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Episode 141: On the Hunt for Mobility as a Service

Mobility as a Service, though attractive in its promise to increase mobility access, has proven elusive in practice. In a special episode from Pittsburgh, key stakeholders discuss the creation and implementation of North America’s first comprehensive Mobility as a Service project, Move PGH.


The Movement

Episode 141: On the Hunt for Mobility as a Service

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Valdes: Vincent Valdes

Peduto: Mayor Bill Peduto

Ricks: Karina Ricks

Luther: Sean Luther

Kelleman: Katharine Kelleman

Chu Wiens: Laura Chu Wiens

F: Female Speaker

Cohen: Mobility as a Service is the transportation industry’s version of the Loch Ness Monster.  Some have seen it, but most of us are really not sure if it really exists.  Like the Loch Ness Monster, Mobility as a Service is hard to define.  In its most simple forms, it’s the ability to see and pay for multiple transportation modes, seamlessly, in one place.

In Helsinki, where the concept originated in 2016, users could access public transportation, bikeshare, taxis, and car share, all in one app.  Here in the U.S., Mobility as a Service has been a popular topic of conversation, or proposed model for communities, but so far there hasn’t been a lot to look at.  And that’s why I went to Pittsburgh to try to find the Loch Ness Monster myself, in the wild.  According to the city, Move PGH is the first integrated Mobility as a Service project in the U.S. to connect traditional and emerging low-cost, shared transportation options into a single, easy-to-use system.

So is Mobility as a Service real?  Did the long search finally pay off?  You’ll hear what I found, coming up next on The Movement podcast.  Let’s go. 

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all.  Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders.  Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: Okay.  So I just hopped off my plane, and I am heading to ground transportation, so I can catch the Port Authority 28X Airport Flyer.  According to Transit App, I have 11 minutes until departure.  And ordinarily that would make me a little bit nervous, but thanks to Transit App I’ve already got my ticket purchased, so all I need to do is get to the bus stop.  So wish me luck.

Assuming you haven’t been under a rock for the last few years in the transportation industry, you’ve probably heard of Mobility as a Service, or MaaS as it’s often abbreviated.  The term takes a mobility approach to the way the software industry has evolved over the last few years.  Think of the difference between the way you might listen to music now, on Spotify, and the way you used to when you were a kid, on tapes and CDs.  Spotify is Software as a Service, where, as a user, you may pay a small amount monthly to have access to a whole bunch of music.  Compare that to, perhaps, my childhood, when I used to buy individual CDs or tapes.  On the plus side, I have access to a lot more music now.  On the other hand, I don’t actually own anything like I used to back in the day.

Same thing with MaaS.  Instead of buying a car or a bike or scooter, what many communities are hoping to do is to make mobility like Spotify, give you the opportunity to access any shared mobility, any time you want; just like I can easily dive back into that mid-’90s college rock any time I want to on Spotify.  And, like Spotify, it’s got to be easy to use and pay for.

So for MaaS to work well, it will require multiple mobility options.  But robust public transit is foremost among them.  That’s why I was so excited that I could take the Port Authority of Allegheny County 28X bus from the airport to downtown, taking advantage of a special bus corridor.

Just hopped off the bus in downtown Pittsburgh.  It was a great ride down, 37 minutes from its scheduled time, but it actually was probably only about 30 minutes actual time because it’s 9:00 on a Sunday night.  There just wasn’t that much traffic and not that much people getting on.  So that was nice.  Also, part of the trip was on a busway, which is just amazing, called the West Busway.  All right.  I got about a half-mile walk to my hotel and then I’m done.

In the same way that an eyewitness account of the Loch Ness Monster would cause others to redouble their efforts to find her, the announcement of Move PGH in July 2021 inspired my trip to see if I would have any luck with finding the elusive Mobility as a Service.  Coincidentally, in 2020, one of the people behind the federal government’s investments in MaaS, Vince Valdes, left his role as associate administrator in the Office of Research, Demonstration, and Innovation at the United States Department of Transportation.  Vince left this federal role, where he was in charge of the Mobility On-Demand Sandbox, to become CEO of the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, the 10-county regional metropolitan planning organization that while supportive of the work Move PGH is doing, is not an official project partner.

