By Isaac Prevost
Traffic data plays an important role for public agencies concerned with traffic management and infrastructure. We’re seeing private companies collect more and more of this data, occasionally resulting in partnerships between governments and those private companies. However, whether these partnerships will stave off an increased interest in regulatory requirements of private data disclosure remains to be seen.
Federal, state, and local governments collect significant traffic data about traffic patterns and use of roadway system. The collection methods used by governmental entities range from interconnected sensors along the road to government employees manually tallying vehicle occupancies. This information is then used to analyze infrastructure needs, improve public transportation routes, and provide real-time traffic information to the public. In recent years however, there has also been a substantial uptick in the amount of traffic data collected by private companies. This is occurring with the prevalence of ride-sharing companies, increasingly-automated cars, and mapping applications such as Google Maps.
So, just how are public transportation agencies utilizing these new sources of data? Waze, a GPS navigation software owned by Google, launched the Connected Citizens Program in 2014 that shares traffic and road information with public entities for free. Agencies that partner with them participate in a two-way exchange of traffic data, giving Waze information on road closures and incidents. This private data supplements the government’s data, providing better information on functions such as the timing of traffic signals or the dispatch of emergency vehicles.
An alternative example of these partnerships can be found between Strava Metro and public agencies, where the agency pays for access to the data. Strava, a popular application for runners and cyclists, gives the public entities access to the their users’ running and cycling routes. The Oregon Department of Transportation pays $20,000 per year for access to the data. Information from Strava Metro was a factor in the decision to restrict cars from Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bridge. These types of collaborations are just a small sample of how private data is increasingly being used in public planning.
However, even though the voluntary sharing of private data with public entities has become more common, it has not happened without its hurdles. While governments may be eager to use the data that companies like Waze or Strava are willing to share or sell, tensions have arisen when a company like Uber is reluctant to turn over data or withholds certain customer information. A partnership between Uber and the City of Boston in 2015 resulted in underwhelming results because Uber only disclosed the zip codes for the start and end location of an Uber user’s ride. A city official explained that the location information was not specific enough to be useful for urban planning.
Instead of pursuing partnerships, some cities have required data information from ridesharing companies in exchange for their license to operate in the area. In January 2017, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission requested all passenger pick-up and drop-off information from ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft. Uber publicly objected to the proposal, citing the privacy of their drivers, but the Commission kept the requirement. The City expressed interest in the value of Uber’s data for traffic planning and analysis, as well as a tool for preventing drivers from working beyond their permitted total of work.
Possibly in an effort to appease regulators, Uber launched Uber Movement this year, which aggregates and anonymizes Uber’s ride data to show the traffic flows of various cities. In their FAQs section, Uber Movement states that the launch of the site was partially due to feedback from government agencies that “aggregated data will inform decisions about how to adapt existing infrastructure and invest in future solutions to make our cities more efficient.” One of their pilot reports tracked how a metro shutdown in Washington D.C. affected travel times in the city. The New York Times labeled this website “an olive branch to local governments.”
Uber Movement formally launched in August. As it gains more and more data on various cities, it could provide an interesting case study: what amount and type of private traffic data are governmental entities hoping to access? Will the availability of this data stave off further local and state regulations? Partnerships between governments and private companies are becoming more and more common, but the success or failure of Uber Movement may provide some insight into what lies ahead for these types of partnerships.