Who’s up to swap transit data?

Cities and mobility companies swapping their data would have an extremely positive impact on Transportation Policy.

The emergence of the new urban ride-sharing and bus-pooling services is adding new options to commuters. For over half a century, municipalities have been enforcing private alternatives to public transit, such as jitneys, dollar vans and other illicit services, while transportation agencies sometimes tended to assume that privately owned bus services would avoid to operate in low-income areas due to the fact that affluence is much lower, which furthers transit inequities.

But the truth is that new mobility options can be more inclusive and good for commuter choice. Existing ride-sharing companies like Uber-pool or Lyft-line or emerging bus-pooling services like ShotlVia, or Chariot are not a redundant replacement for the bus or the taxi; they’re new competitors in a mobility marketplace that’s been monopolised for decades.

These new bus-pooling services build their competitive verge in their sharp algorithms, able to connect commuters to the most convenient vehicle and route them together to their diverse destinations, all in the most efficient way. Where buses are operative, these companies become an alternative; where buses are missing, they provide a service that did not exist before. In both cases, it creates a new competitive tension that offers an opportunity for the city to enhance its ongoing bus services.

With the interest to protect the long-established role of public transit, many cities are still lagging in open data, as their officials fear of missing out on potential revenue if they share it with private companies. But when a commuter decides to ride on a private shuttle instead of the bus, he or she is not only spending money in a private company, but also providing valuable data about his or her journey to a third party.

Shouldn’t private data be shared with the city?

Municipalities often don’t have the resources to get real time data on traffic patterns and flows. Physical sensors can be expensive and the fleet of research-vehicles is often too small and inefficient to be everywhere. Traditional companies like Inrix often cover minimal information related to major arteries, as they only gather data from commercial vehicles. Here is where new ride-sharing and commuting apps are finding the opportunity to gain control over their markets.

If municipal governments had access to the actual numbers, they could observe the variables that are affected by the frequency of buses at certain times, the lack of infrastructure or any other problem. But foremost, what transport planners are really looking for is where and when people start and end their daily trips, as recognising commuting patterns helps decide where to intensify resources.

An area of the city where a ride-sharing or taxi service does many early morning pickups could surely deploy a commuter-friendly Shotl-like service or even a more frequent bus line or perhaps planners would decide to build a new bike share station or a protected bike lane. That could translate to lower rates of car ownership which would free curb space to be used as loading zones, parks or spaces for street vendors.

Pick-up and drop-off information can also help planners track the movements of rush hours, or where substantial traffic is slowing down commuters. As a result, traffic lights could concur to clear congestion, speed bumps could be placed or replaced, among other actions.

Either way, if cities share their data with private companies, while companies provide cities with anonymised information on their passenger’s rides, the outcome can have an extremely positive impact on transportation policy. Not to forget that equity is -and must be- one of most cities’ main goals: if there are no transportation services in certain areas of the city, alternative options must be put in place.

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