Valdes: The Mobility On-Demand Sandbox, which was our attempt to really, from a mobility perspective, really encourage people experimenting the art of the possible in terms of interconnected mobility.  You know, obviously, the guiding principle behind that is the idea that mobility is really what people are looking for, not transportation. 

Cohen: Right.

Valdes: People want to get from point A to point B, by whatever means they can, and in the moment.  There are different factors that guide their decision-making process.  It could be cost.  It could be speed.  It could be access or convenience.  And that a truly integrated web of mobility options is the way to go in a modern city.

Cohen: So more than talk about MaaS, what I wanted to do was explore that integrated web of mobility options that Move PGH and its constituent public and private partners, the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, was creating, supported by local funders and nonprofits and coordinated by the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

My first experience, purchasing a bus ticket from within the Transit App while I was still on the airport tarmac, was seamless.  I could only hope that my exploration of the other modes in Pittsburgh could be as seamless.  Before that, though, I wanted to dig into why Pittsburgh.  For that, I really needed to talk to Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor since 2014.

Peduto: It’s been said that Pittsburgh is a double black diamond road system.  We don’t have a grid system.  We have three rivers.  We have 446 bridges, the most of any city in the world.  We have numerous hills.

Cohen: Did he say numerous hills?  Yes, he did.  Consider that foreshadowing.  Back to Mayor Peduto.

Peduto: The entire roadway system is more symbolic of the 19th century than the 21st century.  But at that same time, we’re seeing many more of our residents choosing to live without a car.  We’re seeing the autonomous vehicle industry being born here in Pittsburgh, and we’re seeing the challenges of 21st century mobility being recognized right here in that same city.  So, with the challenges we have and with the opportunities, we recognized we had to create something new, a new Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.  And DOMI was born several years ago in order to meet that challenge.

We understand that mobility in the opportunity to get from point A to point B has a direct impact on economic mobility.  And although over 20% of our households lack an automobile, once we start looking at the lowest income bracket within our city, we recognize that it’s over half of our households don’t have a car.  So if we are not providing opportunities for better access through public transit, better access through bikes, better access through rideshare, better access through walking, better access for people with needs, and we’re not creating an integrated system with all of those, and creating a one-platform experience which allows a user to be able to recognize all of those options much in the same way that a motorist recognizes a state road, a local road, or a federal road seamlessly, then we’re failing our residents.

Cohen: To understand how the city was trying to make this mobility seamless, let’s meet Karina Ricks, who for four and a half years served as the director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.  Shortly after our conversation, Karina left to go work at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  In yet another coincidence, she’ll be taking over the research role that Vince Valdes, who you met earlier, used to hold.  I was most curious to understand how Karina had put together the vision for Move PGH and incentivized the various parties to work together.

Ricks: I think the biggest lesson learned is about the partner that you choose.  So we put out our request for proposals, the RFP, and we were pretty explicit as to what we were looking for.  We were looking for the industry to self-organize, to find their own partners, to develop this sort of collaborative pitch to come in as a group.  We were pretty clear that we didn’t want sort of the walled garden approach.  Right?  We didn’t want one company that alleges to provide a bunch of different modal services, all under the same umbrella, all under their sort of industry brand. 

Spin came in with something that was truly different than what we had seen before.  So Spin wanted to just provide their type of service, but they wanted to welcome into this Pittsburgh Mobility Collective truly independent companies who provided their own service as well.  They really understood what was at the core of our goal, which is we want transit to be sort of that organizing principle for all of these other things to then become, you know, augmentations to that backbone of public mass transit.  They really understood that.  They were really committed to that.  They really understood that this was meant to be an iterative, an experimental kind of pilot that we’re doing, and that we would need to pivot and adapt quickly.  This was pre-pandemic, so little did we know just how quickly we would need to pivot and adapt.  [LAUGHS]

But, you know, and they would just really—they really came at it from a sense of partnership and openness.  And, you know, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner, in all honesty.  They—we were willing to, you know, get together, talk through things, understand what were the limitations of this, you know, shared mobility industry, which is not and has never been a profitable enterprise.  But to talk about what those limitations were, just how far we could push it, what the city had to offer to help, you know, mitigate risk on their side, what they would need to do to mitigate risk on our side.  But they really were incredible partners and really, you know, fair dealers through all of this.

