Why we need to re-think public transportation in light of multimodal mobility trends
Malaysia has a fairly well-developed national public transport infrastructure. However, zoom in on the urban and suburban areas in the country and you’ll find a different picture.
Traffic congestion reigns in urban areas such as Klang Valley, Penang, Johor Bahru, and other built-up areas, and this is a bane for most of us.
Not only do commuters sing the common “I’m going to be late” refrain daily, the hours spent behind the wheel, the money spent on fuel, toll and parking and the lost “opportunity costs” – doing something else productive with your time instead of being stuck in traffic – can amount up to billions of ringgit of losses for Malaysians.
There are many facets to this challenge but underpinning it is the issue of inefficient mobility. Consumers buy cars only to find themselves stuck in traffic.
Commuters wanting to use public transport struggle as they can’t plan for their journey reliably because of the lack of real-time information and convenient first-mile/last-mile connectivity.
Unfortunately, Joe Public has just come to accept this as part and parcel of Malaysian life.
But for Ramachandran Muniandy, this scenario isn’t acceptable because he believes Malaysia can do better.
“Malaysia fundamentally has good public transport infrastructure in itself but good infrastructure won’t solve the country’s transport-related problems,” argues the chief executive officer and co-founder of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) startup Asia Mobiliti.
“The starting point to address Malaysia’s mobility challenges is to utilise technology and data and come up with workable solutions to reverse this inefficiency.”
Ramachandran, or Ram as he is professionally known, believes that one of the main reasons commuters opt for using private vehicles – thereby contributing to traffic congestion – and shun public transportation is because of two gaps in the ecosystem: data and connectivity.
“There is good data, such as estimated time of arrival for car drivers via the mapping information on today’s smartphones but this information isn’t available to commuters for buses, trains and other public transportation services.
“And while there are bus schedules, commuters are still asking, ‘Where’s the bus?’ Ditto for public trains. People aren’t able to plan their journey as timetables and estimated time of arrivals just aren’t reliably accurate enough.
“They can’t access real-time information that is useful, easy to consume and accurate in such a way that it will encourage them to use public transportation.”
Ram believes the other major challenge is the difficulty in accessing first-mile/last-mile connectivity – taking commuters from their houses/apartments to the nearest bus/train station. This is connected to the lack of “park & ride” facilities for those wanting to drive and transfer to public transportation.
“The fragmented nature of these two challenges drives people away (no pun intended) from public transportation and forces commuters to use their cars instead, which exacerbates the traffic congestion experienced in Malaysia.”
Ram believes Malaysia must embrace a “multimodal connectivity” model to help with its transportation woes.
Simply put, there is a need to connect multiple modes of transportation to get from point A to point B. The public needs to evolve from the idea that one can only get to a destination by using one mode of transport, such as a car or a train.
“Commuters should be able to leave the house and hop on a shuttle bus that takes them to a train station, which will then take them to another part of the city. Thereafter, they can make their final last kilometre using another bus or even an electric motorbike/shared vehicle to get to their final destination.”
“To do this, we need innovative private-public partnerships and we need a platform that can provision the service, relay journey planning information, provide electronic payment options, and amalgamate all the services together in an affordable manner.”
“Commuters will then experience mobility – getting to their destination seamlessly and without having to choose one mode of transport over another. Then they will likely use this option on a regular basis.”
“This is what Asia Mobiliti is trying to do at its core,” he explains.
At the end of the day, Ram’s vision is to improve mobility for the average person in Malaysia so that their lives – be it work, school, leisure, business – can be improved and so the city becomes more livable and sustainable.
In a wide-ranging interview, the 42-year-old Ram shares his convictions and his vision for better transit systems in Malaysia and in Asia – hence the name of his company, Asia Mobiliti.
Founders of Asia Mobiliti – Ramachandran Muniandy (on the left) and Premesh Chandran (on the right)
Q: Tell us exactly how the idea came to you and your co-founder to start a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) startup? How did you get this vision of applying mobility to public transportation?
A: Premesh Chandran and I began discussing these challenges using technology and data in mid-2018. I had prior experience in the mobility space with a previous early-stage venture that prototyped a system not unlike the “Waze” app in the early days of the smartphone era. I was looking for a business co-founder and I found one in Premesh, while he was looking for a tech co-founder, which he found in me.
Q: There is an element of public good in your quest to build a MaaS company. Is this by design or just a byproduct of the concept of MaaS?
A: Certainly by design. We did not set out wanting to build a MaaS company; in fact, that term was foreign four years ago. We began by trying to answer the question, “Where is my bus?” As we worked on solving this, we realised that multimodal connectivity is the solution to the mobility problem in Malaysia, and the more we worked at it, we evolved into a MaaS startup.
Q: You spoke of MaaS but in general what is that all about?
A: MaaS is about seamless multimodal travel, where a person can travel anywhere and at any time using a variety of transportation types – public, private and shared. To be able to do this effectively though, you’ll need “multimodality” – cars, buses, trains, bikes, even bicycles – to be made available for commuters to use. The key is to aggregate all of these services together on a single platform that is easily accessible to commuters to consume. This involves journey planning, trip booking, fare payment and passenger boarding. MaaS is not just about modes of transport but about mobility – getting from point A to point B by meeting the commuters’ needs in a personalised and tailored way.
Q: You describe yourself as a MaaS company, how is your vision for MaaS different from the definition above?
A: It’s not so much different as it is an expansion of that concept. We believe mobility is highly linked to specific geographies and local communities and that any MaaS service needs to be contextualised to these two factors for it to be successfully used by commuters. MaaS in an urban setting will definitely be different to one that is in a suburban setting as the geography and the needs of the communities will be different. This also applies to the different countries in Asia, all of which have unique contexts that need to be met differently. At Asia Mobiliti, our vision of MaaS is “contextualising for the developing world” and we are developing solutions for these different contexts, beginning with Malaysia and later to other parts of Asia.
Q: How does your background in software help you run this company and chart the roadmap according to your vision?
A: My background in software is absolutely crucial as technology is what enables our vision. We had to build technology that works for our market and for the evolving ecosystem. This means building the technology from the ground-up as we need that expertise to solve very real-world, street-level problems in mobility. More importantly, we have to build our platform and systems on open standards, while being agile without any dependency on legacy technologies and frameworks so that we can scale up and pivot quickly should we need to.
In our next part, we shall explore what transportation and mobility trends are affecting Asia and how Asia Mobiliti plans to address them, as well as discover more about the man behind this startup.