Inside the Transportation Data Tug of War
Supported by The Overhead Wire and written by Nate Berg
The relationship between cities and new mobility companies was tense from the start.
Uber, which launched in San Francisco in 2010, had spread across the country by the end of 2011, opening operations in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C. Slowly in some places, immediately in others, the company found itself in bureaucratic showdowns with city councils, mayors and regulators. Bans were proposed, cease and desist letters were sent, lawsuits were filed. Silicon Valley-style disruption was veering towards chaos.
“Those companies basically had the attitude of, it’s the Wild West. We’ll fight the regulatory battles after we do what we want,” says David Zipper, who was the director of business development and strategy in the office of Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray when Uber launched there in late 2011. After months of grappling, the city and Uber settled on regulations that formally allowed the company and similar services to operate in the city. Compromises were made in cities across the country, and Uber, Lyft and a growing number of other new mobility companies have woven themselves into the network of urban transportation.
Cities, of course, have confronted disruptive new civic technologies before. In the 1800s, when gas lighting first made its way to the U.S. from England, cities established franchise agreements with gas companies to do the then-novel work of digging up roads and laying down the pipes that could carry gas to street lamps, homes and businesses. The technology was so new it made sense for cities to simply let the experts handle implementation, albeit with strings attached. Cities granted gas companies the right to operate in the public realm as long as they complied with certain standards and rates. It was an imperfect process at first, leading to bribery by companies and arbitrary rate setting by vote-hungry politicians, as this 2006 paper on the history of public utilities lays out. But over the course of decades, regulation improved and both cities and utility companies like those early gas providers reached a state of cooperation with the goal of providing a needed service to a wanting public.
New mobility is the gas lighting of the 2010s, but cooperation between the companies and the cities in which they operate is far from settled. The newest disagreement revolves around the data these companies collect in cities. Cities want access to this data to better understand how and where these services are operating, but the companies don’t want to provide it due to concerns about how disclosing it may affect their business. Again, cities pushed back. Demands have been made, legislation drafted, lawsuits filed. The two sides have been at loggerheads for years.
The confrontational posturing is an echo of those first days when mobility companies stormed into town, says Zipper, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund focusing on urban and regional policy. For the past few years, cities and mobility companies have been stuck in an “unproductive tug of war,” Zipper says. “They’re saying, ‘Give me the data.’ ‘No, I don’t want to give you the data.’ ‘Give me the data.’ ‘No, I don’t want to give you the data.’”
The standoff is causing cities and mobility companies to rethink their historically fraught relationship. Their interests are different but not opposite, and each is now trying to see things from the other side. The search is on for bits of common ground – a gridlocked urban transportation network, after all, is just as bad for a city as it is for a transportation company. As they work to resolve the question of data sharing, they’ve found themselves at the center of a new movement in urban management.
Transportation data, and urban data more broadly, are becoming understood as a flow that can be quantified, processed and analyzed to improve the overall system. The data, regardless of its source, can benefit everyone equally. But as cities and transportation companies are finding, turning private data into public good is not as simple as it seems.
“To make good policy, you need to know what’s happening,” says Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning at the New York City Department of Transportation. Traffic flows, modes of transportation, geographical densities, demographics – this is information that can paint a picture of a city’s transportation processes and problems. Such data points are collected in the millions by new mobility companies daily. “These data are a big part of understanding what’s happening,” Schaller says.
But the companies mostly declined to make the data available, making it difficult to draw conclusions about their impact on cities. Pulling at the curtain, Schaller produced a report in July 2018 about the impact of new mobility companies. The main takeaway is that companies like Uber and Lyft appear to be diverting more people from public transit than from driving themselves (based on a study at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies by Regina R. Clewlow, Ph.D.), and that the proliferation of these services is actually putting more cars on the road, measured in vehicle miles traveled.Behind these findings, Schaller relied on a disparate range of sources – from 2017 ridership figures reported by Lyft to 2016-2017 National Household Travel Survey data to a 2012 Transportation Research Board report on taxi ridership to data from the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
Schaller says this hodgepodge isn’t necessarily bad, as no single information source provides a complete picture. But more access to mobility company data would make understanding where and how these services are being used much easier. The New York City Council recently approved regulations on transportation network companies that require the sharing of data, including pickup and drop off locations, lengths and times of trips, and the number of passengers in each trip. The legislation also set a year-long cap on the number of licenses for ride-hail services. [Aspects of this legislation are currently being challenged in the New York State Supreme Court.]
“That’s real good progress,” Schaller says. But he also notes that New York City is an outlier, as states have taken over this regulatory authority in most of the country. “Cities want the data but they don’t have any leverage to get it.”
For transportation network companies, how cities manage and make data public are primary concerns. Allison Wylie, Transportation and Mobility Policy Manager for Uber, says just handing over data creates all kinds of privacy protection risks. “When a company like Uber shares information with regulators, this data is susceptible to [Public Records Acts, Freedom of Information Acts] and Open Data requirements. There are usually no published cost/benefit analysis or Privacy Impact Assessment for these procedures,” Wylie says in an emailed response to questions. Cities aren’t required to disclose how data is used or shared, she adds, nor do they typically provide assurances of data security.
“We know that many cities today lack reliable, comprehensive and affordable access to transportation data that they need to do their jobs,” Wylie says. “It is important to our mission to provide value to cities, but we also need to balance the privacy and security of our users.”
