In S.F., Data Gaps in Ride-Sharing Are an Obstacle to Basic Planning

The tight-lipped status quo of ride-sharing companies makes it difficult for the city to evaluate its environmental benchmarks.

An Uber driver in Bogotá, Columbia (Photo by Alexander Torrenegra) 

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Much has been made of ride-hailing companies’ screeching zoom into the scooter marketplace — especially in San Francisco. But even as Uber teams up with Lime to boost the emissions-free transport, the company is withholding data about its vehicles from city planners, which could compromise San Francisco’s ability to meet state greenhouse-gas targets.

Ride-sharing operators are declining to share data about the number of cars on the road, where they’re going or how often they’re running fares in the California city, Mission Local reports. That’s not exactly surprising — as Next City has covered, Uber has challenged city policy around disclosing drop-off times in New York City and has been fined for failing to provide data to state regulators in California. But according to a draft report from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the companies’ tight-lipped status quo is no longer just a headache for city planners — it’s become crippling, affecting everything from congestion to safety and equitable planning. And it’s certainly not helping the city sync with either its own goals or with the state’s targets for lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, as required by AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

From Mission Local:

Fully 85 percent of all possible “outcome metrics” were not reported by any company, Uber and Lyft included.

And that’s no mere oversight. In a 2012 filing to the California Public Utilities Commission, Lyft argued that trip data was a “closely guarded trade secret” that guaranteed Lyft’s ability to raise capital investment and compete in a market dominated by Uber, which Lyft characterized as “ruthless.”

In a 2017 document filed with the CPUC, Lyft laid out the type of information it collects, according to the news site, including trips completed, time and location of pick-ups and drop-offs and miles and hours traveled by drivers.

That data would allow the city to move forward with what the draft report calls the city’s Guiding Principles for long-range planning: goals such as equitable access, transit patterns that work with first-last mile technologies and fair-labor policies for transit operators. Without it, though, the planners behind the report begin to sound like broken records.

“The city does not have adequate data from enough emerging mobility companies to fully evaluate how well emerging mobility services are aligned with our Guiding Principles,” they write in the executive summary. And later: “because we have inadequate data, we do not fully understand how this sector is impacting travel-mode choice behavior and congestion.” Or: “San Francisco is a Transit-First city, but inadequate data means we do not have comprehensive information on how the emerging-mobility sector is impacting transit ridership or our capital investments.”

While the “trade-secret” argument has long been brandished by both Uber and Lyft, Uber, at least, has shown some willingness to work with city officials with crowdsourced information. Last year it debuted “Movement,” which curates GPS data from its drivers’ smartphones. It also began offering real-time public-transit info so that riders could transfer from ride-shares to fixed modes more seamlessly.

But that still leaves much to be desired in San Francisco, according to the draft report, which will be resubmitted to the Transportation Authority later this summer.

“We really want to know about the tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft trips,” Andy Thornley, a senior analyst in the Sustainable Streets Division of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told Mission Local. “We really need that basic operational data.”

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: san franciscoclimate changeride-hailing

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