Multimodality is our best bet for sustainable, convenient, affordable travel – both now and in the future. But legacy systems are making multimodal travel unreasonably difficult. The European Commission's MDMS Initiative is an internationally-backed attempt to turn the tide.
Flying in Europe is up to 30 times cheaper than taking a train. That’s a statistic from Greenpeace – so perhaps it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt – but depending on where you live, you might have experienced similar pricing.
Take the UK as an example, which has some of the highest rail fares in the world. A journey from London to Edinburgh by plane can cost less than €30 for a round trip. By rail, the same trip can cost at least double that, even with discounts, off-peak travel times and advanced bookings. Same day travel by rail can be upwards of €100, one way.
On short haul flights, the speed advantage of flying is all but undone by check-ins, security, transfers and all the inevitable waiting that air travel seems to involve. Rail takes you from city centre to city centre – and all you have to do is sit and watch the world go by.
But this price disparity feels so… strange.
And it’s even stranger when a trip is multimodal – blending air, rail and road transport (learn more: what is multimodal travel and why is it important?).
Because building a multimodal trip is still extremely difficult, even when you know you’ll pay more for ground travel. Pricing aside, the push for sustainability is making multimodal travel more important to airlines than ever before. By refusing to embrace multimodality, airlines could be setting themselves up for disaster.
We live in a time where technology, automation and AI have made life easier than it’s ever been. So how is it still so difficult to book all elements of a multimodal trip in a single container? How is short-haul air travel still the best option – and what’s stopping progress?
The MDMS aims to address this, and make multimodal travel better across Europe.
What is the MDMS?
The Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS) is an initiative by the European Commission that aims to simplify the way people access and use transportation services.
At its core, the MDMS seeks to provide a framework that would enable digital mobility platforms to offer travellers comprehensive, real-time travel information across modes – simplifying the journey planning process.
The overall aim is to integrate data from all transportation operators and service providers: trains, buses, trams, metro and underground – even e-scooter rentals and ride hailing services.
The result? An open, standardised, interoperable framework. Service providers will be able to offer multimodal trips across Europe.
And this is important, because it will improve the efficiency, sustainability and accessibility of transportation within Europe. It will enable a lot of climate-related goals to be realised, and customers will get access to better fares.
The presence of competition could even drive prices down, while spreading demand over multiple modes.
This can all contribute to making ground-based transport a real alternative to short-haul air trips.
The MDMS also promotes all-in-one ticketing, allowing passengers to plan and purchase tickets for their entire journey – even when it involves multiple modes of transportation. If all that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been working on something similar with our multimodal travel platform, Junction.
But you might have noticed one glaring absence from the list of travel modes in the MDMS; air travel. We’ll get into why that is shortly.
First let’s look closer at the features of the MDMS, and the challenges of bringing it to life.
Open distribution, standardisation and integration
At the core of the MDMS is an open distribution model, which would encourage operators to openly share their data with the wider industry. This, paired with standardised technologies, would allow for seamless integration between transport modes, and overcome some of the biggest barriers to success; namely fragmentation and lack of interoperability.
Fragmentation is a major issue in travel, and not just in Europe. Different modes of transport are often managed by different entities – public authorities, private companies or nonprofits. And each organisation manages technology differently, using their own technical standards and protocols.
This made it difficult to create a seamless and integrated transport system that works across different modes of transport.
And so, travellers have to use different apps, hold multiple tickets and work over different payment systems, simply to have access to trains, buses and city bikes for one trip.
An open, standard model would take these barriers away. All travel operators’ platforms would be able to communicate with each other, and travellers could build and book trips in one container.
To prevent operators from imposing unfair restrictions, rendering mobility platforms uncompetitive, the original proposal from DG MOVE would enforce FRAND – fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory relations – between large operators and third-parties.
Passengers would likely take this “path of least resistance” – but data security and privacy assurances would have to be built-in.
Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that people are more than happy to give away their digital self for a slightly more convenient experience – even if it compromises their privacy.
But it’s not just privacy at stake. Passenger’s rights are vulnerable, too.
Currently, consumers who choose to combine different modes of transport are covered separately by different EU instruments for each leg of their journey – even if they have purchased a single ticket for their entire journey.
BT4Europe's position paper on Digital Transformation in Business Travel posits that, in the future, this will require a new legal framework that ensures the end-to-end protection of passenger rights.
