The nagging questions about Mobility As A Service

Assorted mobility services in Quito, Ecuador. Image: Getty.

Mobility As A Service. Discussed at length in specialist magazines, here on the pages of CityMetric, and increasingly in the popular press, it is transport’s latest buzzphrase. And with promises of a seamless choice of mobility across all modes of transport, in just one place, it is a very tempting offer.

But one nagging question keeps coming up when people keep talking about it. How on Earth will anyone make any money out of it? This is for one very simple fact: it is very difficult to make any money out of transport.

In a time when it is commonly shown that companies are making millions out of transport, this seems hard to fathom. But transport is a high cost industry, with a lot of money tied up in vehicles and infrastructure. Despite the headlines of millions being made by train operators, for instance, their combined profit margin is barely 2.4 per cent. In the bus market, while operating profit margins of near 9 per cent are reported, this hides significant regional variation.

And this is before you consider the ‘loss-leaders’ that are the likes of Uber and other car sharing companies. And now, Mobility As A Service operators want a further slice of that revenue pie.

The challenge to Mobility As A Service is not technology or data. It’s making the whole proposition attractive, not add to costs, and generate revenue. Previously, generating more revenue and more demand involved one or more of the following tactics:

  • Changing your prices. Demand for public transport doesn’t change much over the short term in response to price increases, with a 1 per cent fare increase typically resulting in a 0.2 per cent decline in patronage: after all, people can’t just change their travel patterns overnight. But it does lower demand over the longer term, with a 1 per cent price increase ultimately resulting in nearly a 1 per cent decrease in demand.
  • People traveling more. But when there are only a set number of hours in the day, and long term research has indicated a typical ‘travel budget’ of one hour daily – and most of us don’t ride buses and trains for the fun of it – that is very hard to do. The only exception is in places with lower trip rates in comparison to their peers.
  • Taking trips off your competition. In the public transport sector in the UK, on-road or track competition rarely exists, as the bus inquiry and a review of bidding for train operating franchises shows. That means you are attempting to take trips off other modes, ones which have very different social-economic characteristics to your own.
  • More people. Sadly the transport sector can’t just magic more people out of nowhere. It relies on housebuilding, new employment sites, and population growth for that sort of thing. In fact, the UK Department for Transport estimates that the main driver of future traffic growth in the UK will be growth in population.

This is important to understand in the context of Mobility As A Service. In order for any such service to work, every part of the mobility system needs to benefit. For one part to extract from another undermines the commercial viability of the whole proposition. After all, if people are paying the same amount for a mobility service, and they are still getting the same public transport service that is in turn getting less money from them, it is not an attractive proposition.

Oh, and enabling demand responsiveness and efficiencies in operation because ‘data’ is unlikely to cut it. What’s more, selling data to advertisers is increasingly a challenging proposition when so much data about customers is already available. 

It is worthwhile considering the fact that Mobility As A Service as has been sold is still largely just an idea. We don’t know whether or not it will work commercially, simply because we have not tried it commercially yet for any sustained period. And early trials such as Helsinki and Gothenburg have hardly set the world on fire in terms of proving the business model, although they have shown that some modal shift is possible. It’s worth noting that they are in environments where the public sector plays a significant role in the provision of public transport, however.

Creating a new market is a very tricky proposition – and it’s not guaranteed that what will result is any more in the customer interest or financially viable. This does not mean that we should not try or experiment: doing so is the only way of moving the transport industry into the digital age.

But the emergence of new dominant market players is not necessarily in the interest of the customer and the whole mobility ecosystem .If the future is Mobility As A Service, we cannot afford for the winner to take all.

James Gleave is a transport planner who has worked on projects ranging from school crossing patrols to autonomous vehicles. He writes about the future of transport on his blog at Transport Futures, and has also written for Local Transport Today, How We Get To Next, and The Guardian

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.