The Scooter Data Opportunity: Cities Can Shape Their Future If They Act Now

Jascha Franklin-Hodge

Former Chief Information Officer, City of Boston

Scooters and shared bikes in Santa Monica, CA. Photo Credit: Carter Rubin

Over the past year, electric scooters have descended en masse on U.S. cities, and local governments are rushing to respond. Scooters have called into question the role of bike lane and sidewalk traffic and have caused long-simmering conversations about public use, management, and maintenance of urban rights-of-way to boil over. Umair Irfan’s excellent Vox explainer has all the background on 2018’s scooter expansion. While many have argued the merits or flaws of these new lightweight mobility devices, it’s likely they’re here to stay.

And with scooters, comes an incredible opportunity to realign policies governing public space, capitalize on available data, and put cities back in charge of how streets are used.

Why data matters

Cities are launching scooter programs, with rules focused on safety, equity, and vehicle supply. In these early days, cities are still learning how to write smart regulations that protect the public interest and support new forms of transportation. Data is essential to this learning process and to have an effective conversation with city residents. With details of vehicle status, trip history and routes, and maintenance events, cities can answer important questions like:

  • Are scooters being equitably deployed across neighborhoods?
  • Are service area boundaries being respected?
  • Are safety concerns dealt with promptly?
  • Are limits on the number of vehicles being followed — and are those limits appropriate to meet demand?
  • Where and when are people using scooters and how can this guide investment in infrastructure — like bike lanes and designated parking?
  • Are new services helping people and communities most in need of better transportation options?

The answers to these questions will guide policymaking and let cities steer towards good public outcomes through thoughtful, responsive oversight. With data, cities can proactively manage scooter services and measure their community impact, not just react to complaints and problems.

Data sharing, however, can be fraught with risk, and cities must tread carefully to navigate the space between detailed usage data and customer privacy. Just a few years ago New York accidentally leaked detailed taxicab locations by insufficiently anonymizing the data. Cities now intuitively understand the value of deciding with data, but they don’t always know what to ask for. It’s easy to gather too much or too little data, or at the wrong level of detail to be useful.

It’s time for a standard

With all the value and risks that data brings, we need a standardized data format to share information between operators and cities. Transportation officials designing scooter regulations should be focused on the needs of their community, not on creating complex data exchange systems. With a standardized way to share data, an ecosystem of tools will develop to help cities manage licensing programs, gain insights on scooter use, and benchmark against peer cities. A data standard designed with privacy in mind will dramatically reduce the risk of sensitive information being revealed or misused.

“Data standards are the rules by which data are described and recorded. In order to share, exchange, and understand data, we must standardize the format as well as the meaning.” -USGS Data Management Guide

A standard is good for mobility operators too. For companies like Bird, Lime, Lyft, Skip, Scoot, and Jump, the work of building and maintaining bespoke data exchange systems for every city is a major resource drain. Custom data formats will also stifle competition — as only the biggest players will have the capacity to implement city-specific solutions in every place they operate. By consistently sharing data and supporting cities in managing scooter services, operators have the chance to build trust with city officials, and to tell an important public story about how their services can reduce congestion, emissions, and car dependancy.

Design principles

Designing a universal data standard is not an easy task. Past successes like the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) are the result of thoughtful input from many stakeholders. To get the most value from a data standard, there are some key design principles that should be considered.

  • Accessible — Cities of all sizes and levels of technical sophistication need data. A standard should be designed to support a broad range of users, including cities without big technical teams.
  • Non-proprietary — No one company or organization can speak for every city. In the model of open source software, cities, operators, and other stakeholders should all be able to contribute to a data standard.
  • Privacy-conscious — Genuine privacy risks exist when mobility data is shared. A data standard should encourage meaningful consumer protection, without concealing important information from cities.
  • Multipurpose — Mobility data is useful in many ways. A data standard should support an ecosystem of commercial tools, collaborative research with academics, and peer-to-peer sharing between cities.
  • Adaptable — Urban mobility is changing rapidly. A flexible design and nimble governance will let the data standard evolve as new services emerge and city needs changes.

The work has already begun

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has kicked off this important work with the creation of Mobility Data Specification (MDS). This API is driven by LA’s expansive vision for using real-time mobility data to create a dynamic, digital regulatory framework. With support from additional cities, operators, and mobility platforms like Remix, this can evolve into a universal standard for sharing mobility data. This effort also dovetails well with the city-led efforts that NACTO has coordinated around their Shared Active Transportation guidelines.

The technical details of MDS are evolving rapidly thanks to productive input from cities and industry. This approach to developing a standard represents a new kind of public-private partnership, grounded in the twin ideas that cities must learn how to manage “digitally native” mobility services and that operators must be cooperative partners when they arrive in complex urban environments.

The months ahead represent a rare opportunity to define the framework for this new type of cooperation. Scooters appeared in cities almost overnight — but they are just the beginning. The technical standards and regulatory approaches built today for scooters will be a model for how cities manage the next big wave of change. By embracing thoughtful rules and the use of data, cities can reclaim their ability to shape the future of urban mobility and define a way forward that works for business, government, and residents.