Why Uber Is Fighting Cities Over Data on Scooter Trips
Los Angeles and other cities want data on shared scooters. Uber and Lyft claim that could compromise user privacy and their own trade secrets.
CONSIDER THE CHAOS on the streets of Los Angeles. An unprecedented number of cars idling in traffic. Drivers working for the ride-hail apps Uber and Lyft zooming about, picking up and dropping off fares. Buses rolling by, and commuters ambling to train stations. Cyclists, some aboard bike-share cycles, swerving to avoid everyone else. And now, scooters waiting on what seems like every corner, sometimes haphazardly piled on top of each other. Eight scooter- and bike-share companies are permitted to operate up to 36,170 vehicles within Los Angeles county.
he madness will only grow. Delivery robot companies have designs on sidewalks. Drone startups want to fill the skies with prescriptions and burritos. Companies pin their hopes on “electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles”—autonomous, flying taxis. Others pour money into developing self-driving cars, which might one day operate as robotic taxi fleets.
Cities like LA want to master the mayhem. They want to keep streets safe for everyone, and traffic at bay. They want to fight pollution and climate change. They want to know where to spend money on infrastructure and where they can skimp. They want to ensure that companies allowed to use public streets and sidewalks make products available to as many residents as possible, regardless of income or color or community. And they want to ensure that the companies they’ve permitted to operate on their streets are following the rules.
All of that requires data. And Los Angeles officials think they’ve found an unlikely place to begin collecting it: scooters. Scooters use public sidewalks, so they require permits from municipal officials. Data on where those scooters are parked, and where they travel each day, could help officials plan for the future. Over time, the data also could provide the foundation for an app offering residents real-time info about their favorite transit modes. Bike? Scooter? Jet pack? An air traffic control of the ground.
But LA’s strategy for getting that data is making privacy advocates---and companies like Uber and Lyft, which operate both scooter and ride-hail services in the city—nervous. The resulting tussle has implications well beyond Los Angeles, and scooters.
Last summer, Los Angeles began work on a new data standard, called the Mobility Data Specification. At its core, MDS is just a standardized way for cities and private companies to share data about their operations. To operate in Los Angeles, a city whose placid weather and flat-ish streets make an appealing market for scooter and bike companies, the firms had to agree to share data with LA’s Department of Transportation through MDS. They had to agree to share anonymized trip data, updated every 24 hours, on where each scooter or bike trip starts, where it ends, and its route through the city. And they had to agree to allow the city to send them information—where, say, scooters are banned from operating, or where, because of increased congestion, they might be needed soon.
“MDS solves a real problem, and it fills a real need, because it’s an elegant tool that’s easy to use,” says Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the data standard has caught on elsewhere. Cities including Columbus, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and San Jose, California, are demanding companies use MDS if they want to operate on those cities’ streets. Others are considering doing the same.
To assuage privacy concerns, Los Angeles officials issued a set of legally binding “data protection principles.” The city promised to aggregate the anonymized data, de-identifying and destroying the information it did not need. It would only allow law enforcement access to the info through subpoena. And the city pledged to be very careful before releasing any trip info to the public.
The principles didn’t satisfy some scooter operators. In an April letter to Reynolds, Uber, which offers electric bikes and scooters through its Jump service, criticized what it called a “massive overcollection of data about the movements of bike and scooter users.” Lyft, which also operates scooters in LA, also submitted objections to MDS during a public comment period.
Nor did they convince privacy advocates. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology, both pro-privacy groups, chimed in with their own objections. “[The document] doesn't answer how LADOT intends to de-identify data or exactly what they will use information for,” Joseph Jerome, policy council at CDT says. “The techniques they are using to aggregate, de-identify, and obfuscate data should be made public.” The groups chafe at the idea that governments could one day use transportation data to track where its citizens are and how they get around.
For Uber, the battle is about far more than scooters. The company is concerned cities like LA may begin to demand user data on other modes of transportation—including its core business, ride-hail. “We are concerned that privacy-violating provisions of MDS will be expanded to other modes of transportation,” says Melanie Ensign, a security and privacy spokesperson for Uber. Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.
Uber and Lyft have a history of tussling with cities over data. When Uber showed up on streets, cities at first didn’t quite know what to ask of ride-hail companies. Most couldn’t foresee a future in which the ride-hail companies’ promise of banishing personal car ownership might actually create more traffic and pull riders off public transit. Today, a state-level agency regulates ride-hail businesses in California, leaving municipal officials with little authority.
Many cities have come to regret their passive approach, as their relationships with ride-hail companies have soured. Among other issues, there are questions about how much money ride-hail drivers make. Uber did not do itself any favors when it deployed Greyball, software designed to hide its operations from public officials, which was later exposed by The New York Times.
“The last time city streets were disrupted, by ride-hailing, it was not a very positive outcome, and so cities are rightly very skeptical and concerned about their control,” says William Henderson, CEO of startup Ride Report, which builds software to help cities manage mobility data. “That brings this back to the issue of data.”
Reynolds, the LADOT manager, says the city’s relationship with ride-hailing apps has been frustrating, characterized by episodes of mistrust on both sides. “The companies want to give information that’s really on their terms, and so that means it’s still a very lopsided conversation,” she says. “When they don’t like the question you ask, they won’t give you the data.” In 2017, for example, Uber rolled out its Movement tool, which shares some trip data through a web portal, down to the census tract. But transportation planners argue the information is not granular enough for all their needs.
Municipal officials learning more about how transportation companies operate could lead to new kinds of public accountability—and regulation. “There’s a degree to which the ride-hailing companies have never had their businesses exposed to this degree of granular scrutiny … I’m sure it’s a cultural shift for them,” says Emily Castor Warren, a former policy head at Lyft and the scooter-share company Lime.