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Integrated mobility is one of the hottest topics in the industry – but peddling the idea to Canadian cities is proving a slow ride

A Skytrain is pictured in transit in downtown Vancouver.

The future of transit is more than transit.

Imagine being in an unfamiliar city and wanting to get to a specific spot. You've downloaded a transportation app and it takes care of everything, offering options for your route and suggesting whether to go by transit, a bike-share, taxi – or perhaps a combination of all three. Upon completion of the trip, you're billed automatically.

This is integrated mobility, with the goal to offer the most convenient possible transportation journey, in which people can use the most logical vehicles for any given trip. The core idea is that much of urban living can be done without a car, if you have the right options. Having robust transit and other choices – along with occasional access to a car – should mean that fewer people will require their own vehicle.

It's a future that is emerging in select cities, as private companies and public transportation operators roll out pilots and small-scale launches. These include everything from mass transit to bike-share to electric vehicle charging – even ski-lift passes.

Sampo Hietanen, chief executive officer of the Finnish firm Mobility as a Service (MaaS), said his company's goal is to offer all the options people need.

"Simply, we'll get you there," he said from the airport in Copenhagen. "It's not just [your daily normal] A to B. We need to be able to take care of all your As and all your Bs, all the time."

Passengers stand while a Montreal Metro train passes through a station in Montreal.

Integrated mobility is one of the hottest topics in transportation and a session on it drew a standing-room-only crowd at a global conference in Montreal this spring. Some of the most senior people in Canadian transit were there to learn about cities and companies leading this change. But there is little progress in most Canadian cities, some of which have only recently got past the idea of something such as cycling competing with public transit.

The backbone of integrated mobility is invariably public transit, though this is not typically about transit agencies themselves providing all possible transportation services. Instead, it's about extending the service transit can offer on its own, doing so by linking transportation options together so they can be accessed as part of a bigger package.

Martin Roehrleef, head of transportation modernization efforts in Hannover, Germany, likens the city's offerings to a fast-food restaurant. Its customers can pick and choose what transportation options they want to include, paying a single monthly bill.

"Every transit customer also has to rely on other modes of transport … so we made it our mission to make it as simple as possible for them," he said.

Hannover has 3,000 or 4,000 users of its app. It's still a relatively small number, Mr. Roehrleef acknowledged, but he noted that its percentage growth is "by double digits" from year to year and said a large number of users have been able to rid themselves of private vehicles.

The city offered Germany's first multimodal transportation package in 2004 and launched a Web-based mobility service last year. It's at the forefront of a global evolution that is starting to gather momentum, promising to transform how people get around.

A GO Train leaves Toronto’s Union Station.

The Canadian question

This transportation evolution is an effort that Canadian cities have been slow to join. Montreal is most bullish on the vision, but some Canadian cities are merely monitoring what others are doing. Mr. Hietanen's firm is eyeing Toronto, but the city itself has done little to pursue such a future. As it stands, the Presto fare card offers no functionality beyond transit, not allowing users to pay for parking or even take out a bike-share.

Patrick Leclerc, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, argued that the technology is new, so cities in this country aren't so far behind. But he added that they face struggles around governance, the regulatory environment and limited population density.

Some cities that might want to integrate their transportation system lack alternate options such as bike-share. And with transit agencies often still judged by their ridership and with funding linked to the number of people carried, there can be little motivation to co-operate with other transportation providers.

"What we need to look at is how can we grow the share of the pie of sustainable urban mobility," Mr. Leclerc said.

"If the goal is to build sustainable communities and we say we will track modal share of sustainable urban mobility options, this is where I think we'll achieve the right growth. And this is where you will really incentivize transit agencies to partner up with other sustainable mobility providers, to grow that piece of the pie. But if we only give them objectives to increase ridership, then what is the incentive to [encourage] people to leave the bus and get on their bikes?"

Toronto’s Yonge-Bloor station.

Foreign examples

The good news is that Canadian cities don't have to invent this for themselves. Examples have cropped up around the world.

Seoul's system allows people to board 10,000 buses, 75,000 taxis and buy at 80,000 retailers using either the city's proprietary smart card or their own credit card. Hong Kong's Octopus fare card has long offered broad functionality, from transit to ferries to retail stores.

