Scooters and electric bikes have become pawns in a power struggle between rideshare companies Uber and Lyft and the city of Los Angeles — a tug of war experts say will have far-reaching implications for quality of life in cities across the United States.
The ride-hailing giants are fighting a city program that would require them to give local governments data on how and where their electric bikes and scooters are being ridden. On Wednesday, a bill backed by Uber and Lyft that would gut the program passed the state assembly and now heads to the state senate.
The outcome could affect everything from how smoothly traffic flows to whether Ubers and Lyfts block bike lanes, how orderly e-scooters are parked on streets, and if they’re available in low-income neighborhoods.
The companies say they are trying to protect user privacy and are concerned with the risks of governments mishandling sensitive location data. Critics say the companies’ position masks another objective —protecting their core business of ride-hailing from unwanted regulations.
The data fight
City officials nationwide have long been frustrated with the limited amount of data that the ride-hailing companies share with them. In California, the companies report data only once a year to the state and don’t get more detailed regarding a trip’s location than its zip code. This raw data also isn’t shared with individual cities. Governments have struggled to understand and manage the impact of Uber and Lyft, which research has shown increase congestion in cities.
The Los Angeles program, called MDS (mobility data specification), collects real-time information about bikes and e-scooters, such as where they are parked, their battery levels and where they are being ridden. The Los Angeles transportation department rolled it out earlier this year. MDS has been adopted by many cities nationwide.
Advocates say it’s a step toward leveling the playing field between companies and cities, which could use the data to better meet their transportation, environmental and equity goals. Some cities want to know that vehicles are distributed across all neighborhoods, including low-income areas.
When a city receives a complaint that a specific block is littered with scooters, or should have a bike lane, local governments would have a better understanding of the situation, allowing them to respond more quickly. They could then measure if whatever steps they took — such as adding scooter parking or a bike lane — led to improvements.
MDS is focused now on bikes and e-scooters, but Los Angeles envisions it being expanded to all kinds of things that move — from drones to autonomous vehicles. Ride-hailing would be included, cracking open Uber (UBER)and Lyft’s data vaults.
Now Uber and Lyft are returning to their playbook for keeping cities out of their way — appealing to state governments to pre-empt local laws.
Smart city or surveillance state?
The California legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Laura Friedman, wouldn’t allow individual trip data to be shared with governments. Data would have to be aggregated, which waters down its value and makes it harder for cities to manage their streets.
If California passes the legislation, other states may follow, with the urging of Uber and Lyft. The state often sets an influential precedent for legislation elsewhere. The National Association of City Transportation Officials opposes the bill, warning that cities may not be able to control the number of bikes and scooters on their streets or restrict their speeds in popular pedestrian areas such as boardwalks and plazas.
The bill also makes it unclear who would aggregate the data. Governments are unlikely to trust data that companies aggregate, given the incentives to share only self-serving, cherry-picked data.
For example, Uber Movement, a platform the company made to share data with cities, reveals speeds of Uber vehicles on streets in a handful of cities. That’s useful information for identifying and fixing bottlenecks, which would aid Uber and its drivers. But Movement doesn’t include information about demand or ride volume. If cities saw that type of data, they may be motivated to pass restrictive regulations.
But the tech companies warn that sharing raw, non-aggregated data about trips risks the privacy of riders. Research has shown that with a handful of data points, anonymous location data can be linked back to a specific individual. Los Angeles labels individual trip data as confidential, which it says will protect it from release in public records requests.
“It’s incredibly problematic for them to be asking for individual trip data,” Uber spokeswoman Melanie Ensign said. “It’s kind of like a fishing expedition of ‘we want to get as much data as we can, but we don’t know what we’re going to do with it.’”
Some privacy advocates have raised similar concerns and expressed support for the California legislation that restricts MDS. The Electronic Frontier Foundation became involved after hearing about MDS from Uber and Lyft, according to an EFF spokesman. The EFF contends that MDS violates a state privacy act prohibiting access to electronic data.
MDS supporters say cities shouldn’t be boxed in to detailing their exact data requirements early on, because it’s difficult to forecast future needs as transportation services such as e-scooters are rapidly evolving. Some also say the companies’ privacy arguments are hypocritical, as they themselves have detailed trip data.
“If this data is so sensitive and so revealing of important individualized travel patterns then why is it okay for the companies to have that?” said Emily Castor Warren, a venture partner at the investment firm Fontinalis Partners, who previously held policy director roles at e-scooter company Lime and Lyft. “Why should we actually trust them more than we trust city governments whose objective is the public interest?”
Governing with one hand behind his back
Jascha Franklin-Hodge knows the feeling of being a city official hampered by little access to Uber and Lyft data.
He spent four years as Boston’s chief information officer. He said the city wanted to create curb space for ride-hail vehicles to pick up and drop off passengers, so they don’t block car and bike lanes.
But without data, the city struggled to explain why curb space should be given to Uber and Lyft vehicles.
“Cities haven’t made space for drivers to do the right thing, and a big part of why is that cities don’t have the data,” said Franklin-Hodge, now a consultant who advises the startup Remix, which works with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “So drivers are forced to do the wrong thing.”