The Scooters Are Coming: Let’s Require Data This Time

The Scooters Are Coming: Let’s Require Data This Time

Every July, I make an annual pilgrimage to the Esri User Conference in San Diego. Last year, there was a new feature in the urban landscape: electric scooters. Parked on most corners in downtown, I registered with one of the firms and tried them out. I found them incredibly useful to quickly move between points A and B when the distance is a bit too far to walk, and, despite being a major fan of urban bicycling, they are a bit easier to use than a bike. I mostly saw them being used fairly responsibly but I have also read about significant problems with parking, abandonment, vandalism, injuries, traffic, and other issues in the cities where they have been introduced.

Scooters haven’t quite arrived yet in Philadelphia. In an effort to avoid some of the chaos experienced by other cities, City Council has been cautious about adopting legislation, but it appears likely that dockless bikes and electric scooters will eventually join the array of other transportation options available in Azavea’s home town. Given some of the safety and sidewalk access issues seen in other cities, I think the fact that Philadelphia has been slow to license scooters and dockless bikes represents some appropriate prudence. 

But the urban transportation environment is being altered by more than scooters. In Azavea’s local neighborhood, they are the least of our concerns. I’m on the board of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, and at most of the monthly meetings over the past two years, there has been at least one voice raising concerns about the GoPuff distribution center in the neighborhoods. GoPuff is one of many on-demand delivery services and its location causes chaos on N 12th street from 5-10pm every night: their delivery cars and trucks double park, which blocks buses from getting through, stacks up traffic, and becomes a danger to pedestrians and cyclists. The company executives have said they’re going to make it better, but they say that they only have a limited amount of control; their delivery drivers are contractors, not employees, and their power to make changes is not absolute.

Another common topic at zoning meetings is pickup zones for passenger vehicles. New developments, whether housing, retail, or restaurants, are being asked to respond to questions about how the development will accommodate vehicle pickup: “Where will the Lyfts and Ubers go?” is a common refrain. 

Most readers of this blog are not in Philadelphia, but I raise these local examples to illustrate some of the challenges our communities face as technology and culture change together. The street is a shared public space, and it has always been a contentious one, but the conditions are changing faster today than perhaps at any time since the advent of the automobile. We live in a world where shared ride and delivery services are rapidly changing our traffic patterns. As a consequence, urban planning and traffic management are becoming much more difficult.

Fortunately, two factors have the potential to fill the information gap. First, the very same transportation and logistics services that are creating new traffic and parking challenges are also generating new data sets that can help us better understand how our cities are changing. Second, thoughtful planners and technologists are developing new open data standards for storing and sharing data.

New data sets

In order to make better decisions about our streets, we are all going to need better data. In many cities, openly available data about transit schedules and real-time locations has led to a bounty of websites and mobile apps that enable us to get around town more easily. A few cities, like Chicago and New York, already release data about taxi trips, and many communities with bikeshare facilities also publish real-time data about docks and availability. I think we should expect the same from the new transportation services. Uber, and, to a lesser extent, Lyft and other shared ride services were rolled out in many cities without regulatory approval. The improvement in customer experience with these new services was substantial, and many residents lobbied their local city council to approve the ride share services. However, until recently, few of those cities required the companies to share the trip data that would help communities evaluate their impact. It was ironic that the companies built on ridesharing didn’t want to share data about the rides. This has begun to change.

Chicago now requires data on vehicles, drivers, trips, and fares to be shared on a quarterly basis. Thanks to this data, Chicago already has a better picture of how these services are affecting traffic and congestion, trip cost, and the most popular pick-up and drop-off locations. New York is also implementing data sharing requirements. Seattle is seeking similar data, though its motivation is focused on driver pay, rather than transportation planning.

