Policymakers need it; private transportation companies have it. Here’s one way to broker a solution.
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.
Beyond these broad issues, there are a number of specific questions that can’t be answered without access to trip information from Uber, Lyft, Limebike, and the like. For example, without such data it’s hard for policymakers—or the general public—to decide if it’s a good idea to convert a parking meter to a ride-hailing drop-off point, or to ensure pedestrians aren’t obstructed by heaps of dockless bikeshare bikes on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, new mobility services have generally refused to let the public sector see inside their data vaults.
But the tide is turning, especially as the line between public and private forms of urban transportation blurs. American transit agencies are partnering with ride-hailing companies to offer late-night service, move people to bus or rail stations (“first mile/last mile” solutions), and manage paratransit for riders with limited mobility. Ride-hailing companies are in an awkward position if they refuse to share data with governments that subsidize them. “If I’m paying you to move a passenger, the data for that passenger isn’t yours,” I heard a Texas transit official say recently to a ride-hailing executive. “It’s mine.” The executive had no response.
When will policymakers finally be able to access the data they need to manage streets and sidewalks in the public interest, and how will they get it? The most likely solution is via a data exchange that anonymizes rider data and gives public experts (and perhaps academic and private ones too) the ability to answer policy questions.
This idea is starting to catch on. The World Bank’s OpenTraffic project, founded in 2016, initially developed ways to aggregate traffic information derived from commercial fleets. A handful of private companies like Grab and Easy Taxi pledged their support when OpenTraffic launched. This fall, the project become part of SharedStreets, a collaboration between the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the World Resources Institute, and the OECD’s International Transport Forum to pilot new ways of collecting and sharing a variety of public and private transport data. Kevin Webb, the founder of SharedStreets, envisions a future where both cities and private companies can utilize SharedStreets to solve questions on topics like street safety, curb use, and congestion.
That’s a laudable goal, but Shared Streets will have to solve several challenges in order to become a go-to resource. For example, it’s hard to provide a complete picture of urban mobility unless the heavyweights like Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, Ofo, and Mobike participate; so far none of them has signed on. There is also the question of how tech behemoths like Google and Apple—collectors of massive datasets about individuals’ movement—can be involved. Perhaps they can be sources of reliable revenue that SharedStreets will need in order to scale (at present the initiative is being incubated with philanthropic support).
Finally, there is the critical question of privacy. Although Uber’s hacking scandal has dinged ride-hailing’s credibility as a protector of passenger data, new mobility services do have a point when they push back against handing over rider information to the government. It’s reasonable to assume that at least some customers will balk at the prospect of public agencies accessing their personal ride histories. Webb says that SharedStreets will handle those concerns by collecting aggregated data that is rich enough to allow for deep analysis while still hiding information about individual rides. New mobility service companies could further protect their passengers by converting trip data into so-called “synthetic populations” of artificial data modeled after trips that people actually took.
However the new mobility service data arrives—almost certainly aggregated, and potentially artificially modeled—there will need to be a way to ensure it is accurate. After all, companies like Uber and Lyft have a vested interest in the questions policymakers pose about their impact on city streets. Data validation—especially for modeled data—is crucial for such an exchange to be trusted.
Conducting connected pilots in 14 urban centers worldwide
While much of CES is focused on the smart home, Bosch is looking beyond our abodes to the mega metropolises that house them.
Leveraging its IoT, AI, software and sensor smarts – the building blocks of smart cities – the Germany-based business is already working to cure many of the ills that plague large urban areas, including traffic, pollution, high energy consumption and crime.
In a CES Media Day presentation on Monday, Bosch Group management board member Dr. Stefan Hartung and Mike Mansuetti, president of Bosch North America, cited 14 current “Beacon” projects in metroplexes worldwide, where “The smart city of the future is already here,” Hartung said.
Among the pilots: A connected-parking program, being tested this year in 20 U.S. cities, in which specially-equipped cars automatically report available parking spaces to the Cloud as they pass, helping to reduce traffic, fuel consumption, pollution and time spent hunting for a spot.
The company is also outfitting 5,000 streetlights in San Leandro, Calif., to only illumine when needed, which is expected to save the municipality $8 million over 15 years.
On the product front, Bosch has developed a shoebox-sized micro-climate monitoring unit called Climo that urban managers can use for traffic control. A winner of a CES 2018 Innovation Award, the device is one-tenth the cost and one-hundredth the size of standard monitors, Mansuetti said.
The executives also touted a telematic eCall plug, which fits into a car’s cigarette lighter and can monitor and report the driver’s performance, and emit an emergency alert signal if needed. The device can help calm parents of young drivers and reward safe motorists with discounted insurance rates.
To help make smart cities a reality, Bosch has deployed 4,000 IoT engineers and is operating three AI research centers, in Germany, India and Silicon Valley. Why the urgency? According to Hartung, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in mega cities by 2050, while Mansuetti pointed to the big business that smart city has become: 19 percent annual growth and a projected 800 million Euros in expenditures by 2020.