Mobility as a Service (MaaS) replaces car ownership with a combination of multiple modes of mobility on demand. Mobility hubs are essential for the safe and convenient switch between modes of transport but they can be much more than just locations to switch modes. Best practices show that they can close supply gaps, enhance traveler experience and the quality of life in their areas. This post outlines common hub building blocks, success factors and sources for further information, which can be used as a checklist and food for thought for the successful implementation.
What is a Mobility Hub?
As so often there are many definitions out there. The least common denominator might be that mobility hubs are dedicated locations for switching modes of transport.
The first mobility hubs were probably sea harbors, where goods and people switched from land transport to ships and vice versa. These hubs were often the nucleus of urban developments and the prosperity for millions of people for hundreds of years. Most of today’s mega cities developed around these “mobility hubs”, which gives a clue about their importance.
Today ports are still important but mainly for freight traffic. Airports, train and subway stations have taken over most of their role for passenger traffic. They are today’s “natural” hubs, where car parking, rental cars, busses stops and taxis stands but also shops, hotels and conference centers settled around to benefit from passing trade and good accessibility. The close proximity to high passenger traffic leads to massive positive externalities in the form of increased real estate prices. Smart public transport authorities take advantage of this increased property value by renting it out. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is even able to operate profitably without any subsidies by cross-financing their railway operations via their “Rail plus Property” business model. This model could probably be a blueprint for the financing of many mobility hubs if the property is owned by the hub operator or surrounding businesses jointly finance the hub in order to attract more customers.
Apart from these organically grown large mobility hubs, municipalities across the globe plan smaller hubs systematically in order to improve intermodal mobility and take advantage of their socio-economic benefits. Installations can be as little as a bus stop with a shelter and an attached bike sharing station or as big as the aforementioned mega hubs. These hubs often have specific names such as mobility station or point, mobihub, (public) ride point, smart station, sharing zone, transportation center, public transit or transport hub, transport interchange, ride port, share point, and so on plus their equivalents in local languages. A respective strong visual brand helps passengers to spot them.
Why does it matter?
The concept of Mobility as a Service or Mobility on Demand aims to replace rides with one’s own car via mobility services tailored to the passenger’s needs. But if rides with one’s own car only get replaced with the same rides just with a shared car, MaaS’s contribution to climate protection would be close to nil. To reduce our carbon footprint, single occupancy car rides need to get replaced with more efficient modal split and shared rides. The problem with shared rides is that they usually do not allow for a single ride point to point connection. Instead the passenger needs to change the mode of transport usually for the first and last mile. Unfortunately passengers are resistant to change modes during a trip. Every change adds travel time, inconvenience bears the risk of missing a connection. So these changes need to be as smooth as possible. Mobility hubs can assure smooth changes. Furthermore they can enhance the travel experience beyond just switching modes. If they allow passengers to work, relax, pick up a package, meet friends or do essential shopping on the way home, these journeys will be seen as more beneficial than sitting behind one’s own steering wheel in a traffic jam.
What is needed? The Mobility Hub Building Blocks
Required functions of a mobility hub depend on local specifications. The elementary function is to connect means of transport with each other. All other functions depend on the specific passenger’s needs. A customer-oriented co-creation approach in the station making process will assure that their needs will be addressed and acceptance will be high. In an iterative step-by-step approach further building blocks can be added and their acceptance tested. All hubs should allow barrier-free access for wheelchairs and guidance for visually impaired passengers. Safe pedestrian and bike paths as well as priority bus lanes should allow good accessibility. The subsequent list indicates potential functions.
Changing Modes of Transport – the Core Function
The different modes of transport should be within walking distance and their schedules coordinated.
- Railways, e.g. train, subway, tram, cable car or hyperloop stations
- Bus, shuttle, taxi, ride hailing pickup and dropoff areas
- Carpooling / shard ride meeting area with an info board or direction indicators
- Shared cars and shared micro mobility, i.e. electric mopeds, kick-scooters, (cargo) bikes
- Airplanes, VTOL air taxi skyport/drone pads
- Ships and ferries
Intermodal traffic is a complex and dynamic system. The users of this system, i.e. travelers or passengers need different types of information to handle this changing complexity:
- Static travel information: timetables, fares, detailed locations, connections
- Dynamic, real-time information: routing, delays, disruptions, availabilities, pooling / ride sharing options for cars and taxis, demand-responsive transport (DRT) shuttle requests from and to the hub, in-door navigation to the connection platform
- Location-based information: events, local offers, touristic information, weather
The information channels should allow all passengers to find the information they need even in stressful situations, e.g. when rushing to a connection, traveling with children or not being able to speak the language. This requires clear and simple communication on all available visual, audible and data channels:
- Strong visual brand to mark the mobility hub
- Pictograms and haptic information to guide passengers
- Information displays on all tracks and gates
- Electronic information kiosks
- Service personnel or info points connecting to a service center
- Audio announcements
- All aforementioned data in an open format APIS for mobility apps
- Bluetooth beacons for indoor navigation apps
- WLAN to enable travelers to access internet information without a local SIM card
Vehicle-related Infrastructure and Services
The provision of vehicles also requires some related infrastructure and services:
- Charging infrastructure i.e. charging points for electric vehicles, which requires at least one 11 kW 3 phase power supply
- Gas station for combustion engine-powered vehicles
- Park & Ride (P&R) for privately owned first/last mile vehicles (cars, bikes) – ideally sheltered and theft-proof with charging points, online reservation and information about their remaining capacity
- Bike service or repair shop
- Maintenance for the shared vehicles, i.e. repair, fueling, charging, cleaning, restocking, redistribution
Convenience and Shopping
Mobility hubs will serve the purpose better if they are enjoyable places and not just functional – a place to linger rather than to rush through. They should enable passengers to make good use of their waiting time and beyond with e.g.