These challenges have triggered a broader reckoning among transportation officials and experts about data’s role in their work.
“It’s not necessarily that we need TNC data to regulate the TNCs. We need TNC data just like we need data on cyclists and we need data on private vehicle use and we need data on walking,” says Alice Grossman, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation.
As cities seek new forms of data, Grossman says they should also look at what’s already available, including data from their own transit agencies. But as the urban transportation web becomes more complex, the data being collected by mobility companies are an important part of the picture. Grossman argues more transparency from these companies is overdue.
“It’s hard to figure out what all they have, which goes back to that question of they can’t share data they don’t have,” she says. “I’m not sure a lot of cities even really know exactly what they want yet.”
It’s not always a complex question. Chicago simply built data sharing requirements into its TNC licensing rules. The city had decided to place a per-ride tax, and data reporting was required primarily to confirm the fees were being paid. Settling on the terms was “a tug and pull,” says Rosa Escareno, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, “but at the end of the day, I think Chicago came out of those negotiations with a very strong ordinance.”
The data also reveals useful information about transportation needs; reports showed that a fifth of trips either start or end in underserved neighborhoods. Escareno says that kind of detail is critical as the city plans transit investments.
Cities want data to justify such planning, but some say city departments aren’t prepared to process the data they might have and need. Paul Supawanich is head of mobility policy at Remix, a San Francisco-based startup that visualizes transportation data to help design streets and make policies. He says cities sometimes struggle with freely accessible information, like U.S. Census data. “They either did not have the tools on hand or the time,” he says. For smaller or overstretched staffs, new data’s potential is irrelevant if nobody can actually analyze it. Remix is trying to fill that need.
Remix’s data translation has worked both ways. “It’s not just data for data’s sake, it’s data for the purpose of understanding how [new mobility] fits within the transportation network,” Supawanich says. “That gives those companies an understanding of how cities actually need to use this information.”
The industry itself is also becoming a powerful new peacemaker. The emergence of bike- and scooter-share services like Lime and Bird have calmed conversations around data sharing. Emily Castor Warren, senior director of policy and public affairs at Lime, says micromobility companies recognize that their success relies upon and is in alignment with cities. “They want us to be successful in gaining mainstream adoption of active transportation services that meet their policy goals,” says Warren, who was also an early employee at Lyft. “I think we learned from the first time around just how important it was to cities to have access to this kind of activity data, and that not providing that data would not allow us to build the kind of trust that’s necessary to be successful in those partnerships.”
As rideshare companies absorb bike- and scooter-share services, the best practices from one segment are likely to start bleeding over into the other. Warren says it may be a slow process for TNCs, which “are still working to reconcile these two very distinct areas of data sharing policy.” How these questions are resolved becomes even more important as private entities like Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs venture into the planning and operating of data-rich urban districts.
Recent history shows that data sharing can become normalized, says Sharon Feigon, executive director of the non-profit Shared-Use Mobility Center. She points to the General Transit Feed Specification, a Google-developed data standard for public transit schedules and geographic information. Hundreds of systems use this data standard, which makes it possible for an app like Google Maps to show transit directions almost anywhere in the world. Feigon says new mobility needs something equivalent.
A few options show promise. The National Association of City Transportation Officials has developed SharedStreets, a standard focused on street-level information, allowing cities and companies to share data compatible with both proprietary and open-source basemaps. In September, Uber, Lyft and Ford partnered with SharedStreets, sharing information like vehicle speed data (made available through Uber’s Movement data dashboard) and the locations of curbside pickups and dropoffs.
Another standard has been developed by the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Focused specifically on ride share operators, bike share and scooter share companies, the Mobility Data Specification is designed to make it easier for cities to ingest and analyze various sources of information. Feigon calls it “exemplary,” and notes that multiple cities have begun to adopt it. The standard was also designed to assuage the privacy concerns that had previously made companies reluctant to share their data. “Personally identifiable information is not necessary for the city to achieve its mobility goals,” a LADOT spokesperson says, via email.
Despite signs of progress, few transportation experts think any data standard will be a panacea. “It’s hard to say it’s the grand solution,” says Supawanich. “Everything in this industry right now is kind of a work in progress.”
There is an evolving appreciation of the power of data. Cities realize they need to keep up with the tech-enabled transportation options filling their streets. And as mobility companies merge and grow from ride providers to multi-modal transportation networks, they’re realizing their data is just one part of a galaxy of interdependent information the urban system needs to function. Sharing this data makes it easier for both cities and mobility companies to operate. As acceptance of this idea grows, the tension between the two should fade.
“The analogy that I find compelling is with the airlines,” says Schaller, the transportation consultant. Airlines are required to release detailed data, from origin-destination information to passenger volumes. Much of this is likely of great interest to their competitors, but, Schaller says, the airlines don’t fight with the feds or withhold data over competition concerns. “They just deal with it.” Urban mobility data could follow a similar model, putting every company and regulator on the same footing, with the goal of operating a safe and efficient transportation system. “I think that as the politics around this whole issue have shifted, this is going to get a lot easier,” he says.
Updated 2/4/2019: An earlier version of this article neglected to indicate the source study of the finding that ride-hail companies are diverting passengers from public transit. The correct source has been added to the text.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.