Ishra Baksh: Making MaaS connections
Ishra Baksh is the Executive Director of the Mobility as a Service Program Management Office in the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR). She is responsible for implementing Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in Queensland and also working with TMR’s many different stakeholders to help create better mobility conditions on Queensland’s transport network into the future, ensuring that MaaS adds value to customers.
It’s quite a broad remit, with Ishra taking the approach that at its heart, her role is about connecting people and ideas to be able to deliver MaaS. In this interview we learn more about Ishra’s role, her career path, and her hopes for future directions in transport.
How do you think MaaS is going in Australia?
At the moment, we have one Mobility as a Service trial. It’s in partnership with iMOVE and the University of Queensland and it’s our ODIN PASS trial, which is a subscription-based Mobility as a Service product with a supporting application that’s available to the staff and students at the University of Queensland.
Alongside that we also have a number of activities that we’re conducting in the mobility space. For example, looking at parking for e-mobility and enabling it to be closer to things like our busway stations in the future. Trials can focus on being able to connect different modes together and understand what do our places look like in the future, and how do you really bring movement to places in a sustainable way that meets customer expectations?
Unfortunately, the ODIN PASS trial commenced during the COVID pandemic …
Yes it did, though just as people adapted to the pandemic so too does transport, and so too did ODIN PASS. I think that COVID has definitely affected our ability to do trials and proofs of concept. Something that we’re using our trials and proofs of concepts to do, is understand how our customers are travelling, when they’re traveling and their new preferences. As with every other major city and jurisdiction, due to COVID more people are working from home, not as many people are travelling into CBDs as much as they used to, instead they may be connecting with their community and within their suburbs a lot more.
When we look at trials in the future, we want to explore the application of MaaS for different communities and customer segments, like tourists. We’re looking at doing something in Townsville with a tourist cohort to really investigate what Mobility as a Service could look like in a regional sense.
Also, we want to understand how we can connect first and last mile better to public transport and in partnership develop trials that we can run across different parts of our business that support those connections.
You mentioned before that people are staying more local at the moment and not going to CBD as much. Have you seen much of an impact increase in micromobility and active transport?
Absolutely. We always say that micromobility in Queensland is part of the fabric of the mobility ecosystem. It’s been here for about three years, it’s something that our customers are seeing as a really viable option to help them commute in and around their suburbs, connect to other suburbs, and also connect to public transport hubs like major train stations to travel into the city or further out.
I think we’ve seen that micromobility is a viable option for a lot of Queenslanders and people visiting Queensland. We’ve also seen a lot of people buy their own device having tried the rental scheme.
For government, that then brings a host of considerations in terms of safety and accessibility. It’s something we are working on in partnership with providers, broader industry, with our health partners, with customers and with accessibility groups. Considerations including ensuring these modes operate safely and how it interacts with places, infrastructure and of course other modes.
What’s the legal status of private micromobility devices in Queensland?
The Queensland government has legislation in place that allows private and rental schemes, but we have certain rules around how big the scooter can be, how fast it can go and where it can go. Engaging in parking trials will help us understand where they’re best placed in the future so that they can still be accessed by customers, but in a way that also ensures that our pedestrians and of course our more vulnerable customers across the network, aren’t affected negatively.
So yes, they are legal in Queensland, but just like cars or public transport or other modes, we have rules that we’ve set around them.
And those laws are in place now?
Those laws are in place.
These new micromobility companies also have a view towards safety. They have a strong iterative approach to their business models, their technologies, and design of their devices, and they’re constantly improving all of these parts of their business.
And we come from a legislative and a regulation view as government, that’s one of our key roles in the community. We want to work with these micromobility companies to help understand their changes.
Just to go back to something you said before, regarding ODIN PASS, I think it just passed its 10,000th purchase of an ODIN PASS, so I’d guess you’re very happy with the way it’s progressing?
Absolutely! We’ve had over half a million trips on ODIN PASS. We’ve got about over 4,000 customers that are part of it. And we’re really getting some rich insights not only into Mobility as a Service, but how staff and students are travelling and their preferences.
We’ve also obtained a great insight into the number of micromobility trips that are being linked to public transport, which is really great. Working with the university and with iMOVE under a research banner has helped understand not only how subscription services can work but insights into first and last mile considerations for customers.
An advantage of the trial is there is true test and learn happening. As it’s a trial with a cohort of people that are open to change and doing things differently it allows us to look at different subscription models and change them to see how people’s behaviour changes.
It’s actually a really dynamic project where we’ve had to shift and change depending on what’s happening in the external environment. So far, we’ve had COVID lockdowns one week after we launched. In Queensland and we’ve had quite severe weather events, meaning the network is not available for people to travel on.
If there is such a thing, that’s perhaps one slight silver lining of COVID, isn’t it? We adapted reasonably well in most things, and hopefully learnt from them and use what we discovered to be better, rather than simply look to return to pre-COVID thinking and methods.
Absolutely. And I think the value that you get from an iMOVE partnership is exactly that. Those learnings that you can draw from this, they’re shared in our industry so that other people can draw on them and move forward with how they see Mobility as a Service or Mobility in their community.
Now, back to you and let’s travel back in time. What was your path to TMR? In terms of study, where and what, and what has been your career progression so far?
I actually started in the TMR graduate program and that provided me a really great foundation into government because I had not worked in an office before. I worked in retail while I was at uni, In terms of study, I did an Information Technology degree, and then a Master’s in Marketing Management. I also developed my skillsets in Lean and Six Sigma.
