Uber Makes Peace With a Data-Sharing Deal for Cities

The truce between two old foes—city governments and secretive private companies like Uber—began at the curb.

If you think the curb seems an unlikely Appomattox, you haven’t been pay attention. Today, the curb represents the most contested space in the urban world. Cyclists pedal through bike lanes, cars battle for parking spots. Taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts pick up and drop off riders. Delivery trucks unload Amazon Prime boxes and buses pull in and out of stops. People on foot scuttle through it all, trying not to get hit.

The people running cities believe there should be a place for all these things. Maybe a few designated Uber pick-up and drop off zones, or spaces reserved for trucks making deliveries. The companies want curb space, too, so they can do their thing. But before city governments can start reallocating that space (too long given over to private, parked cars), they need information.

“The autonomous age is upon us but most cities really don’t even have the network password to log in,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City transportation commissioner and the chair of National Association of City Transportation Officials. Some don’t have their curbs mapped at all. Others do, but the info is spread out across agencies, file formats, and incompatible maps. (One agency’s master files won’t include intersections; another’s might skimp on curb cuts.)

You know who does have that data? Private sector companies like Uber, which collect piles of information on who goes where, and when. And historically, they’ve been loath to let it until the sunlight. “The data is essential, but because so many companies wouldn’t share the data, we were planning blind,” says Sadik-Khan.

Until now, perhaps. In January, NACTO quietly rolled out a data-sharing project called SharedStreets. And last week, it landed a very important private sector partner, in Uber. The ride-hail company has started using the project as an intermediary, to share sensitive pick-up and drop-off data for Washington, DC.

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DC is pleased. “Data today is worth more than gold, oil and cryptocurrency,” says Ernest Chrappah, the director of the city’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which oversees taxi, limos, and ride-hail companies in the district. He says the city could use the newly available info to understand whether, say, drivers are too often blocking traffic to pick up passengers—and reconsider its street designs or traffic patterns to accommodate the new ways of getting around.

Indeed, SharedStreets may be exactly what both sides need. First, it will establish data standards for curbs, traffic speeds, and transit data, formats that can be shared between companies, agencies, even across cities. (No more, My computer can’t open that file.) Now, there’s a common language for curb data and maps, with agreed-upon locations for curb cuts and intersections.

SharedStreets

This urban Esperanto is a major help, say the people who work with curb info every day. “All of these debates that people are having, you have to have some kind of shared truth,” says Michal Migurski, an engineer at the startup Remix, which builds transit planning software.1 “You have to have an agreement on how many miles of streets, how many miles of curbs. If not, it ends up devolving into testiness early on.”

SharedStreets’ second key advantage is that it serves as a non-profit, non-political third party, a data-holding buffer between occasionally adversarial cities and private companies. That’s key for the companies that have hesitated to share data, fearing less cautious of technically savvy users could compromise their customers’ privacy, or reveal their various secret sauces, like routing algorithms.

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