So I would say the lessons learned is, you know, really, really choosing your partner wisely, setting it up right from the beginning as an iterative pilot so that they need to understand that there will be experimentation along the way.

Cohen: Experimentation is not something that many public sector projects are known for.  Experimentation tends to be the purview of more agile groups, like the private sector or smaller nonprofits.  That’s why I wanted to make sure I met with another Pittsburgh Mobility Collective member, InnovatePGH, a public-private partnership designed to accelerate Pittsburgh’s status as a global city.

I had already used the bus to get from the airport to downtown, so I decided to try bikeshare to get from Karina’s office in downtown Pittsburgh to the InnovatePGH office in Oakland, a bustling neighborhood home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a few miles east of downtown.

Okay, I am getting ready to take my first bike ride here in Pittsburgh.  I just wrapped up my meeting with Karina Ricks and Mayor Peduto at the City-County Building, and right across the street, conveniently, is a Healthy Ride bikesharing dock.  So I’m getting ready to use the app.  It’s not yet in Transit App, but it will be soon.  I’m getting ready to book my ride and take it over to my next meeting over in Oakland.  All right, got it.

Now, I’m a pretty confident bike rider, but one challenge riding a bike in a community that I wasn’t as familiar with is knowing the way to go without looking at my phone constantly to find the way.

All right, now I’m seeing the first Spin corral, and actually the first mobility hub in general.  So that’s pretty cool.  Stop in to check my directions.  So I turn right after this.  I’m looking for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail.  I think I found the Three Rivers Heritage Trail.  That’s good.

The mobility hub that I passed was one of 50 throughout the city, where Spin scooters can be plugged in to a Swiftmile charging dock and see a TransitScreen with nearby transit and bikeshare options.  I followed the Three Rivers Heritage Trail for a couple miles, paralleling both I-376 and the Monongahela River.  Though sadly, the interstate was between me and the river, until I came to Bates Street.  When I was planning the route, the street didn’t look too bad.  But I hope you remember that delicious foreshadowing from Mayor Peduto earlier about the hills.

Now, one thing Karina mentioned is that the bikes right now are all regular bikes, but they’re going to be moving to e-assist bikes at some point in the next couple months, which I think will be really nice, because I’m expecting that I’ve got a little hill coming up here.  And I’m not really looking forward to it because it’s about 85 degrees and sunny.  The bike does have gears, though.

Turns out that hill was a little bigger than I expected when I checked Google Maps before, and it had some stop-and-go car traffic that I had to navigate going uphill, but I finally made it.

All right, I finally made it up to the top of this big hill.  And I am grateful to be here, because that was something else.

And my bikeshare adventure wasn’t over yet, because finding the dock was tricky in Oakland.  And once I did finally find it, I pressed the wrong button and didn’t end my ride correctly, requiring a follow-up call to support a few hours later.  Before that, I found a few minutes in the shade to try and stop sweating before my meeting with Sean Luther, the executive director of InnovatePGH.

Luther: We have a really unique role.  Move PGH is a true public-private partnership, and because there are foundation dollars involved from NUMO and from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, but it’s a civic municipal project, we sit in the middle as a 501(c)(3) to administer those funds, and one of the ways that we do that is the Move PGH staff is on my team.  Though they function quasi-independent, the IRS and the foundation responsibility rests with InnovatePGH and our board to make sure those funds are being spent in accordance with the grant.