When Uber, Lyft, and similar companies arrived in our cities, I think most of our communities missed an enormous opportunity. Local and state governments oversaw regulation of the services, but when they provided licenses to operate, they did not anticipate the degree to which they would change mobility, affecting parking, traffic, public transit, and safety. Important urban mobility data became privatized when these companies came to town. I think most cities got the regulations wrong with Uber and Lyft, and that scooters and dockless bike shares represent an opportunity to learn from that and renegotiate the rules and norms so that both government and citizens can engage in more effective planning and regulation of the shared public space.  I’m not the only person who thinks this; a lot of cities are feeling burned from the initial engagement with rideshare companies and see scooters as an opportunity to wrest back some control.

Steps toward better streets

I think there are at least four considerations we need to make when we welcome new transportation services into our communities:

1) Cities must require data as part of the regulatory environment

Cities should demand data from both private and public entities in order to support planners doing their jobs and encourage transparency to the public. The data should be comprehensive, easy to ingest, and include real-time reports. Some cities have done a better job than others of requiring this of dockless companies and putting the data to use. I mentioned Chicago before, but Austin also has a portal dedicated to dockless mobility to keep the public informed. This includes access to all of the data, the names of all of the operators and the number of their vehicles, training on how to use dockless vehicles in the city, and links to relevant legislation and license applications. The Dockless Vehicle Trips dataset records trips taken in the city – at over two million, and counting – and is updated daily. The Dockless Data Explorer is a free and open visualization tool that enables users to better understand the impact of dockless vehicles by displaying where trips start and end around the city. The Dockless Reporting Dashboard provides monthly summary statistics on trips taken, trip duration, miles per trip, and service requests. This data has already helped the City of Austin better understand potential new infrastructure needs as well as how to make investments in the infrastructure they already have. The data does not currently include crashes, injury, traffic violations, and other specifics that would go further to improve routing and public safety. Other cities can and should be demanding this much from dockless operators. (For a complete list of cities who currently have dockless programs along with legislation information, equity requirements, and data sharing information, check out this crowd-sourced document.)

2) Open standards amplify the positive impact of open data

Greater availability of data is necessary but not sufficient to support planning, regulation, and other critical activities. The value of the data can be significantly increased when it’s combined with open standards. For me, the story of the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is one of the most inspiring.  More than a decade ago, folks from Portland TriMet, OpenPlans, and Google developed a simple standard for encoding public transit schedules. Portland subsequently became the first city in a new Google “Transit Trip Planner” service. Five more US cities were added the following year, and the new GTFS standard was published as an open standard. Hundreds of new software applications drove changes in what transit riders expected from transit agencies. Over the past decade, the GTFS specification has been adopted by more than 1,000 transit agencies, an extension for real-time data, two global public catalogs from Transitland and Transit Feeds, and an incredible expansion of consumer utility. Google Map, City Mapper, Moovit, and numerous other mobile apps give us up-to-the-minute public transit directions. TransitScreen in office spaces, residences, and building lobbies show when the next train or bus is arriving. The World Bank got behind it, supporting both the development of GTFS editing tools and a catalog of other open source software and training resources as well as an online course. Digital transit schedules were available before GTFS, but the lack of standardization meant that every transit agency published their schedules in unique formats. A common standard enabled the development of tools that could be applied in any location that used the standard. Transparency, in the form of open data, open standards, and open source software, unleashed enormous innovation, new business models, consumer convenience, and, in the end, better transit systems. 

screenshot of transit indicators app
The World Bank Open Transit Indicators project, which uses GTFS data for transit planning in China

GTFS has also inspired creative imitators. In 2015, the North American Bikeshare Association began creating the General Bikeshare Feed Specification (GBFS), a new standard that has now been adopted by more than 200 cities to monitor the location of bikes and scooters. Building on both GTFS and GBFS, the City of Los Angeles built Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a new standard that provides for a two-way flow of information: trip data from mobility providers and agency data about events that affect mobility (road closures, water main breaks, etc.). MDS is part of a broader transportation technology strategy, and with the success of GTFS in mind, Los Angeles wants to see other cities adopt it; wide adoption will lead to new tools and innovation.

