Suddenly, sharing has become trendy. We often hear of the ‘shared’ or ‘collaborative’ economy. The rise of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Grab, ofo and Zipcar, providing ridesharing, bikesharing, carsharing and their ever-increasing market capitalisation epitomises this transformation. We hear the companies promote ‘sharing’ as a social virtue, although there is the usual confoundment between the far more important sharing of space (or pooling) with the sharing of vehicle assets (linked to temporal utilisation). The sharing of data is placed on a pedestal, as tensions around the legitimacy of these operations continue to boil (Uber as a case in point in many markets). As a storm of media attention surrounds these companies, TNCs are claiming to share their data as an almost ‘truce’ with city regulators and authorities. Is this sharing just a veil? And more fundamentally, why should these companies have any obligation to share their data? Why does society expect companies who compete commercially, with their entire business models predicated on collecting, mining and selling users’ data be expected to share their ‘golden goose’?
We often make the comparison with urban public transport where the state maintains control as the principal source of knowledge about travel patterns on the network. In most developed countries, governments either directly operate services or they are provided by the private sector under contract to the government, through a tender process, negotiation, or by direct award. This occurs under a gross cost contract model where government collects the fare revenue and operators are reimbursed on a per kilometre basis, or a net cost model with some element of revenue risk. In either case, the private operators are in effect an ‘extended’ public servant with a protected area monopoly for a defined period of time. The sharing of data is a given in contracted environments where it is stipulated as part of an agreement, and the data essential to determining the remuneration of the operator and to implement actionable benchmarking, including the administration of incentives and penalties linked to operator performance.
TNCs operating in an economically deregulated market have far less necessity to share data since they are not being directly remunerated by the government. Economic deregulation offers many advantages linked to cost efficiency but also externalities like network effectiveness and the traditional difficulty to regulate. In the developed world, we often point to experience in the UK outside London (Figure 1) where economic deregulation from the 1980s led to the so-called ‘bus wars’, characterised by headrunning or schedule matching (with links to Hotelling's law on minimum differentiation), accompanied by lengthy dwells at bus stops to pick up competing operators’ customers, all of which led to enormous service instability. The sharing of data even as simple as patronage information would hinder operators’ ability to compete ‘on the road’. Passenger transport executives would often resort to undertaking their own passenger counts to guide infrastructure investment and to implement subsidised, social services. Operators were even reluctant to share the real time position of their vehicles, arguing that it would only serve to show how late their buses ran. Larger operators benefiting from incumbency often had everything to lose in sharing ticketing products and timetabling information (by giving their captive passengers more choice), as compared with smaller operators who could grow market share by attracting competitors’ passengers. The entire regime and predatory behaviour hindered efforts at developing integrated smartcard systems. This aspect of the whole debate in how data sharing fits within the broader contractual framework, regulatory and institutional settings is often neglected amidst the dogma associated with the ‘open data’ movement and the need to regulate disruptive new technologies and business models.
In studying data sharing issues, it is therefore instructive to consider where the contractual environment might head in the future. The Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) has run the world’s premier conference on competition and ownership (known as the Thredbo series) which since 1989 has brought together academics, government and industry (operators and consultants) to document global experiences in public transport institutional reform, contract design and implementation. Through the conference series, the series has in many cases pre-empted where governments have moved in terms of the design and specification of contracts, as well as advised numerous cities and countries on their contract reform process. We have witnessed the pendulum swing between varying levels of public and private initiative (competition in or for the market)—a concept we refer to as ‘regulatory cycles’ (Gwilliam, 2008), as the inadequacies of one regime are quickly replaced by the shortcomings of another (“grass is greener on the other side” is another apt description).