So, there’s a couple reasons that projects are structured like this in Pittsburgh.  Geographically, the city of Pittsburgh is very small compared to our actual region.  There’s a whole history of Pittsburgh stopped annexing well earlier than most cities our size.  But this also gives us some speed, some flexibility, which is important because we’re dealing with so many different private mobility service providers.  To have individual contracts each signed with the city, it gets very complicated.  That funding would then have to go back to the foundations.  And so we do have more of an omnibus strategy through this public-private partnership, and it allows the city to deliver and focus on its core municipal function in the partnership, and we deal with some of the accounting headache, which will be even more important as we get to the Universal Basic Mobility project, which will have lots of money coming and going with the residents and the service providers.

Cohen: Universal Basic Mobility is a second related pilot project to Move PGH that will give 100 low-income Pittsburgh residents monthly access to both public transit as well as the shared mobility providers in Move PGH.  Mayor Bill Peduto again.

Peduto: We also want to try to create a basic guaranteed mobility.  In other words, can we create a—much like a guaranteed income, a scholarship that is provided in a pilot program that allows a certain group to be given a certain allowance per month.  And if we do that, can we then study what the results will be, and looking at other key indicators and determine is the health of that individual improving, is the economic viability of that individual improving, are the options on housing improving, and what happens when you secure your mobility as a basic right, and is it something that government should be examining as a investment?

Cohen: To me, this is one of the most interesting and impactful parts of what’s going on in Pittsburgh.  It’s not enough to just increase access to mobility.  We also want to make sure that we are increasing mobility for those who need it the most.  Back to Sean Luther with InnovatePGH.

Luther: From a mobility perspective and an economic opportunity perspective, the physical barriers between our neighborhoods are very real.  And up here in Oakland, where we have tremendous economic opportunity and we want to create pipelines to the neighborhoods around it, you have literal cliffs and ravines and rivers in the way of running a bus, of running what we in Pittsburgh really think of as conventional transit that we are used to and rely on.

And so, I think, success at Move PGH really is ensuring that any resident in Pittsburgh can get to any job with whatever mode serves them for that trip.  And not just jobs, but doctors’ appointments, daycare trips, grocery store trips, lifestyle trips, going to see your grandparents, which is extremely important for those of us in Pittsburgh.  And it’s really about choice and increasing options to make that easy for everyone in the city.

I think, if you let the free market determine where these mobility service providers are going to be most successful in Pittsburgh, it’s essentially going to be focused here in Oakland.  It’s college students and young professionals moving between the campuses, going to their jobs and the nightlife.  What sold me on the mayor and Director Ricks’s vision for this project is manipulating the market in a way that we get the physical devices out into the marginalized neighborhoods and create enough space for those residents to determine what modes work best for them, and working with the mobility service providers to make sure they have access to it.

Left to its own devices, we would just see scooters going back and forth on Fifth and Forbes, and that’s not what the data is showing because of this intentional partnership with Spin and the other mobility service providers.  It’s what makes me personally excited about how this is rolling out in Pittsburgh and the effort that the city took to do so in a way that’s highly structured, and I really think that’s what we’re going to look back in a year and two years and say, “That’s what Pittsburgh did that other cities the size of Pittsburgh can learn from.”

Cohen: This mindful approach between the city and the rest of the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective members came through when I talked with the City of Pittsburgh’s Karina Ricks as well.

Ricks: We have a shared and common end goal, so we both know and share the same opinion of what success looks like. 

Cohen: So talk about that, because that was the next question.

Ricks: Well, I think, you know, what—ultimately, what success looks like again is really promoting a shared mobility model.  What success looks like is really promoting safety.  Too often, I think, we devolve into this, “Well, you know, if you’re taking a bikeshare trip, if you’re taking a moped trip, if you’re taking a scooter trip, like that means you’re not taking a transit trip, and, like, that’s bad for transit.”  Well, no, not necessarily.  What it means is that we’re letting people live a car-lite or carless lifestyle a lot more easily.  And still, you know, in a city like Pittsburgh we have, you know, one out of five households don’t have a car, but two out of five households have two or more cars.  [LAUGHS]  So that’s really what we’re trying to do, is let them get down to more of a car-lite lifestyle.  And so that’s the shared goal that we both have: safety, you know, great urban living, and moving people toward these other more sustainable modes.

