Moving MaaS: The Situation in Singapore

Today, city inhabitants have access to almost a dozen different modes of transportation. However, almost a dozen different modes of transportation require almost a dozen different apps, payment methods, and authorizing documents which can prove to be a hassle for users and operators alike.

Fortunately, there are already a couple of solutions to this issue that adhere to the concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). A flexible concept, MaaS can be implemented in a variety of ways. For the purposes of this article series, we will examine MaaS programs that aim to:

  1. Unify transportation trip planning in a city
  2. Simplify payment methods for city-wide transportation
  3. Provide multi-modal transportation options

Because of the variety of MaaS implementation, we will focus on three cities: Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Helsinki. Last week, we explored Pittsburgh’s MaaS pilot Move PGH, and how it was faring in the City of Bridges. This week, we will focus on Singapore’s experiments with MaaS, from its highs to its lows. To read last week’s article, follow the link here. 

Making More in Singapore

There are few cities on earth positioned to take advantage of mass transportation services other than Singapore. Gaining independence in 1965, the city-state has grown to house almost 6 million people by 2022. Those 6 million people live on only 270 square miles of land —an average 21,646 people per square mile! To put it in perspective, almost 100 percent of Singapore is considered “urban” by the World Bank, and it has the third highest population density out of any country in the world except for Monaco and Macau.

For such a tightly-packed urban area, space is a precious commodity. Roads already occupy 12 percent of Singapore’s total land area, and vehicle quota and road pricing systems have already been implemented to help reduce congestion and create a more pleasurable living environment for citizens while simultaneously reducing the need for space-heavy auto centric infrastructure.

In 2014, Singapore announced a slew of new transportation initiatives as a part of their Smart Mobility 2030 plan. Efforts to shift modal preferences away from personal vehicle use were varied to say the very least. For instance, the Land Transport Authority  (LTA) signed an MOU with the Agency of Science, Technology and Research to administer the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI). Singapore planners also acknowledged that lack of space meant that other forms of mass transportation must gain serious investment by 2030. 67 percent of peak-hour trips are already made via public transit each day, and authorities hoped to raise ridership 75 percent by 2030.

With that in mind, Singapore experimented (and continues to experiment) with new technologies to ensure an efficient multimodal future. Adopting a user-centric approach, Singapore authorities are trying to encourage different transportation modes for different activities for residents as well as tourists.

In 2019, the local startup mobilityX released Zipster, which claimed to be “Asia’s first all-in-one transport app.” The app allowed users to plan their journeys, track the timing of various transportation modes, and explore options from ride-hailing to cycling. Participating companies included Grab, Gojeck, and BlueSG, as well as Toyota. The effort was funded by the venture capital arm of the regional transportation agency, SMRT, as well as by a Toyota seed grant.

Zipster also created the Zipter card, which was an integrated wallet which reflects all transactions across various modes of transportation. The app also provided discounts and vouchers that could be utilized by users throughout their journeys. Users could save up to 20 percent a month when using the app, with three to five plans available to citizens.

In comparison to Move PGH’s Transit app, Zipster afforded users more mobility options. Whereas Move PGH only allowed users to pay for buses and inclines using its app, Zipster provided in-app payment for all public transit, scooters, ride-shares, and car sharing services. Shortly after the launch of the service, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat stated, “by integrating mobility services such as public transport, taxis, and car and bicycle sharing, MaaS offers commuters a more streamlined and personalized experience.”

However, by 2021, Zipster went “zip.” What happened? And how could it have happened in a city as integrated as Singapore?

Pugnacious Problems

Despite 16,000 downloads from users during its beta testing phase, mobilityX closed its doors after only two years of operations.  Most users were notified of its discontinuation through a message on their phones, followed by the outright removal of the app from online stores. SMRT, the local rail operator in the region and one of Zipster’s primary benefactors, claimed they decided to stop funding after “reviewing its [Zipster’s] prospects and progress.” Unlike Move PGH, Zipster was funded by SMRT Ventures as a profit-driven app, and not simply as a pilot.

Although SMRT did not respond to most questions regarding their decision to shut down the app, several theories were put forward as to why it failed. Mr. Li Jianggan, Chief executive of the firm Momentum Works, believed it was due to the different transportation habits and organization of East-Asian cities. More compact than its European or American counterparts, Singapore simply didn’t require as many modes to travel throughout the city, unlike places like Helsinki or Pittsburgh. Others, such as Associate Transport Economist Professor Walter Theseira noted that Singapore’s well-organized and efficient public transit network makes MaaS unappealing to general riders as anything other than a planning app, which can ultimately be served by Google Maps or other programs.

Defenders of the concept noted, however, that the app’s release timing hardly helped matters. Shortly after the app’s 2019 debut, the world suffered the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021, Singapore’s public transit ridership had only reached roughly 5 million riders per day, marking a 2 million person different from its pre-pandemic high of 7 million. At a time when commuters were traveling less than ever, Zipster defenders noted that it’s no small wonder that the app failed to meet user or profit expectations.

The App at the End of the Tunnel

Despite the initial demise of Zipster, MaaS in Singapore was not wholly dead. Program partner Grab added a trip planner and transportation subscription packages. Additionally, the CDG Zig app not only allows users to pay for taxis and private vehicles, but also displays EV charging locations as well as regional attractions and opportunities.

However, SMRT has not restarted Zipster, despite retaining the rights to the app’s infrastructure and intellectual property. When assessing what could make MaaS more appealing to Singapore riders, University of Sydney Professor David Ensher stated that “a slight reduction in fares is not enough to get people interested” in something like MaaS. Instead, broader rewards programs would help distinguish the app from its local competitors.

The failure of MaaS in a city often ranked with one of the best urban transportation systems in the world should cause MaaS advocates to consider changing their approaches when implementing these programs. Singapore riders, with their strong, integrated transportation network, ultimately did not take to Zipster with zeal. The fact that Pittsburgh’s pilot — despite lacking as many options or even as strong of a transportation network — is still operating and expanding showcases how cities with historically strong planning practices do not necessarily make the best test grounds for new approaches to transportation.

Perhaps one day MaaS will return to Singapore in the way that suits the city. In the meantime, we will have a chance to see what MaaS has been like in the very far north – all the way in Helsinki. We’ll see you there!

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