In a small meeting in a cramped, windowless conference room Thursday morning, seven bureaucrats took a small step that could maybe, someday, change the way people travel around New York City.
Buried amid a pile of anti-drowsy driving rules the Taxi and Limousine Commission just unanimously approved, one provision caught the attention of Silicon Valley: Rideshare and livery companies, including Uber and Lyft, must report detailed data about where they’re picking up and dropping off their passengers.
These mobility companies, most notably Uber, have long chafed at this sort of regulation. Providing specific information, they’ve griped, puts their customers’ privacy at risk, and makes them easier to track. (The TLC has blunted that argument by clarifying they don’t need exact addresses or coordinates; the nearest intersection will suffice.)
That data is also a trade secret: Rideshare firms build their competitive edges in the endlessly-honed algorithms that connect their drivers to the closest riders, then route them to their destinations and on to the next fare, all as efficiently as possible. As something of a peace offering, in January Uber created a free tool for cities, developers and dilettantes, which allows users to track car travel times. But New York still wanted their far more helpful pickup and drop-off info—which taxi companies and 60 percent of limo and black car services have been providing for ages. In about six months, when the new rules kick in, they’ll be the first American city to get it, in monthly installments. (Neither Uber nor Lyft replied to a request for comment.)
New Data, New Rules
Whatever the companies think, urban planning and transportation experts are pumped. Getting more data about how people move could help the city change its transportation system for the better.
“Understanding where pickups and drop-offs are helps [a city] understand where demand is for alternative transportation services,” says Zak Accuardi, at the transit advocacy and research group TransitCenter. A neighborhood where Lyft is doing a ton of early morning pickups could maybe use more frequent, commuter-friendly bus service, or a new line altogether. Perhaps people are looking for other ways to get around—consider a bikeshare station, or a protected cycling lane, maybe? Or maybe the locals are abandoning car ownership, meaning super-valuable curb space could be used for things other than parking spots. Bring on the parklets, or the street vendors, or even dedicated spaces to host waiting Ubers.
New York is lucky to already have GPS-enabled taxis zipping around its major commuting zones. But pickup and drop-off information can help planners track the ebbs and flows of rush hour, or where crazy traffic is slowing down travelers. (This will be especially helpful in the the far out boroughs, where official NYC taxis are less likely to venture.) The actual, physical result? Traffic lights synced to smooth congestion, traffic calming thingy-doos like speed humps or bumps, maybe even the banishment of vehicle traffic from a particularly nutty stretch.
The information might even help New York evaluate where to focus its efforts after a storm. “If transit isn’t running after a major snowstorm, but Uber and Lyft are, we can understand how much money that costs the average person versus the city for plowing,” says Sarah Kaufman, who studies transportation and technology at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
Watching where Uber and Lyft drivers don’t go can be helpful, too. “One of most cities’ goals is equity: understanding who has access to these services, who is being denied services, and how often that’s happening,” says Corinne Kisner, who directs public policy for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. If rideshare companies aren’t reaching certain areas, it may signal the city needs to step it up with other options.
These numbers aren’t much good on their own. You have to combine them with other data sources—taxis, traffic management systems, bridge and tunnel tolls, bikeshare systems—to figure out exactly what’s going down on the street. And the Taxi and Limousine Commission had better keep its promise to safeguard the data—a screwup there would bolster arguments against similar regulations in other jurisdictions.
But access to better data from Uber and Lyft—which together completed 240,000 daily trips in January, compared to 340,000 yellow taxi ones—makes every public decision about how New Yorkers move that much more informed, and that much more likely to make life easier.
New York can lead the way for other cities who’d like to know more about what Uber and Co. are up to. “Other agencies should be watching this example closely,” says Accuardi, “because the sky isn’t likely to fall on Uber, Lyft, and the rest of the industry as they report these data”—even if they claim it will. And then, maybe, the city starts to look a bit different, and getting around gets a bit easier for everybody.