Private companies trying to claim a slice of this market include many of the big players. Among them is Siemens, which has a pilot project in Berlin, a soft-launched system in Dubai and a mobility platform being rolled out for the Sudostbanh rail company in Switzerland, which was expected to have a full launch later this summer or in the fall.

A worker walks past hundreds of BIXI bikes parked outside the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver.

Describing her company's products at the Montreal meeting of global transportation professionals, Siemens executive Simone Kohler sparked one of the biggest ripples of buzz by explaining that its integrated-mobility platform in Switzerland could include ski-lift passes.

In a subsequent interview, she detailed a less exciting feature, but one which would be useful in more places. If the app is activated on your phone, Ms. Kohler said, you can simply board a transit vehicle without paying or tapping a card. "Your trip is registered once you enter a vehicle and it starts moving," she said from Munich.

MaaS is another private player that has emerged, selling monthly bundles that give customers combinations of transportation, with trip-planning and billing streamlined. The company is operational in both Helsinki and Birmingham, England. It hopes to expand and has signalled that it is looking at the Greater Toronto Area as a possible destination.

"Currently, the GTA is served by multiple public bus transit organizations, interurban rail, subway, Uber, bike-share, several car shares, and over 5,000 registered taxis operated by several private taxi companies," a company release from last year reads. "This, in addition to about 3.5-million private cars, makes the GTA a prime candidate for realizing the value of MaaS – completely simplifying daily commuting and trips."

A TransLink SeaBus arrives at the Lonsdale Quay SeaBus station in North Vancouver.

"What is our raison d'être?"

In some ways, the technology that allows this is not remarkable; elements of it are available in various forms.

There are several apps on the market that can tell someone how long it will take to get from one place to another by foot, bike, car or transit. Many transit agencies have the technology to tell would-be riders when the next vehicle is coming. Credit-card companies have long offered a one-stop shop for payment.

But what the cities at the forefront of integrated mobility do is tie together a number of these capabilities, offering a user-friendly package. That ease of use is key, according to transportation experts, particularly when trying to appeal to potential customers more accustomed to Uber-type offerings than transit.

Canadian transit agencies are paying attention, albeit more slowly than some in foreign countries.

In Montreal, the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM) is a new organization that is part of a recently launched effort to streamline transit governance and decision-making in the area. One of its first tasks is to tackle the region's overly complex fare structure, in which transit passengers are faced with more than 700 different possible fares. A strategy to integrate these is being hammered out.

"What we're trying to do is, let's simplify the offer," said Paul Côté, general manager of ARTM. He is looking ahead to a future where Montreal's fare card could be used for multiple types of purchase. Integrated mobility is a key goal.

"On my phone, I [could] buy a monthly package that includes the transport that I use," Mr. Côté said, suggesting this could happen within five years.

Passengers wait for the Calgary C-Train’s Light Rail System along 7th Avenue in the city centre.

Other Canadian agencies are not as far along.

TransLink, Vancouver's regional transportation authority, includes in its 10-year vision, the goal of developing a platform that would bring together payment, ticketing, trip planning and travel rewards, incorporating all the various modes and services on offer throughout the region. Andrew McCurran, director of strategic planning and policy, said in an e-mail that the agency in November approved funding to begin mapping out this plan.

Calgary, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach. Chris Jordan, manager of transit planning for the city's transit agency, said that it is watching developments in the integrated mobility sector, but doesn't think the city will go much beyond trip planning in the near term.

In Toronto, the situation is complicated. The Toronto Transit Commission is the country's most heavily used transit agency. But it receives less funding for every rider than Metrolinx, the regional agency that carries far fewer people and is leading a fare integration strategy for the area.

This integrated fare could become the basis for a system of integrated mobility, although little has been done toward that goal.

"The thing that has slowed down Toronto in integrated mobility is there's no one body, no one in charge," said former TTC deputy CEO and chief customer officer Chris Upfold, who left the role at the end of June. He expects it will take five years just for the area to make the necessary decisions about the transit governance structure it wants.

Not long ago, the TTC might have been reluctant to embrace other forms of transportation – there was a time when staff were unhappy about putting bike racks on the front of buses because cycling was seen as a competitor to transit – but it may be less controversial now.

Whether the TTC wants to pursue this future, though, is a decision for its board. And Mr. Upfold said it's an existential question the board will have to tackle: "What is our raison d'être? Are we a mobility provider or are we a transit provider?"