GTFS, GBFS, and MDS describe vehicles moving in the street, the SharedStreets project aims to model the entire shared street space by providing a street referencing system and then either leveraging existing standards or creating new ones, like CurbLR, when gaps are discovered. Through software, standards, data, and public-private partnerships, SharedStreets is building new ways to share and manage data in support of more functional, livable cities.

screenshot of transportation data app
Taxi pick-up and drop-off volume by time of day near Union Station, Washington, DC. Data from DC Department of For Hire Vehicles. Source: 

While SharedStreets is a project of an independent nonprofit, the Open Transport Partnership, open standards are also enabling businesses to grow and thrive. Scooter and bike companies, Bird and Lime, both offer a scooter dashboard to cities, and startups such as Remix, Trillium, Populus, and TransitScreen are building tools that combine open data from multiple sources to new products that could not exist without open standards.

3) Privacy is going to be really hard and a constant negotiation

Privacy is a key challenge for open data. When New York City released its taxi data in response to a 2013 open records request, it did so in a matter that compromised both drivers’ and passengers’ privacy.  Sidewalk Labs is developing Quayside, a new, 12-acre, $1.3 billion neighborhood in Toronto that aims to be the most innovative district in the world. The plan calls for a “smart city” that makes extensive use of cameras and sensors to guide parking, traffic flow, heating and cooling, and even flood mitigation. Sidewalk Labs is a sister company of Google, and the project has run into a buzzsaw of concerns over privacy and data ownership. Responding to the concerns, the project recently released a draft plan that pledges to place data in a civic data trust, but this has not mollified critics

We will need to figure out how to manage the difficult privacy and data sharing questions in a way that balances the needs of both the collective public and private citizens. The civic data trust is a relatively new concept that some cities are exploring, and the impact is not yet clear. In Chicago’s taxi and rideshare data release, they do not publish driver names, publish fare data rounded to the nearest $2.50, and only list pickup and dropoff neighborhoods (rather than the exact address). These are prudent measures for public data release, and I expect similar measures will become best practices in the coming years.

4) Equity is a critical consideration

Access to transportation has an enormous impact on access to jobs, municipal services, and amenities. Open data released on the basis of open standards enables the public to evaluate and monitor access to transportation services, whether provided by public agencies or private companies. 

Dockless scooters and bikes are often cited as a means by which citizens can travel the “final mile” of their daily commute. Communities frequently struggle to fund expansion and even maintenance of public transportation and these services are often challenged to adapt to rapidly changing populations and neighborhoods. Nimble start ups with solutions that bypass the limitations of the standard transportation grid, such as dockless bikes and scooters, seemingly offer an opportunity to patch together several solutions to serve residents. However, if our transportation services move away from truly public transportation and increasingly rely on shared ride services and privately-held dockless vehicle companies, it will become critical to be able to evaluate whether these services are being provided in an equitable manner.

When cities regulate new transportation services that use the public right-of-way, they can demand not only open data from the private operators, but also set equity and access requirements. For instance, Portland, OR requires that 20% of their scooters be dropped off in the morning in low-income neighborhoods. There is precedent for these types of requirements. When cities grant broadband franchises to companies like Verizon and Comcast, they now frequently also require subsidized plans for low income neighborhoods. I believe we can and should craft similar arrangements with private transportation companies.

Kevin Webb of SharedStreets makes a good summary in this article:

“The transformative potential of digitally mediated, real-time coordination is hard to overstate. These technologies expand the toolbox available to address long standing transportation challenges. Better coordination could potentially help governments make the most out of existing roads instead of building new ones, expand access to jobs through more effective transit service, and reduce the need for vehicle ownership.”

Those scooter trips I took in San Diego last summer were really convenient, and I look forward to having similar access in Philadelphia. Over the next few decades, the public realm in our cities is going to be increasingly transformed through a mix of self-driving cars, sharable transportation services of all kinds (some that haven’t been invented yet), on-demand delivery, and other changes. The norms and rules we put in place now will have an enormous impact on how our cities will evolve. Open data and open standards can play a central role in providing safe, equitable, and efficient transportation for everyone.