Uber Offers City Planners a Slice of Traffic Data

Company touts potential of new tool to help cities fix streets. 

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

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Despite its popularity with riders, Uber and city governments aren’t exactly BFFs. On Sunday, however, the ride-hailing app company unveiled a new data-sharing website aimed at public planners and city officials in a move that The New York Times is calling a “tiny olive branch.” Just how tiny remains to be seen.

The site, dubbed “Movement,” curates GPS data from more than 2 million trips, and it could be a helpful tool for observing traffic patterns and reducing congestion. Uber claims that the information it has crowdsourced (well, driver-sourced) is more reliable than the data typically mined by third-party agencies for city governments — largely because all of its drivers use smartphones with global positioning technology.

“Over days, weeks and years, patterns emerge and help inform decisions for your city,” a voice informs visitors in the site’s introductory video.

Movement also includes case studies from cities around the world — including Manila, in the Philippines, and Washington, D.C. — and is endorsed by a few heavy hitters in the municipal policy sphere.

“We’re excited to be one of the early partners with Uber on this new platform,” Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement. “We want to employ as many data sources as possible to mitigate traffic congestion, improve infrastructure and make our streets safer for every visitor and resident in the nation’s capital.”

“Our relationships with cities have typically been uneven, but there are a lot of places around the world where Uber and the cities we operate in have the same goals,” Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation policy at Uber, said in an interview with the Times.

All of that sounds great as far as Uber/city relationships go. But despite Movement’s release, the company tends to be far from transparent. This week, Uber is gearing up to challenge a New York City policy that would require dispatchers to disclose the address and time of each drop-off (they’re already required to make that info public for pick-ups). The city says it wants those numbers to “combat driver fatigue” and limit workweeks to 60 hours, according to Bloomberg.

And in 2015, a California judge ordered the company to pay a tidy $7.3 million for failing to provide data the state had requested. Some of the facts Uber was reluctant to part with: the number of rides requested, driver safety information and accessibility information.

Still, there’s promise in the potential pairing of cities and ride-hailing services, not just for infrastructure planning but for carpooling and reducing the number of vehicles on over-clogged streets. For now, Movement looks like it could earn Uber some much-needed grace in the public department. Just don’t expect all of its data to come pouring out any time soon.

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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: public transportationurban planningbig datauber

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