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With access to real-time mobility data from a variety of sources, cities can improve transit efficiency and meet sustainability, accessibility and equity goals.
Data sharing helps advance cities’ mobility improvement projects, but regulations will ensure privacy protections for that data, a new report finds.
By sharing data, cities can meet mobility goals such as making trips more efficient, prioritizing sustainable modes of transport and supporting a transition to zero- and low-emission vehicles, according to “Data for Environmentally Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Mobility,” a paper published in June by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Eno Center for Transportation and the Wuppertal Institute in Germany.
For example, governments can use ridership data from app-based ride-hailing companies to understand if on-demand trips are replacing sustainable transportation options and increasing congestion and emissions. That happened in Chicago, which then introduced a tax structure for those companies in an effort to reduce traffic and encourage sustainable transit options.
Additionally, real-time data allows cities to respond swiftly in emergencies, such as by rerouting traffic after a collision. And the report points to opportunities provided by data from mobility-as-a-service platforms or customer-facing apps that aid in trip planning and payment across transport modes. For instance, Los Angeles County and the Puget Sound, Washington, area partnered with tech company Via to provide first-mile, last-mile connectivity and on-demand services to address transit service gaps.
More than 1,000 transit agencies in the United States offer data on ridership, vehicles and fares, and transportation network companies, or TNCs, have “a huge repository of data on their rides,” according to the report. Micromobility providers such as e-scooter and bike share companies also give data to cities based on contractual agreements.
Most agencies share data in the Global Transit Feed Specifications format, providing a common way for cities to analyze the data, but not all transit agencies use open data formats. Some have data-sharing agreements with third-party research organizations, the report states. For instance, transit agencies in Boston, Chicago and other locations share data with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Transit Lab to facilitate analysis for agency-level planning and operations.
Cities and transit agencies also get data from their own surveys, the Census Bureau, the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey and smartphone apps operated by location-based services companies.
But data risk management has not kept up with innovation. “[T]he United States doesn’t currently have the needed regulatory, enforcement and technological systems to monitor data collection, sharing and usage,” the report states. “Privacy is a major risk, since data collected by mobility service providers comprises sensitive information such as geolocation or the path of the user.”
Even when personal identifiers are removed from data before sharing, geolocation data can still be traced to a person based on regular trip patterns, the paper adds.
Other risks include intentional or unintentional misuse and bias against certain user groups, according to the policy paper. “Data misuse often arises from the use of data from one context for which consent was provided and applying it to another context for which consent was not provided,” it states.
Additionally, the potential for bias against disadvantaged populations is high in ride-hailing and micromobility data because those services are more often used by people who can afford them and have access to a smartphone and high-speed internet.
While the United States has no broad consumer privacy and data security laws, some states have them, the report notes. As of March, six had passed comprehensive privacy laws and at least 32 have enacted laws that require state agencies and other government entities to use data-security measures.
To address these privacy concerns while still maximizing data’s potential in transit improvement, the report has three recommendations for local governments. The first is creating standards for data sharing by mobility service providers because the current “lack of uniformity of data in terms of formats, regulations and governance models can create regulatory and procedural uncertainty,” the report states. “Cities and states should … work toward harmonization to the extent possible.”
Second, cities must improve data usage. They can invest in building internal capacities to manage data-based activities necessary for basic planning and enforcement, for instance. “Cities have been slow to integrate the available mobility data into their planning processes because they currently lack human, technological, and financial resources to support data processing and analytics,” the paper states.
Third, cities must have regulatory power over private mobility service providers to fulfill their responsibility for providing safe, accessible and sustainable transportation systems. One way cities can increase their negotiating power is to form coalitions that share common regulatory interests, the report states.
The work to leverage mobility data is worthwhile, the report concludes: “Despite these challenges, today’s potential and promise of data is too great to ignore.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.