VERGE

Cities organize in the face of scooter data controversy

Uber/Jump

It seems fitting that e-scooters — which have generated both hatred and adoration since the moment they appeared in cities such as Santa Monica, California — have become the battleground for a debate over how data is collected and used by cities and private mobility companies.

The latest move in this ongoing urban data story is that recently over a dozen of some of the biggest and tech-friendliest cities in the United States announced that they've banded together to create a foundation to establish guidelines around access and use of data from micromobility vehicles such as scooters and e-bikes. The goal: to help better develop city infrastructure and programs that meet residents' needs. Led by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT), which last year created a data-sharing standard called the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), these cities have signed on to the new Open Mobility Foundation.

The signatories include Chicago, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon; San Jose, California; and Washington, D.C. The foundation was set up to govern MDS, and to help cities and companies develop and deploy new mobility tools. Before MDS, cities have been using whatever data tools they could come up with, which made the process difficult for everyone. 

Scooter companies Bird and Spin (acquired by Ford last year) also emerged as founding members of the foundation, showing how some scooter companies are viewing positive city relationships as a solid business strategy. Other non-mobility tech companies joined, as well, including Microsoft. 

Gabe Klein, an advisor to LA DOT on the project and co-founder of Cityfi, described the foundation to GreenBiz as "set to transform how cities manage mobility infrastructure."

Uber and its Jump division, which have openly criticized MDS and LA DOT's data collection strategy, are notably absent from the foundation's membership roster.

Scooter data?

If you ride a scooter in many cities, transportation agencies and the companies operating the scooters can collect data about where that vehicle goes and if the vehicle is operating and parked properly. It's crucial information for planning the optimal locations for placing scooters throughout the day, but it's also important information for transportation planning, useful for things such as making sure underserved communities are getting enough scooter access or monitoring whether a certain bike lane is being used.

Data is extremely valuable to both the private companies and the city transportation departments. But data privacy is also really, really important.

Time and again, big and small tech companies have collected your data and been negligent with it. Consumers are weary of such efforts, and privacy advocates have been appropriately up in arms.

Companies such as Uber and Lyft historically have chafed at giving cities data about how ride-hailing vehicles are operating in cities. Meanwhile, cities have had little control in how ride-hailing companies have operated — when unchecked, this sometimes has led to negative consequences. For example, in San Francisco, studies have found that ride-hailing contributed to two-thirds of the rise in congestion over the past six years.

Now Uber and Lyft also have gotten into the micromobility business (Uber bought e-bike startup Jump last year). At the same time, both are under pressure as newly public companies to start showing positive results.

It's probably not surprising to hear that Uber and Jump aren't big fans of MDS. Uber, indeed, has been a major critic of MDS and has said it's concerned about its users' privacy and how data has been collected under the standard. Supporters of MDS say that Uber's privacy concerns are actually just a cover for it's not wanting to share data.

But the protest against MDS from Uber/Jump took on such weight that earlier this year it managed to influence a bill in the California legislature (AB 1112). What started out as legislation focused on micromobility insurance emerged initially as legislation to restrict how cities could collect data — it basically preempted local authority.

After input from various stakeholders, the language in the bill has been softened and clarified; it has been amended five times and likely will be amended more. The latest we're hearing is that the bill will continue to be negotiated and worked on over the fall, and will be reconsidered likely in the beginning of 2020.

Scoot's Kick electric scooters

Useful data

Not all scooter companies are anti-MDS. In fact, many see the tool as a way to scale more quickly.

Klein said that before MDS was created, the micromobility companies were leading in terms of innovation and speed to market, and that policy struggled to keep up. By creating MDS, LA DOT wanted "to empower the private sector and try to move at their speed."

Bird Chief Policy Officer David Estrada told GreenBiz that by signing onto the foundation it is "working collaboratively with cities" and "can design and implement responsible tools to improve everyday transportation for residents and visitors while integrating with modernized city transit management."

Bird, which at one point was seen as pretty combative when it came to interacting with cities, has seemed to evolve its thinking around building city relationships over the past year. It's in the process of acquiring San Francisco-based startup Scoot Networks, one of the friendliest and proactive companies when it comes to working with cities, and could use the Scoot brand to bid on city scooter programs. 

Lime, the largest scooter company, has appeared to support MDS in many respects. At an event hosted by oil company Shell in San Francisco last week, Lime's senior director of government relations, Katie Stevens, said that Lime "is excited about MDS" and "actively supports MDS as an evolving specification." 

MDS isn't just meant to govern scooter data. LA DOT originally started building the specification to govern data from any type of emergent alternative vehicle — from flying robotaxis to today's ride-hailing cars to drones. But then scooters suddenly emerged on the scene, and they seemed a perfect test bed for the framework.

Cities organically began to use MDS partly because nothing else was out there but also partly because some scooter companies liked working with it and would suggest it. The adoption has been largely grown by word-of-mouth. 

Until now. The nonprofit foundation uses open source software, and companies and even individuals can contribute code. But the foundation is set up to govern the software platform. "This movement is going to be huge to empower cities and companies to work together," Klein said.

At least it could give cities better oversight on all those things that people love to hate about scooters, such as sidewalk riding and leaving them strewn around blocking curbs.

The controversy and battle around mobility data is far from over, particularly if the California bill continues to move forward in some form and eventually becomes law. But it's clear that the cities are far better organized and ready to work with, and rein in, the private sector this time around.

Tags: