Transportation data tug of war (MoveForward)

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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.

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 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.

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Written by Long Branch Mike