Cohen: It’s clear from the city’s perspective that the addition of private mobility services, like Spin, to public services, like the Port Authority buses and rail, increases the aggregate mobility of Pittsburghers.  I wanted to dig into that question directly with the chief executive of the Port Authority, Katharine Kelleman, and the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Laura Chu Wiens.  But first, I had to get back from Oakland to my hotel.

Even though it would be mostly downhill this time, I decided not to take a bike back to downtown.  Instead, I opted for a Scoobi moped.  Like the bikes, Scoobis aren’t available on Transit App yet, but will be eventually, allowing a more seamless experience.  And note, though I keep calling it a scooter, it’s more of a traditional moped with a seat, kind of like a Vespa.

Okay, I’m going to try and ride one of these Scoobis downtown.  I’m in Oakland right now.  And I’m going to see if I can do this.  I’m a little nervous about it, but—

My first attempt at riding the moped was thwarted because I couldn’t get the trunk open that had the helmets in it.

All right, so this was a dud because the ride actually didn’t go anywhere, womp womp.

Thankfully, there was another moped just a couple blocks away that I was finally able to make work.  Turns out, there was a small button to unlock the trunk that I couldn’t see until I bent down farther.  Once I figured that out, it was mostly smooth sailing from there, though I did inadvertently park outside the geofenced area downtown, and so I had to move the moped a few blocks.

The final tally for my trip was 25 minutes and $12 to go four miles, so certainly helpful when you need to cover a few miles, but not something that many Pittsburghers could spring for often, especially compared to walking, riding your own bike, or taking the Port Authority bus or rail, which is about a quarter of the cost of my moped trip.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is the nation’s 26th largest transit agency, but based on bus ridership, the agency is 17th.  So the region as a whole is very bus-focused, with half of the downtown workers, pre-pandemic, using transit for their commute.  So I thought it was only fair that I take the 88 Port Authority bus, with its half-hour headways, out to visit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit in the Garfield neighborhood northeast of downtown.

Chu Wiens: Our moniker is “Bus Lines are Life Lines,” and so we know the role that transit plays in people’s lives and in communities’ lives, and its critical role, of course, in addressing economic inequality, racial justice, climate justice.

Cohen: That’s Laura Chu Wiens, the executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

Chu Wiens: So we are a grassroots organization of transit riders and transit workers who are advocating and organizing for more accessible, affordable, expanded public transit here in Allegheny County, although our work this past year has really taken us statewide and even into the national conversation, too, around transit and transit funding.

And so Pittsburghers for Public Transit has been around—or PPT—has been around since 2009/2010.  And it was organized as a labor community solidarity organization that was facing down really severe transit service cuts.  We had a legislature, a state legislature that was inconsistent in its funding for transit, and they had—we had seen like a third of routes cut in the years previous, and there was a big fight for dedicated transit funding, and we were part of the grassroots arm of that.  Right?  And so there were civil disobediences and rallies in Harrisburg that our organization, alongside the Amalgamated Transit Union, held to uplift the importance of transit and mobility as a human right.

Cohen: This theme of mobility as a human right was similar to what Mayor Peduto had shared earlier.  So I asked Laura what she thought about Move PGH.

Chu Wiens: We continued to ask the city like, “What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?”  Right?  And I think that there’s deeply disingenuous and misleading rhetoric around—I mean, they’re calling it Universal Basic Mobility.  But the reality is that the folks that need transit the most are people that are low income, communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, people with families.  And the biggest accomplishment that this boasts is like the—you know, the public unveiling of Spin scooters onto our streets and sidewalks.  And those are, of course, inaccessible to most of the people that actually need transportation.

We have no sidewalks in so many communities.  Like, we need basic mobility, and basic mobility includes, like, bus shelters.  We need streetlighting.  We need sidewalks in many communities that are incredibly unsafe.  If the city had spent $4 million of its $323 million worth of COVID relief funds on allowing SNAP users to get around for free on the existing bus networks, that feels like freedom.  Right?  Like, that seems like Universal Basic Mobility.

