation is not just technology it is your process. Maybe there is a brand-new process that will get rid of your 1990 process that you're holding on to make your organization effective. Some of them are simple little changes. Some of them do have technology that goes behind it. But it’s important to make sure that you are open and understanding what is happening. This is something we do day in, and day out is determine what we want to pilot and test out to determine what will benefit our customer and, of course, our organization. In the end, though, it is all about benefitting the customer experience.