- Toilets – the most frequently requested function
- Safe and convenient waiting area protecting from weather, crime and harassment
- Waste separation bins
- Vending machines with snacks, drinks, travel necessities, face masks, …
- Kiosks with take away food and beverages, newspapers and magazines
- Cafés or restaurants to foster social life and create a neighbourhood meeting place
- Basic grocery, Späti
- Co-working spaces, see below
- Change room for cyclists – ideally with shower and storage for cycling gear
- Prayer or nap rooms
- Public green space
- Connectivity (WLAN)
- Smart phone chargers
- Power plugs for laptops
- … and of course: a piano would be great
We already mentioned grocery shops, which can be very convenient. No extra stop needed as they are on the way home. But how cool would it be if I could also get my packages or online shopping delivered there and pick it up on my way home? This consolidation of ways would spare an extra ride to the post office and save time both for the delivery service and for me.
An urban consolidation center could allow multiple delivery services to decouple and bundle their freight flows for end customers per street so that only one vehicle has to serve a street instead of one per company. This can save costs for the delivery companies and reduce congestion from double-parked delivery vehicles. This logistics function is independent from passenger transport but might be co-located to also serve the package locker.
- Smart package delivery lockers – also for click & collect shopping
- Lockers, e.g. for sports gear for the gym visit on the way home
- Mirco depot / urban consolidation center
- Cargo Bikes, more flexible than vans, require no driver license
- Lost & found service
The corona pandemic has sustainably changed the way how offices work: many companies have realized that constant local presence in office buildings is no longer needed and productivity can even increase if their staff works from home at least sometimes. This will likely lead to a significant reduction in the need for office space. Nevertheless there will be an even higher need for on-demand meeting rooms, properly equipped video conferencing rooms and post box company addresses. This demand can be covered by co-working spaces, which should be conveniently placed as regards transport facilities. So naturally mobility hubs would be good locations for such co-working spaces.
Urban vs. Rural Mobility Hubs
The success of mobility services as a means for reducing emissions does not depend on the people living in the city centers. It much more depends on the majority of people who live in the suburbs, outskirts or rural areas. They still need to own a car – or are otherwise simply cut off from social participation. In the city center most mobility services already focus on train and subway stations, so adding dedicated mobility hubs to these city stations will likely add just little value. In suburban or rural areas on the other side there are almost no shared mobility nor ride hailing services available. These areas of “transport poverty” bear the highest potential for Mobility as a Service and mobility hubs. In these “mobility deserts” they would create the biggest value for money.
The additional mobility options, especially shared vehicles and demand-responsive shuttles would make car ownership obsolete for many residents living in the closer proximity of these areas – even it might take some years for the people to get used to these options and trust them to stay before they abandon their cars. Car ownership-related lock-in costs have caused an interia, which will require a ramp-up phase of several years – and respective patience and long-term funding.
In sub-urban and rural areas mobility hubs with mass rapid transit connections to the city will support a “hub and spoke” approach, i.e. they will extend the reach of publicly accessible shared transport options, indicated by the green areas in the sketch below. This can help keeping cars away from the city.
In rural areas many abandoned train stations exist. These buildings are often well suited to host rural mobility hubs and give areas with rural depopulation a chance to gain back quality of life and attract new citizens, such as flexible office workers and digital nomads, who want to flee the cities. With the new way of working independent from the company’s main office, rural areas become attractive for this type of work force. The lower cost of living, a more relaxed lifestyle and greener environment are strong arguments to leave the city centers and settle in their wider area – as long as there is a good transport connection to the city. And here we are again with our mobility hubs. For this new breed of office workers the mobility hubs with co-working spaces could also offer a working environment near their rural homes but still in proximity to the city if needed. In case the mobility hub would be located in a “white spot” lacking high speed internet connectivity, a Starlink satellite connection could connect its co-working space and so serve the entire area.