What we have seen in recent years is an increasing desire for a hybrid model which brings together the best of a contracted regime with the benefits and incentives inherent under economic deregulation (Wong and Hensher, 2018). Whilst present contracts are narrow, area-specific, output-based arrangements to deliver kilometres on defined vehicles types (e.g., buses), future contracts may evolve to become broader, mode-agnostic, outcome-based mobility contract offerings where a broker/aggregator has the flexibility to deliver accessibility using any vehicle of their choosing (Hensher, 2017)—linked to how we see mobility as a service (MaaS) being implemented. A mix of new players will enter the market (e.g., TNCs, technology providers and financial enterprise) and enormous challenges emerge in terms of how data is shared and the end user protected. In a mode-agnostic, on-demand environment there will be less need for rigid key performance indicators like on-time running, excess dwell time or headway regularity. Rather than service-specific measures, we will need measures of access, collected at the individual level and covering both users and non-users. This might be stipulated in (for instance) X proportion of residents receiving transport service within Y minutes, for Z hours of the day. MaaS operators will be held accountable for potential service and a social safety net defined linked to accessibility—with possible subsidies supporting top-up accessibility or non-commercial services. Any actual service must be remunerated based on accessibility delivered—not just carrying fresh air. The data items are more complex to gather, report, monitor and enforce, but essential in ensuring that MaaS is not a niche product for the few but a scalable proposition for the masses and a true alternative to private vehicle ownership.
But how might this vision be operationalised? For the MaaS broker/aggregator, the right to operate ought to be linked to certain conditions associated with a contracted setting but also the scope to innovate like that of an economically deregulated framework. We speak of ‘light touch’ regulation with the necessary data supplied for government to act as a monitoring agency (although this role may be outsourced to a third-party intermediary independent of government).1 MaaS research at ITLS has found amongst the business community, preference for government to play a strategic supporting role legitimising the sector and ensuring a level playing field, rather than any heavy-handed involvement including the provision of direct financial support like subsidies (Wong et al., 2019). We find that candidate businesses do not necessarily wish to monopolise (at least initially as they test the market) and that they are happy to share as long as all competitors are playing by the same rules.
MaaS also offers itself as an opportunity to price the use of public assets like the road network, with a network efficient charge determined by a combination of distance, time, location, and modal (both spatial and temporal) efficiency built in as part of a package price—invisible to the end user. Incentives and penalties to ‘nudge’ travel behaviour are another important demand management tool possible with sufficient MaaS adoption. The challenge herein lies in different operators being able to coordinate and act as one, as well as a clearing house mechanism which operates network-wide. Data standards to allow sharing and roaming between jurisdictions are already being developed by actors like MaaS Alliance who are taking a lead role as the peak industry body for the sector. There are further parallels in this intermediary model to the retail industry in the form of barcodes defined by GS1 standards, covering virtually every product on Earth, and allowing the fast and easy querying of supply chains around the world.
Any discussion on data sharing must not be removed from its institutional context. As a final note, what is often missing amidst the data sharing debate is clarity in the purpose of data being shared.2 For government, this could be the need to regulate and prevent market failure, ensure information symmetry, as well as to maintain and optimise public assets. For private enterprise, it is the opportunity to pursue new business opportunities with the assurance that there will be no unfair competition or predatory behaviour. For the community, it is better service for less cost—the quintessential human right and freedom to be mobile. We must not neglect these higher-level objectives. Like many things, data sharing is simply a means to an end, not an end in itself.
I thank Chinh Ho, David Hensher and John Nelson for thoughtful conversations on this topic.
The 16th International Conference on Competition and Ownership in Land Passenger Transport (Thredbo 16) will continue the discussion on data sharing and its role in public transport contracts reform. Thredbo 16 is being held 25-30th August 2019 in Singapore, jointly organised by Nanyang Technological University, the Land Transport Authority and ITLS at the University of Sydney. Please visit: https://thredbo-conference-series.org
GWILLIAM, K. 2008. Bus transport: Is there a regulatory cycle? In Hensher, D. A. (Ed.), Institutional Reform in Land Passenger Transport. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 42, 1183-1194.
HENSHER, D. A. 2017. Future bus transport contracts under a mobility as a service (MaaS) regime in the digital age: Are they likely to change? Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 98, 86-96.
WONG, Y. Z. & HENSHER, D. A. 2018. The Thredbo story: A journey of competition and ownership in land passenger transport In Alexandersson, G., Hensher, D. A. & Steel, R. (Eds.), Competition and Ownership in Land Passenger Transport (Selected papers from the Thredbo 15 conference). Research in Transportation Economics, 69, 9-22.
WONG, Y. Z., HENSHER, D. A. & MULLEY, C. 2019. Delivering mobility as a service (MaaS) through a broker/aggregator business model. 16th International Conference on Competition and Ownership in Land Passenger Transport (Thredbo 16). Singapore.