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How Toronto missed out for now on one of the hottest concepts in transportation – integrated mobility

Hopes of bringing one of the hottest new concepts in transportation to Toronto have been derailed by the city’s old-fashioned Presto card technology as well as a perceived lack of interest from Metrolinx, the regional transit agency.

Finnish company MaaS Global, one of the world leaders in integrated mobility – which bundles transit, taxi services and bike-share into one offering, to make a journey as seamless as possible – had been eyeing Toronto for its first expansion outside of Europe. But talks between Metrolinx and the company weren’t successful, and the firm is now targeting Miami.

The concept of integrated mobility bundles transit, taxi services and bike-share into one offering, to make a journey as seamless as possible.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

MaaS CEO Sampo Hietanen said Toronto’s Presto fare system, which currently requires people to carry a card – unlike more modern transit agencies, where customers can pay with their phone – had been an insurmountable barrier.

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“The number-one thing for us is what we ask in a city: Can we get into public transport with a mobile phone?” he said in a phone interview from Finland.

As recently as April, Metrolinx said implementing this functionality could take as long as five years. Although the agency has since sped up its timeline – now promising that customers will be able to tap their phone to enter TTC or GO Transit by the end of 2018 – MaaS had already turned its focus to Florida.

A number of companies and jurisdictions in Europe have been experimenting with integrated mobility in the last few years. The core idea behind the concept is that urban living without a car is manageable for most people, as long as there are other transportation options available. At its essence, the model combines trip planning, ticket booking and payment, across all modes of travel, into a single app.

Using an integrated mobility system, a trip might involve the customer taking a taxi to a transit station, the train to a stop close to their destination and then an electric scooter or bike-share for the last stretch. All parts of the trip would be booked and paid for as a package, through the app.

The idea of such an approach has not gone away in Toronto. Other companies are also eyeing the market, and both the Toronto Transit Commission and Metrolinx are studying the concept, though neither has set a public timeline.

TTC Chair Josh Colle – who has been considering the merits of a broader consolidation of local transportation offerings, perhaps beginning with bringing the Toronto Parking Authority and the bike-share network under the TTC umbrella – argues that integrated mobility is an idea whose time has come.

“I kind of feel that Toronto is going to end up playing catch-up,” Mr. Colle said. “I think the TTC needs to be saying ‘we want to be the mobility lead.’”

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In the case of Metrolinx, they are now analyzing whether they would build their own system, buy one or lay the foundations that would allow third-party providers to come in.

“We want to be absolutely sure that as we enter into this, if this is the new world of mobility and offering people really the freedom outside of just owning a vehicle, that we get it right,” said Doug Spooner, manager of mobility management, planning and policy at the agency.

Mr. Hietenan’s firm was one of the earliest to stake out ground in the increasingly competitive integrated mobility space, with operations in Helsinki, Birmingham and another European centre where they have done a soft launch.

In Toronto, he said, the firm had good initial talks with Beck, which has about 2100 taxis operating in the city. Kristine Hubbard, operations manager at the taxi firm, confirmed the talks but said her company ultimately had concerns about the quality of its own software, which was new at the time, as well as worries that their brand might be undermined.

There was also interest from Metrolinx, though apparently not enough, in Mr. Hietenan’s view. The MaaS chief suggested that his company felt a certain hesitation on the part of the transit agency.

“There are those [partners] that are really, really, really asking, ‘Hey guys, what do we need to do to get you and the likes of you to start being in this city?’,” he said. “And then there are those that are contemplating how should they react towards us. And of course, you know, you can think which one this is.”

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Mr. Spooner, the Metrolinx official, stressed that the agency is interested in the concept, but agnostic about how it might be provided.

“I think … we’re not in a place to make a decision,” he said. “And so, if there was the sense that we weren’t enthusiastic, it may have been a timing enthusiasm.”

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