Although space availability and property costs will be a lesser problem in rural areas, the variable costs for shared mobility services will likely be higher. The lower user density and longer distances will not allow for free floating business models. Sharing services will likely apply a station-based business model with the hub as the only station. Except for taxis, demand-responsive transport shuttles will likely only operate as a feeder service for the hub and not offer point-to-point connections.
Challenges and Success Factors
Safety and security are basic requirements. No one wants to stay in a dark and shabby train station with visible vandalism, surrounded by pickpockets and junkies. Unfortunately this often describes reality and makes clear why many people stick to their cars if they can afford it. Mobility hubs can only be successful if you would feel comfortable to let your ten years old kid or an 80 years old lady without a smartphone travel and stay there on their own. They are the benchmark. So every mobility hub concept should contain a safety and security concept, which has its price.
À propos price: like any other traffic infrastructure mobility hubs are often costly to build, service and maintain. So a proper long term financing needs to be assured. In case public funding or the aforementioned “Rail plus Property” business model won’t work, alternative funding sources could be fees for parking and charging or a joint funding from the area’s businesses and real estate owners, who will profit from it. Local business owners could also deal as change champions, nudging local citizens to test and embrace the new mobility options – and in consequence walk by their shops more often. Independent from the funding source, the investors will likely want to know how effective their investment will be. So a close monitoring of success metrics will be required.
Potential metrics could be e.g.:
- Passenger volume figures of the different transport modes
- Usage figures of the parking lots, charging points, lockers, …
- Reduction in car traffic from this area entering the city (hard to measure)
- Ticket revenues split by one-way tickets and seasonal transit passe
- Rental revenues from parking and businesses at the hub and advertising space
- User experience measured via customer satisfaction surveys of active users, former users and not yet users
- Attractivity development of the area measured via citizen surveys, migration patterns and real estate price development
Citizen engagement is needed for successful implementation and acceptance. When the local community was involved in the station planning via a co-creation approach, it more likely meets their needs and will have higher acceptance. Citizen participation will also reduce the fear of gentrification, which could otherwise lead to vandalism when suddenly “hipster vehicles” occur in a borough.
Asking people to abandon their cars and instead fully rely on new mobility services, which they have never used before is a major challenge. It would not only require people to familiarize themselves with the new mobility services and test them. It would also require building trust and convincing users that these services are a better option compared to their own cars and that they will reliably stay. Changing deeply ingrained behaviors will take time and effort.
Another time-related challenge are the extremely slow and demanding planning and approval procedures – at least in many European countries. They cannot keep up with technological development and no longer meet citizen’s needs. Planning horizons of up to 30 years for railway development projects with dozens of approval authorities and allowing every citizen’s initiative to pause almost any development need to be redesigned from ground on by our legislation.
Who would have expected the sudden raise of electric vehicles, home office work or ride hailing companies like Uber 20 years ago? New concepts like MaaS, VTOL taxi drones, autonomous vehicles or Hyperloop just stand just at the brink of implementation and who knows what comes next? Given the current speed of innovation any planning horizons of more than ten years will likely no longer meet reality when being implemented. So for the planning of mobility hubs only iterative, agile approaches allowing to change course and adapt to new technologies can be given a chance for success. Anyhow it will for sure not hurt to get consultation from predecessors with similar specifications when planning a mobility hub implementation. E.g. Mobil.Punkt offered an online training academy on mobility hub station making (in German language) and CoMoUK has an intro guide and accreditation to offer on hubs.
There is excellent material on mobility hubs and best practices available. Some links:
- CoMoUK: What are Mobility Hubs?
- CoMoUK: Mobility Hub Guide
- University of British Columbia: Best Practices for Mobility Hubs
- Shared Use Mobility Center: Mobility Hubs
- Shared Use Mobility Center: Lessons for cities from Bremen
- SHARE-North project and mobility hub academy
- ITS California: Mobility Hubs and Express Lanes
- ARUP: Tomorrow’s Living Station
- MobiHub initiative (English, Dutch, French)
- Zukunft Mobilität: Mobilitätsstationen (German)
- VCD: Mobilitätsstationen (German)
- Interreg North-West Europe: eHUBS – Smart Shared Green Mobility Hubs
- A Better City: A Guide to Placemaking for Mobility
- CoMoUK Conference 2020: Build it and they will come – Community and Mobility Hubs
- ECCENTRIC webinar: Car free lifestyle- Mobility stations for flexible, sustainable urban transport
- Taxistop (Belgium) visits rural mobility hubs in the Netherlands (Dutch with English subtitles)