Building a Sustainable Mobility-as-a-Service Model in Rural New York

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: May 24, 2022
A bus turns left onto a narrow bridge.
MaaS can help to further the reach of Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), the largest public transportation provider in Tompkins County.

By leveraging the power of smartphones, transit providers and government officials can provide users with streamlined access to a variety of public and private transportation services across their local communities in a one-stop virtual setting. 

Known as “Mobility-as-a-Service” (MaaS), this type of transportation model integrates various forms of mobility services—including car sharing, buses, bike sharing, ride-hailing, and more—into a centralized digital location that riders can utilize to find, book, and pay for their transit needs. Based in large part on collaborations between public and private service providers, these types of digital mobility hubs give individuals access to a wider range of needed services, from transportation for first- and last-mile trips to by-the-hour car sharing options and buses on set routes. By accessing this variety of transit options in one digital application, users can more easily plan out their trips and enjoy the freedom of enhanced mobility offerings. 

Despite the numerous benefits of this type of approach to transportation, large-scale MaaS initiatives in the United States are still relatively rare and have largely been limited to more urban regions of the country. Last year, Pittsburgh launched one of the most comprehensive MaaS programs in the U.S. to streamline services across the city. Other countries are also working on introducing their own MaaS pilot initiatives, with Scotland launching an expansive program last year focused in large part on improving the mobility of residents in rural communities. These MaaS efforts, both here and abroad, represent a new effort on the part of transit providers and government officials to offer individuals easier access to a variety of mobility services. 

As more U.S. cities begin to experiment with MaaS initiatives, some regions—such as Tompkins County in south-central New York—are also working on developing their own programs that can better serve residents across urban, suburban, and rural communities. 

A multi-phase approach for developing MaaS 

With a population of just over 100,000 people, Tompkins County may not seem like the typical region in which to launch a nascent MaaS initiative. Anchored at its center by the city of Ithaca, the county in the Finger Lakes region of New York is largely defined by its rolling hills, valleys, woods, and farming communities. 

But Dwight Mengel, the chief transportation planner for the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, said that Ithaca’s existing transportation services and placement at the heart of the growing county made him believe it was an ideal location in which to launch a MaaS initiative. Thanks to the growth in and around Ithaca, Tompkins County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in New York and is a regional employment and academic hub that includes Cornell University and Ithaca College. According to Mengel, approximately 23 percent of the county’s labor force commutes in from outside the county. 

“I realized that we had grown to the point where something like Mobility-as-a-Service was not a huge stretch for a significant number of people,” Mengel said. “And our goal here is to increase the number of accessible mobility services in the region and then target them to areas that are underserved, including rural areas.”

Noting the potential of a MaaS initiative that could increase mobility across the region while also saving residents money, the Federal Transit Administration in 2018 selected Tompkins County to participate in its Mobility-on-Demand On-Ramp Program to help Mengel rework his MaaS concept into a multi-phase pilot project. The FTA’s On-Ramp Program helps provide selected counties, cities, and regions with technical support to integrate their transportation systems and services into a cohesive model. 

As part of its support for the fledgling pilot, the FTA also awarded Tompkins County $820,000 to develop its MaaS platform. This work, currently being conducted in “phase one” of the MaaS project, includes bringing together existing mobility services in the county, increasing the supply of rural mobility services, and creating a 24/7 customer service center accessible by phone, email, text, or digital device. 

“We will have a smartphone app whose sole purpose is to make it efficient for users to be able to press a button and get in contact with whichever service provider they’re using,” Mengel said. “And the centralized multi-modal customer service center will be accessible by all modern means, so users don’t have to remember if they spelled the specific provider’s name correctly or if they put in the right phone number.”

Once completed, the county’s mobile app and web platform supporting the MaaS project will integrate data on local buses, car sharing providers, bike-sharing services, and more to help users plan and navigate their trips.

Building up the capacity for MaaS services

As part of their phase one MaaS efforts, Mengel said that Tompkins County is working with its existing transportation providers to better target services and understand how riders are currently utilizing the region’s transportation systems. This includes collaborating closely with the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), a nonprofit public transit provider that was created after Cornell University, Tompkins County, and Ithaca consolidated their separate transit systems in 1998. 

TCAT is a critical hub for the county, offering urban, suburban, and rural bus routes for residents. Pre-pandemic, Mengel said that TCAT averaged approximately 4.2 million passengers per year. The number of TCAT passengers is now back up to roughly 80 percent of pre-COVID figures. 

After a pandemic-induced delay, TCAT last year implemented a first-mile/last-mile pilot program to help rural residents of the county schedule in-application trips from their homes on existing paratransit buses that then transfer to TCAT transit routes. The hope is that the pilot, which uses the HyperCommute app to handle trip requests, will help increase mobility access for rural residents by using an app-based approach to scheduling trips. And efforts to expand the reach of existing county transit services into rural communities are ongoing, particularly through a greater focus on ridesharing and carpooling services and more support for volunteer transportation programs that will hopefully enhance the use of the MaaS platform. 

The MaaS initiative, when implemented, has the potential to dramatically expand the success of these enhanced mobility services for rural residents and others who need to come to Ithaca for shopping, work, or medical reasons. Mengel cited the experience of several women who live in senior housing in a rural town about 10 miles outside of Ithaca as an example of how a centralized digital service could provide more people with access to a variety of transportation options. The women take the bus into the city when they want to go shopping, rent a ride share car, and then take it to the store. When they’re done shopping, they drive it back to the center, unload their groceries, and then drop the car back off in Ithaca before taking the bus back home. 

“A lot of people around here use shared mobility services, and they’re often using them in ways that we don’t always anticipate,” Mengel said. 

Phase two of the initiative, which is still being developed and finalized, will entail the official rollout of the centralized app and the multi-modal customer service center to support riders’ access to mobility services. Given the life-changing impact that these types of mobility services can have on people, Mengel says even modest use of the MaaS service will go a long way toward improving the lives of the county’s residents and commuters. And Mengel said that, moving forward, the MaaS initiative will also include enhanced efforts to transition to electric vehicles as a way of supporting environmentally friendly transit options. 

“Even if we only have 2,000 or 4,000 people paying for mobility plans after phase two is implemented, we’ll still find a way to make this sustainable,” Mengel said. “We’re not looking to become millionaires or sell this service to some other company, but really just enable people to save money and increase their mobility.”

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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).

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