Cohen: It was interesting to hear Laura’s perspective about the work of Move PGH.  It really seemed to stem from the question of the best way to provide mobility—more traditional public options, like sidewalks and buses; or a suite of mobility options, combining both public and private modes—to help city residents and visitors to live their best lives.

Heading back downtown, I decided to make the two-mile trip by scooter. I’ve used scooters before, but since it’s been a couple years I bungled my first attempt because I forgot that I had to push off with my foot before using the throttle. For a regular scooter   user, this need to push off would be well ingrained. And there is an instruction in the Spin app to remind users to do so. But for an infrequent scooter user like myself, it’s one more thing to keep track of on top of logging in to the app, selecting a scooter, figuring out where to go, and staying safe.   

Okay, take two on riding a Spin scooter.  Let’s see if this has better luck than the first time.  [BEEPING NOISE]  That was the sound.  So let’s see how this goes.

My trip downtown was largely uneventful and actually pretty fun, helped along by fairly quiet streets and a dedicated bike-scooter lane as I got closer to the heart of downtown.  At one point I did have to brake quickly as I got distracted by a closed cross street.

Red light.

The foundational premise of Mobility as a Service is that it is a collection of modes that all come together to meet the needs of a diverse community with different mobility needs, with as few barriers as possible for users.  As I reflected on Laura’s criticism, it seemed to have two major components.  First, is investing in Move PGH taking away from foundational investments in more equitable transit, like buses or sidewalks?  And two, what is the role of the private sector in providing mobility, which both she and Mayor Peduto believe is a human right?

On the first criticism, it is important to note that the city does not run the public transit system that serves Pittsburgh.  The Port Authority of Allegheny County is managed by an 11-member board appointed by the Allegheny county executive and state-level political leaders.  Running the system day to day is Katharine Kelleman, the Port Authority’s CEO.

Kelleman: What we’re hearing from folks is the same things we heard before the pandemic, which folks want clean, courteous, consistent, reliable, respectful transportation.  It’s—I don’t want to say it’s not rocket science, because there is still a lot that goes on with all the factors we plan out.

Folks want the vehicle to show up when it’s supposed to.  They want to be able to figure out where it’s showing up so there’s no guesswork where your bus stop is.  They want to know that if they have—they’re missing a quarter of their fare or if anything is going on with their fare card that the operator is still going to let them get on the bus and they can still make that trip.  And they want to know that if they take a different job, or maybe they’re going remote, or maybe they want to get their kids in a new school district, that we’re still going to be there for them in a couple of years.  That has not changed.  I mean, it’s a pretty foundational service that we provide.  We don’t own this service.  We run it, but our communities own it.

Cohen: And from this foundation of a robust public transit network, there is a belief from the agency that the complementary modes that Move PGH enables will have an additive effect.

Kelleman: The land use here in Pittsburgh, so much of it predates car culture that it’s already orienting our neighborhoods to this.  So, for instance, in my neighborhood, my kids don’t have a bus; they walk a couple blocks to school.  And I can walk one block to a bus, three blocks to another bus, 10 minutes to a train station.  Right?  So we went to the Steelers game this week.  Go Steelers.  And we took the train.  It was really, really convenient.  But that’s where we start, and that’s this great foundation to jump off into us.  You know, if you’re on Move PGH, or you’re walking or taking a scooter, as long as your scooter isn’t lying sidewise in the road in front of a bus after you use it, it’s a net benefit to us because you’re cobbling together this whole network of leaving wherever your trip starts, and knowing that you can make these links between a bus, or a scooter, or a bikeshare, or walking a couple blocks to get somewhere, and you don’t have to get into a private vehicle.

And it’s not just land use.  We also have really great tree cover, so there’s various studies that’ll say Pittsburgh has the greatest amount of tree cover of any city in the U.S.  Craziness, right?  But why would that matter?  Well, when I lived in Texas, if I walked to lunch, I would hide in the shadow of the buildings downtown.  And if I had to walk somewhere without trees, it fundamentally changed your trip.  And so we’re not as hot here, but we still have that in Pittsburgh, so if you’re going from one block to another, it’s a really different experience, if you can go under trees or you’re not out in the elements and you have some sort of protection.

