Private Mobility Services Need To Share Their Data. Here's How.
The ride-hailing service Lyft recently attracted headlines—and some ridicule—when it launched Lyft Shuttle, a service in San Francisco with fixed routes and pickup locations. As many noticed, this bold new high-tech mobility innovation looks remarkably like a city bus service.
Lyft Shuttle is only the newest private option to get around town; commuters in tech-savvy cities like San Francisco can choose from a growing array of services offered by Lyft and Uber, as well as shuttles like Ford’s Chariot and GM’s Maven, and vehicle rental platforms like Zipcar and Getaround. Private “rogue” bike-share services are also in the offing for many U.S. cities.
The emergence of these mobility options is good for commuter choice—provided, of course, that society protects the traditional role of public transit. (Noting how Lyft Shuttle in San Francisco strategically avoids low-income areas, Salon warns that private bus-like services will exclude less-affluent riders, furthering transit inequities.) But there’s another, hidden problem: When a passenger decides to take Lyft Shuttle instead of MUNI, she is moving more than her money from public transit to a private company—she is also moving data about her trip. But no private transportation service today provides local government with point-to-point information about their passengers’ rides. The result is transportation policy that cannot be optimized to serve residents.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider why private data is such a critical part of transportation policy. Imagine you’re the director of your city’s transportation agency, and you’re looking for a way to ease congestion in the evenings at an intersection near bars. Ride-hailing companies have suggested that you take out a parking meter and turn the street space into a pickup/dropoff zone, predicting that drivers will spend less time circling the block trying to find their passengers (and thereby contributing to congestion). That sounds great, but your city gets $10,000 annually from that parking meter. Should you do it?