Going mobile

How an app could make it easier to leave the car at home

Jie Yu knows that more young people want transportation options beyond the automobile, and it’s particularly true among the UWM student population. So the assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering searched for solutions with students and colleagues.

She found the answer in the palm of her hand. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is a customized package that bundles multiple public and private modes of transportation into one smartphone app. Users can plan their daily trips and pay for their trips on a single platform. They also receive real-time traffic and parking updates.

MaaS apps for public transportation already exist in parts of Europe, where they have helped reduce transportation congestion and emissions. With support from several funding organizations, Yu is working to bring this concept to UWM – and eventually other Wisconsin communities.

“We hope UWM will become the country’s first testbed for Campus MaaS,” Yu says.

She sees UWM as a perfect proving ground because it already offers multiple transportation options to a large and diverse population of students and employees. Its geographical status as an urban campus is representative of most of the country’s higher education institutions. And the interest on campus in choosing public transportation over privately owned cars is high.

A survey released in 2019 reported that 71% of college students in Wisconsin would be somewhat or very likely to use public transportation to get to school if it were more convenient. Conducted by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, the “Millennials on the Move” survey included more than 600 students at 24 of the state’s colleges and universities.

To study the feasibility of Campus MaaS, Yu’s team in the College of Engineering & Applied Science conducted its own survey of Prowl Line users. Operated by UWM as a supplement to county bus service, the Prowl Line connects UWM’s main campus to other areas of Milwaukee, including student housing and a commuter parking lot. Researchers also analyzed transportation data collected by the UWM Office of Sustainability, UWM Transportation Services, the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) and Bublr, a nonprofit bike-sharing program that offers a discounted annual pass to UWM students.

Illustration of a smart phone with UWM MaaS app and examples of public transit it would show
Assistant professor Jie Yu thinks UWM is the perfect place to launch her all-in-one public transit app, because of the student population's high interest in more convenient access to public transportation.

The results encouraged them to take the next step. Yu’s team has already designed a prototype for the Campus MaaS app and is collaborating on backend programming with UWM’s information technology and transportation personnel, as well as MCTS. The app’s first iteration will bundle several transportation options: campus shuttles; the prepaid U-PASS for MCTS buses; and the B.O.S.S. (Be On the Safe Side), an on-demand after-hours van service. Down the road, Yu hopes the app can include commercial bike-sharing and car-hailing programs, as well as the option to reserve and pay for parking spots on or near campus.

Yu plans to initiate Campus MaaS field testing with selected student organizations during the next two years. Eventually, she says, all UWM students and employees will be able to install the app.

Yu’s broadest ambitions for the MaaS concept, however, extend beyond the UWM campus to other parts of Wisconsin. She sees it as a solution for other public transportation needs, and her initial focus is on user groups like older adults.

The number of Wisconsin residents 65 and older is expected to nearly double by 2040, and Yu wants to provide them with a trip-planning tool called SilverGo. She’s designing it with features to address the physical and cognitive needs of seniors, such as the inclusion of public transportation services that require minimal walking.

It would be available as an app, but seniors without smartphones could access the information on a user-friendly website and via telephone. Yu says several senior communities have already expressed an interest in testing a SilverGo prototype.

In the meantime, work continues to take Campus MaaS from concept to reality.

“Our goal for Campus MaaS,” Yu says, “is to make trip planning easy and convenient enough so that many people will leave their car at home and use healthier forms of transportation that are better for the environment. And with the lessons learned from Campus MaaS, we hope to bring similar services to other Wisconsin communities in the future.”