So all this comes together, and creates this lifestyle where someone is free from a car.  And Janette Sadik-Khan—I’ll steal from her—she says, “It’s not freedom to have a car.  It’s freedom from the car.”

Cohen: Here’s Mayor Peduto again.

Peduto: We want to be able to offer all the modes of transportation under one blanket approach, and then allow the consumer to be able to choose which mode of transportation is best for them.  Not everyone is going to want to use an electric scooter, but for some that may be their first choice.  So having those different options, really identify the critical first-mile/last-mile challenge in being able to provide mobility.

Cohen: On the second criticism, the role of the private sector in mobility, it’s clear from the city perspective that private mobility providers can and should be part of the solution.  But the key is how you manage those relationships, which Pittsburgh was very mindful about.  The City of Pittsburgh’s Karina Ricks.

Ricks: The other thing that I think is the only thing that made this work was that we said we’re going to have just one provider of each mode.  Right?  Because that’s something—the city is not putting any money into this.  That’s really the great value that the city is offering, is saying, “You will be able to be here,” without needing to navigate competition of similar modes—they compete between the different modes, but that’s fine.  You know, that’s the thing that starts to mitigate the risk for them and gives them the confidence to do the kind of experimentation.  We told them—sorry, I keep going on about these things, but we told them, for example, like you cannot park on the sidewalks.  Nowhere in the sidewalk zone can you park in Pittsburgh.  And they were very nervous about this, because they’re very small devices and an automobile could do great damage if they ran over or, you know, struck one of these.  And I said, “No, this is my line in the sand.  We have to protect the sidewalks for pedestrians.  I don’t want any of these scooters on the sidewalks at all.  Maybe with the exception of the charging hubs, but other than that, I don’t want them on the sidewalks.”

And we said, “We’re going to start out, you know, with our way, and, you know, I commit to you that we will make adjustments if it really doesn’t work.”  So they said, “Well, we at least need these, you know, painted corrals, you know, out there to make that work.”  Okay.  We, the city, mustered our forces, and we deployed 200 parking corrals in about two weeks, [LAUGHS] you know, to get to launch.  And, honestly, it’s been fine.  We—Spin has said, you know, of all the markets that they work in, actually the parking has been the most seamless and easiest here.  Their fears about parking these devices in the vehicle-parking lane have not materialized.  It’s been fine.

So, yeah.  I mean, just that ability to really kind of codesign together and experiment together and have that trust between the public sector and the private sector is maybe not as common as one might wish that it was.  So—but they’ve been great partners.

Cohen: The unique approach that Pittsburgh has taken in how they’ve integrated private mobility options with public mobility has been the key differentiator here.  Karina again.

Ricks: Principally, for us, it’s about accountability.  You know, I came from D.C.  Love D.C.  Love a lot of the things that D.C. has done.  But when I go down to D.C. as, you know, now a layperson traveler, it’s a little overwhelming to have so many different providers there and to really navigate the system.  It’s—you know, I would consider myself to be, you know, kind of at the 301/401 level of understanding transportation systems.  [LAUGHS]  And still for me it’s challenging.  Right?  So it’s, from a user experience standpoint, having just one provider is preferable for the user.  Obviously, for the provider it’s preferable.  But for my governance, for my ability to hold them accountable to a high level of performance, it’s also valuable for me.  Because if somebody is telling me that something went wrong with a scooter, I have no doubt in my mind about [LAUGHS] where that responsibility lies.

Cohen: I’m glad that Karina mentioned the user experience, because I believe it represents the true issue we have to navigate for MaaS to be successful, though not all the software has been integrated yet in Pittsburgh.  That’s on its way.  Soon, all the bikes and scooters and mopeds will be integrated into Transit App, along with the existing buses.  InnovatePGH’s Sean Luther.

