Randolf Wöhrl, Head of moovel on-demand, gets up every morning to make the city's mobility fit for the future. In an interview, the mobility expert explains how the on-demand service SSB Flex, a joint project between moovel and Stuttgarter Straßen Bahnen AG (SSB) is building a bridge between conventional urban public transport and the mobility of tomorrow.
Mr Wöhrl, you are leading moovel on-demand. What exactly does this entail?
At moovel on-demand our objective is to make mobility in cities flexible and need-related. Because urbanization and digitalization are changing opportunities and needs faster than ever before, especially in densely populated areas. Mobility must be made available immediately and at any time - on demand. Urban public transport must also develop accordingly, and for that we require intelligent solutions.
…which you develop at moovel?
Exactly. The SSB Flex service is based on our on-demand ride-sharing technology platform – a product we developed in-house. You might call it the operating system for urban mobility. We develop the apps and operate the backend. The entire technology comes from us.
What is the idea behind SSB Flex?
As we all know, urban public transport systems use fixed timetables and buses or trams that operate on fixed routes. However, urban public transport can be significantly improved by shortening waiting times for passengers for example. Flexible route planning is the keyword here: the vehicles come on demand, i.e. when you need them. The customers make use of the SSB Flex App, and the vehicles are also controlled with the help of an app developed by moovel. A purely supply-based operation becomes a demand-based service.
So SSB Flex arranges a journey for the customer when he/she needs it?
That's right. The only condition is that you have the app on your mobile phone and are in the right place at the right time. This is because SSB offers SSB Flex as a supplement to its urban public transport, during "off-peak" periods. The SSB Flex vehicles are on the move in Bad Cannstatt and Degerloch from Mondays to Saturdays, and also in inner-city Stuttgart at the weekend. All the information can be found either in the app or on the website.
Why exactly did Stuttgart need such a service?
We already sat down with SSB one and a half years ago to identify weaknesses in the system and put together a corresponding package. We at moovel have been working very closely with the major cities and urban public transport operators for years – with the aim of developing urban public transport further.
What are these weaknesses?
Firstly, there is a considerable decline in the frequency of existing services in Stuttgart in the evenings, after 9 p.m., e.g. bus services. This means that timetables are thinned out and people have to wait longer for their journey home.
Secondly, there are areas of the city that are not very well covered by urban public transport. We selected two such areas for SSB Flex: Bad Cannstatt and Degerloch.
So SSB was on board as a customer or partner from the start?
We have already worked closely with SSB for a number of years, for example in 2015 we were one of the first providers worldwide to integrate urban public transport ticketing into the moovel App, creating the first mobility-as-a-service platform together with car2go, mytaxi and other services. Here too, SSB was a partner at a very early stage. First of all, however, we at moovel had to think about the product and structure it. Because the centerpiece of the product is the logic behind it. It was also for this reason that we wanted to test the overall product experience as a Flex Pilot operation first.
How long was the conceptual phase?
The conceptual phase was very agile: the total product development time from the first brushstroke to the launch was less than 10 months – that is extremely fast, as the technology and the different components have certainly been a challenge. We are very proud that we managed to get the moovel Flex Pilot project off the ground so quickly.
When and for how long did you test the service with the moovel Flex Pilot?
We took the pilot project onto the roads a good year ago, and have tested it intensively. For a total of six months, everything we did at the moovel on-demand team concerned virtual stops, vehicles, routes, drivers and passengers. During the test phase, the Flex Pilot carried more than 20,000 passengers from A to B. Because we carried out the operation ourselves, we were able to gain valuable experience – from which the final product SSB Flex now benefits.
How did the test phase feel for the team?
It was a wonderful experience for us as a company, as was the opportunity to test such a service in the city. First of all, we were able to give the technology a thorough test, and secondly we received a great deal of customer feedback via a wide variety of channels, e.g. from drivers, via social media, and the App. It was a really exciting time.
Since 1 June 2018, SSB Flex has been fully operational on the roads of Stuttgart. How does the cooperation and transition from the moovel Flex Pilot to SSB Flex work?
We have made a very clear distinction. SSB has managed the vehicle fleet since June, and also provides the drivers. Incidentally, the vehicles now have a shiny yellow SSB paint finish to match their urban public transport counterparts. What's more, another thing has changed: the service is no longer free of charge, which also changes things for the customer.
What user groups are you aiming at?
We need to improve urban public transport as a whole for everyone, or to put it differently, the entire range of possibilities people have apart from their own car. But naturally we also focus on certain groups in detail. For example, the number of commuters who enter and leave the city each working day is especially large in a city like Stuttgart. This is where we need advanced concepts.
Like SSB Flex…
SSB Flex is an approach to how mobility services can be used to feed the mass-transport systems for commuters. This is referred to as the first and last mile. And that is precisely the point: that we can still provide access to urban public transport for people who live at some distance from the urban rail system – in a way that integrates into the urban public transport services. From the customer's point of view, SSB Flex operates just like a normal part of the urban public transport system.
Are you still in close collaboration with SSB?
Absolutely - we work together very closely. There are regular consultation rounds and joint activities. At present, for example, our advent campaign is providing longer operating times and reduced Christmas fares. And as we operate the system on a shared basis, so to speak, there is a need for consultation – just like choosing Christmas presents together.
Does it still make you slightly sad when such a pilot phase comes to an end and you have to give up your baby?
Being able to offer an end customer service like the Flex Pilot ourselves is really something special. A very wonderful and valuable experience where customer feedback reaches you directly and you are working directly with the customer. A mobility service for which you are completely responsible, and can modify accordingly. But being able to continue this on a partner-like basis with SSB, and benefiting from SSB's impact when establishing a new service in the city, is no bad thing either. So I have to say that both are good, and both important!
Are things similar in other moovel projects?
What is always important to us is close cooperation with our partners: moovel seeks to offer the operating system for urban mobility – together with the cities. It was precisely with this logic that we launched products such as KVV.mobil in Karlsruhe or recently Mobil in Düsseldorf
Will the Flex Pilot project continue outside Stuttgart?
A few weeks ago we launched it in Los Angeles, and we are in close discussion with other cities. At any rate I can reveal this to you: we are continuing to develop our on-demand ride-sharing, and intend to roll it out in other cities as well as internationally.
That sounds very promising!