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Perspective

Who Owns Urban Mobility Data?

Policymakers need it; private transportation companies have it. Here’s one way to broker a solution.
Urban mobility increasingly involves a mix of private and public transit. Who gets the data?
Urban mobility increasingly involves a mix of private and public transit. Who gets the data? Richard Vogel/AP

How, exactly, should policymakers respond to the rapid rise of new private mobility services such as ride-hailing, dockless shared bicycles, and microtransit? As I argued here several months ago, in order to answer that question city leaders will need accurate and detailed information about all urban trips—however the traveler chose to get from one place to another. And that information needs to come in part from the private mobility companies that are moving a growing share of people within our cities.  

In 2017, these services had a tumultuous year. Apocalyptic images of discarded dockless bikes in China left American officials that are experimenting with this model for bikesharing scrambling to ensure their cities avoid the same fate. Meanwhile, Uber’s admission that it paid a $100,000 ransom to hackers who stole 57 million user accounts damaged that company’s credibility as a protector of passenger privacy. And a widely shared study from researchers at University of California-Davis refuted several optimistic hypotheses about ride-hailing’s societal benefits: It found that companies like Uber and Lyft are spurring urban congestion, siphoning public transit riders, and failing to entice many people to give up their cars. Not coincidentally, transit agencies like Washington, D.C.’s WMATA are now launching their own investigations to see if declining ridership can be traced to the emergence of ride-hailing.