Luther: The way that it’s structured right now is we’re working on adjacency and cooperation.  But the true goal here is integration.  It’s using the Transit App as a backbone so that the defined trip between a bus, a moped, a scooter, a Zipcar, an e-bike—it doesn’t matter where your money is; it doesn’t matter where your pass is.  The inter-engagement of those modes is where—is really where we’re going to get, and that is super exciting.  And if we have to spend all our time worried about scooters parked on sidewalks, we’re never going to get to transit access between bus and scooters.

Cohen: I don’t think software will be the barrier to the eventual success of MaaS.  The barrier to Maas and its potential are the more operational aspects, like scooters littering the sidewalk that Karina and Sean were worried about, or that I couldn’t figure out how to open the moped trunk, and that I docked my bike improperly, and I forgot to push off with my foot so the scooter throttle would engage.  You might think I’m just bad at this stuff, but like Karina, I’m a fairly advanced transportation user.  So if some of these practical items are tricky for me, they’re likely to be tricky for those with less mobility experience.

This is where I think Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s Laura Chu Wiens is on to something.  If the city is going to invest in projects like Move PGH, which will require experimentation and new norms, it’s incumbent upon them to ensure that collectively the mobility services in the region are meeting the needs of the community to get to work, to school, to medical care, to recreation, and to visit friends and family.  Here’s Southwest Pennsylvania Commission’s Vince Valdes.

Valdes: I’ve always thought that there should be—that at DOT there should now be a federal mobility administration that doesn’t worry about highways and transit so much as it does mobility.  Sure, you need the transit and the highway side to think about the transportation aspect, actually getting it done, but that there should be—I don’t know, maybe it’s in the office of the secretary; that it’s an office of mobility that thinks about that interconnected ecosystem.

You know, they say you value that which you measure.  And, for too long, we measured the engineering aspects of mobility, the transportation aspects of mobility.  So for highways and roads it’s level of service and, you know, miles paved or what have you.  It’s a very kind of practical, pragmatic, you know, engineering kind of approach.  Even for transit, it’s like ridership.  How many people are in a bus?  How many people are riding a subway train, or what have you?  Without thinking about are they getting their—is their satisfaction for their mobility need—that thing I was talking about earlier, at the end of that trip or through that trip?  So not thinking about it in terms of just the throughput, thinking about it in terms of the overall impact to the individual.  I think, it’s just a slight—a fairly large change in perspective.

I’m very much one who—and I’m asking some of my folks here.  We’ve got some smart people here at SPC.  I think others are thinking about it as well.  I really challenge us to think about a mobility index.  How well—and that includes a user focus.  How well did that trip satisfy my need?

Cohen: When trying to understand the impact of MaaS in Pittsburgh and beyond, it’s easy to only focus on these very pragmatic aspects of mobility that Vince mentioned.  And we do need to keep them front and center.  And we also need to center the equity and social and racial justice concerns that Laura Chu Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit highlighted.  And we need to acknowledge the power of technology vis-à-vis the limitations of the real-life operational complexities that can impact mobility.

But it’s also important to remember the emotional and even spiritual aspects of mobility, what the power of movement allows you to feel.  Think back to the wind in your hair from your first bike ride, the feelings of freedom on your first walk by yourself to a friend’s house, or the first time public transit opened your world a little wider than it was before.  Here’s the City of Pittsburgh’s Karina Ricks with the last word.

Ricks: We had our City Council meeting, and I was—I’m generally not very cheeky in the City Council hearings.  But one of the Council people said—he said, “Well, I just see people out here joyriding.”  And I said, “Well, couldn’t we all use a little more joy in our life?  Why is that wrong?”

Cohen: It’s been 1500 years since an Irish missionary first reported a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. And despite only a handful of unexplained sightings each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Loch Ness annually, hoping for their own glimpse of the elusive creature. 

Like those Loch Ness pilgrims, I journeyed to Pittsburgh on my own expedition to see if I could spy Mobility as a Service in the wild with my own eyes. Certainly in its early stage of deployment with some things left to be integrated, I can’t say for sure that what I saw was actually Mobility as a Service. But what I can say is that whatever is happening in Pittsburgh will allow more people the simple freedom of movement, to live, to work, AND to play. And, better yet, we won’t have to wait 1500 years to see it. 

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.