And this is where the less tangible challenges start coming into focus – the “softer”, less technical stuff. The realm of regulation, power, politics and trust.
The challenges for the MDMS
To overcome the fragmentation of the transport sector, the MDMS initiative should be built on open data standards, with APIs that enable different modes of transport to share data.
Operators should be encouraged to adopt common technical standards and protocols, so that different digital services can work together seamlessly.
And lo – we would realise the dream of a multimodal Europe.
Perfect, right? Well…not exactly.
You see, there are businesses at stake here. There are privacy concerns to address within an open model. And there are regulatory barriers, imposed by Europe itself, which could threaten the success of the project.
Can private businesses, nonprofits and public services coexist?
The big question here is, how will these digital services be funded and sustained over the long term?
The lack of clear revenue models and the complexity of the transport market could make it challenging. As an example, digital service providers will struggle to generate revenue if travellers are not willing to pay for this newfound convenience, or if the costs of developing and maintaining the service are higher than the revenue they generate.
But the MDMS initiative could explore different revenue models, like subscription-based services – or revenue-sharing agreements between different transport providers. And it could promote the development of partnerships between the public and private sectors, enabling them to collaborate on the development and deployment of digital services.
It’s happened before. And private companies are often contracted for public projects. But this is a very complex and difficult project to even conceptualise, let alone manage – and the scope is still being worked out.
Regulation, regulation, regulation
Europe is a whole bunch of countries. And while the EU has standardised things to an extent, each country and territory has its own laws and regulations. Wherever these laws and regulations do not align with the MDMS, there will be barriers to achieving multimodality across Europe.
For instance – a digital service provider will have to comply with different data privacy regulations in different countries. Some of this includes data residency, where customer information cannot be stored on hardware outside of the country (in a centralised data centre for example). This would mean that the service would have to be hosted and operated from many data centres around Europe, while still operating as one system.
This creates complexity, and adds costs to the development, deployment and maintenance of the service.
The MDMS initiative will need a harmonised regulatory framework that enables the deployment of digital services across different countries and regions. Addressing this will require a coordinated and collaborative effort by stakeholders across the transport sector. It’ll take transport providers, technology providers, policymakers and regulators all working together.
And as for privacy? Well, the EU already has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place – but the initiative could also promote the development of transparent and secure data sharing mechanisms, allowing travellers to control how their data is used.
That said, funding the project may also require the use of passenger data as financial collateral – but how this could work remains to be seen.
So – why are airlines exempt from sharing their data?
Airlines will not be required to share their data with ticket vendors under the MDMS. How is this justified?
Well, the proposed rules of the MDMS will require any operator with a greater than 50% market share in their domestic market to provide their data. For large rail incumbents like SNCF, Deutsche Bahn and Trenitalia, this is an easy threshold to break.
Airlines, however, are effectively exempt – because the condition of their inclusion is 50% market share across the EU, rather than in their domestic market.
And it seems to some that this is by design, giving airlines a free pass while rail takes the brunt of regulatory change.
This criticism needs to be addressed if the European Commission wants to have the sustainability element of a multimodal system taken seriously. Worse still, this is just one of several roadblocks that has delayed the initiative significantly; we’re now way past the deadline of Q1 2023 for proposal adoption. According to MEP Jan-Christophe Oetjen, the Commission hasn’t even put a proposal on the table yet.
And now, in an open letter to Executive Vice-President Timmermans, a consortium of passengers, operators and environmental groups have highlighted a potential, major issue that could undermine the initiative's primary aims.
The issue? The current proposal only focuses on providing passengers with ticketing data, and then "relinking" to transport operators' websites.
This is a far cry from the easy to use, multimodal vision first sold to everyone. The letter reads;
“If the MDMS Regulation were to only focus on giving passengers access to ticketing data and then “re-linking” to transport operators’ websites, it will have failed in its fundamental objectives of making consumers lives easier, facilitating new services and reducing GHG emissions through a modal shift towards more sustainable transport. Solely redirecting customers to several different portals of different operators is an insufficient solution with low added-value, alarmingly close to the Status Quo which is unanimously considered as unsatisfying.”
Challenges and criticisms aside, the MDMS initiative will one day be good news for passengers – if it comes to fruition.
As long as people are given fair access, better pricing, and have their data and privacy protected – this could be the push into multimodality the world has been waiting for.
And for all those ready for that future now – there’s Junction.
Junction: multimodal travel, today
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