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From the airy SOMA office of Remix, it all feels very calm. Things usually move sort of slowly here, employees say. The company creates planning software for cities, which means its workers spend their time going back and forth with the 300 government agencies—cough, bureaucracies—that they call clients. Recently, though, the work has picked up speed.
Over the past eight months, cities have started asking for a new kind of software: digital tools to deal with the dockless electric bikes and scooters that have suddenly swarmed their sidewalks. From Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chattanooga, Philadelphia, and Boston have come the tales: of monied startups dropping their new, zippy devices onto public land—and into loud public debate.
“We’ve hit a critical inflection point with cities and micromobility, and cities are really overwhelmed,” says Paul Supawanich, Remix’s head of mobility policy.
So this week, the company announced the rollout of a new product that it believes will help cities organize new sorts of transportation data. Using Remix for New Mobility, public officials should be able to see exactly how many scooters and bikes are parked across their fiefdoms, and where they are at any moment. They should be able to see where trips start and where they end, down to the census tract.
Cities believe having access to such anonymized information is critical to understanding how dockless electric scooter- and bike-share options fit into the transportation mix. Who is using them, where, and when? Do scooters sit out there all day, or are they being used? Are they actually taking cars off the road or connecting riders to public transit? Should there be more? Most of these quandaries can be solved with robust trip and fleet data, transferred in real time to the city planners and policymakers who are trying to puzzle this whole scooter thing out.
“What cities need is better data and information to develop policy and short- and long-range infrastructure plans,” says Regina Clewlow, CEO and founder of the transportation data and analytics startup Populus. (As it happens, Populus is officially announcing its own “new mobility” data platform this week, called Mobility Manager, which focuses on helping cities meet transportation equity goals.) More information on how many people are using scooters and bikes could, for example, give cities powerful incentives to build more protected bike lanes or reclaim a few parking spots for scooter-only parking.
Here’s the good news, if you’re a city regulator or a company building software for one: Most governments have already extracted that data from the private companies using their streets.
That’s quite a shift from just a few years ago. In the bad old days of 2010 to 2012, when 超级 和 Lyft were dropping into cities around the country, most local officials felt powerless to extract any sort of concessions from them. For one, they weren’t quite sure what they wanted from the ride-hail companies, what sorts of questions they needed to answer. Moreover, most didn’t have the power to regulate Uber and Lyft, which presented themselves not as taxi operators but tech platforms, connecting independents business owners (drivers) to riders. Since then, many public officials have been caught in a tug of war with ride-hailers, attempting to extract data from the now-billion-dollar companies even as those companies argue their data is proprietary—and sensitive.
With scooters, cities have a fresh shot, and they don’t intend to waste it. “They’re like, ‘Never again,’” says Tiffany Chu, cofounder and COO of Remix. “It’s night and day.”
So cities have started asking about trip and fleet data up front, as soon as the scooters or bikes touch their sidewalks. It helps that public officials have a few trump cards they lacked before. For one, they can literally pick up scooters, throw them in trucks, and impound them. (Ask city workers in 旧金山, Austin, 并 Nashville about that.) Two, most have direct regulatory authority over their sidewalks, where the shared scoots need to park. And three, there are a ton of scooter companies—12 applied for permits to operate in San Francisco—which means officials can play them off each other. In SF, every applicant said it would comply with the city’s transportation data requirements. And that included 超级 和 Lyft, which have invested in this new two-wheeled craze.
It also helps that cities have gotten much, much savvier about data since Uber’s black sails appeared on the horizon. In fact, Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation is currently in the midst of developing its own data standard for “new mobility” options, which would give the city and companies a two-way channel to quickly share information on where, when, and how the vehicles are affecting their streets. The city hopes other cities will adopt this standard, called the “mobility data specification,” as an easy way for governments and companies to share what they know. One day, it might allow cities to, say, quickly direct scooter companies where to send their scoots. “The commuter train is about to let off at Union Station, so get your guys there now,” or “There’s a water main break on this block, so tell your users not to park there."
“It’s definitely going to help us determine who’s adhering to the regulations and whether they’re complying,” says Oliver Hou, a transportation engineering associate with the Los Angeles DOT. “It’s a way to make sure they’re operating safely.”
The mobility companies themselves say they’re happy to play along—another way in which these players, staffed with plenty Uber and Lyft alums, are unlike their aggressive predecessors.
“Now that cities are contemplating data sharing up front, and being very certain about asking for it, it helps that companies like Lime are not taking an adversarial approach,” says Emily Warren, who oversees policy and public affairs at Lime. (She would know—Warren headed up Lyft’s policy shop for six years.) Lime also favors LA’s data standard approach. “Once we’ve done the up-front work, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t want another city to embrace it,” Warren says.
“We’ve always shared data with cities when they ask for it,” says Bird spokesperson Mackenzie Long.
Both companies have rolled out their own scooter dashboard products, which give cities detailed info on their vehicles’ whereabouts. But startups like Remix and Populus are betting officials would rather see all scooters on one screen.
Of course, data sharing comes with pitfalls. A 2014 New York City taxi data lapse inadvertently allowed savvy data scientists to un-anonymize data and trace the whereabouts of celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Jessica Alba. Both Bird and Lime say they’re careful to ensure the privacy of users, and cities say they want to keep data private too. But keeping data safe is one thing. Using it for good—to make city streets safer and cleaner and easier to move through—is another.