Within TMR I started within the customer services area, where you get your registration or licence. I started as an Assistant Graduate Data Analyst and my role was to fulfill the data analytics requests from different parts of the business to drive business improvement or manage performance across a large network of customer service centres, our call centre, and our digital channels.
The type of research and strategy that I did then was very different to my current role in transport and mobility. Back then it was more about channel management and retail strategy and how to improve the customer experience in that environment. It was a really great place for me to build my foundations because it provided me with an operational insight into customer and how service delivery actually works across the state.
So it’s fair to say that you simply jumped into the transport pool and began to swim?
Yes! I’ve been given this amazing opportunity by the department to lead the Mobility as a Service program. which I’m really grateful for because I have learned so much myself. As the world has been learning about MaaS, I’ve been learning about transport and mobility so it’s been a really exciting journey, challenging, but it’s a terrific opportunity I’ve been given by our leadership team with all of the right ingredients to be able to succeed in the transport work that we’re doing in Queensland.
Coming from a customer experience background and a research background probably helped me because even now when our team is working on different projects, we bring a customer first perspective.
I think the customer first approach has been a catchcry for years. But more than ever that’s actually starting to be the case?
It is. Every program and project in the Department of Transport and Main Roads here in Queensland has a really established customer view, from strategy through to operations. As we deliver on our business of today, we are also focused on future mobility. In doing so we are learning from other jurisdictions, engaging with industry and taking advantage of research opportunities. iMOVE helps us with this.
Let’s now go to the world of the hypothetical. You are the Empress of Queensland. You have ultimate power and no budget restrictions. It can be in Mobility as a Service or anything transport-related, you can fix something, and you’ve got all the budget and all the power … what would you go at?
I would make our entire network accessible. The gold standard of accessibility.
Now that’s definitely something we’re going to need to unpack!
For me, it’s about our physical infrastructure and our digital infrastructure supported by a range of modes to help customers travel around our network. For example, it’s the physical accessibility of our stations and our footpaths. It’s not just the public transport component, it’s the curbs and the waiting areas, the wayfinding. Making all of these accessible people can get the information that they need to be able to travel around our network. It then extends into other channels so our digital channels, our call centres, wherever it may be that all of those services are accessible to a wide range of different customers.
Coupled with that it’s really about mobility planning across the network, linking different first and last mile options to public transport. Of course, with unlimited budget we could expand on the great projects and programs we have today.
Which would allow you to tackle things within networks connected to other networks … transport systems are extremely broad and complicated beasts!
Yes, absolutely. And it’s also the role that industry will play in helping us achieve that vision of a single integrated transport network accessible to everyone. The future has so much ability to not only improve the transport network, but transport contributes to the economy and it’s about building an industry in a market where businesses can come to Queensland and flourish and thrive through the services that they provide to customers on the network.
Indeed. Now in part two of the hypothetical question, I’m afraid you have been downgraded, from Empress of Queensland to Mayoress of Brisbane. Clearly your power has dropped and so too has your budget. What small(er) thing would you attack, and let’s keep it to Brisbane because that’s where you live. What small(er) thing would you do that would have a good, quick impact?
Technology enables us to implement improvements which can have a good, quick impact. One aspect is the technology we have available to us to in informing customers about their options for travelling around our network.
We’re on the path towards improving our real time information using technology.. I think with limited budget, the fact that technology is so capable of being able to gather all of that data and present it back to customers and ourselves in an intuitive way, that in itself is a really great improvement.
You’re working in the area of MaaS now, but looking forward is there something new that you’d like to take on outside that area?
I think that there’s so much opportunity and potential in Queensland. The work that we’re doing, we really see the improvement that it can make in the community. I’m interested in the future of how transport connects to health and education, connected but separate ecosystems. When it’s just transport, there are a lot of great things that you can do. Then you add mobility, that adds a other different players into the ecosystem that present new opportunities.
That’s something that is really interesting to me because I’m quite passionate about social inclusion and the impact that mobility can have to help someone get out of their home to connect to a friend, or to go to a university or a TAFE course, or to go to their work. The Olympics will bring a lot of opportunities to a lot of people in Queensland so I think that there’s a opportunity there in the future to really contribute to our state in a positive way.
Actually, speaking of the Olympics, did you learn much from the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games? Will that help you out with planning for the Olympics and Paralympics or are they a whole different ballgame?
It’s bigger, but yes, definitely taking the learnings from the Commonwealth Games, particularly in the network operations space and the dynamic nature of the type of network operations that we’re going to need in the future. Our department is setting up for that future, and that’s based on our leaders and the vision that they have, which is exciting.
Last question. Be it a part of transport or technology or an deployment, what is it you are most excited about in the next three to five years?
It’s the more integrated nature of everything. I think that now we come with a mindset of a multimodal integrated network and it’s the integrated nature of everything supported by technology. We’ve also got a real opportunity around environmental, social, and corporate governance and the sustainable nature of not only our business, but also the network and the system that we run. There’s a lot of great things that are happening in other jurisdictions that we can learn from.
The sustainability agenda and conversation is becoming louder, which I am excited about because I think that brings us opportunities to be able to shift travel behaviour, but in a way that’s meaningful and appropriate for our customer’s need. And pulling all of that together, the types of industry that we’re working with and our partners across government, academia, industry associations, the capability in those areas is incredible. Being able to leverage that capability to do what we need, is what is going to help us achieve our vision.