Scooters have become a common sight in cities across the country, and they're still enduring some growing pains. Sometimes, they're left strewn across sidewalks. Users aren't always sure whether to ride them on those sidewalks or in the streets, and that uncertainty can create angst among riders, motorists and pedestrians. But those aren't the only points of contention. There's also a battle brewing over data.
Data could help cities plan transit landscape, but companies fear restrictions
LIME, SKIP AND A JUMP
Some of the big players in dockless electric scooters
- Headquarters: Santa Monica, Calif.
- Founded: April 2017 by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden
- Launched: September 2018
- Headquarters: San Francisco
- Stakeholder: Uber
- Founded: January 2017 as LimeBike
- Launched: Lime-S scooters launched in February 2018
- Headquarters: San Francisco
- Owner: Ford, which acquired Spin in November
- Founded: 2016 as a bike rental company
- Launched: February 2018
- Headquarters: San Francisco
- Founded: Grew out of Boosted, an electric skateboard company founded in 2011
- Launched: February 2018 under the name Waybots; Skip scooters launched that May
- Headquarters: New York
- Owner: Uber, which acquired Jump in April 2018
- Founded: 2010 as Social Bicycles; rebranded as Jump Bikes in January 2018
- Launched: October 2018
As scooters reached the streets and sidewalks en masse over the last year, city officials have sought data from the companies that run them to better understand how these micromobility devices are reshaping transportation. They're seeking — and, in many cases, requiring — data on the starting and ending points of individual trips, vehicle utilization, parking spots and battery charge.
Scooter companies are pushing back. In California, they're supporting a bill making its way through the Legislature that would hinder the ability of cities to collect data on these scooter trips, instead shifting much of that responsibility to the state level.
While Assembly Bill 1112 references only shared mobility devices, there's concern from city officials and urban planners that the precedent could be extended to other modes of current and future transportation — ride-hailing vehicles, self-driving shuttles and drones, to name a few. It wouldn't be surprising if similar legislation soon sprouts in other states. Bill 1112 will be an early litmus test.
"What concerns me with this bill is that it mirrors the tactics used by the ride-hailing firms years ago, when they tried to railroad cities rather than work with them," said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities' city solutions division. "I don't think the state level is where we should be making decisions on local mobility. These companies are working in the urban marketplace, not state capitals."
If the approach conjures memories of the acrimonious entry into the marketplace wrought by ride-hailing companies that sometimes worked to circumvent city regulations, it may be because those same companies are heavily involved in the nascent scooter industry. Lyft offers Lyft Scooters, while Uber owns scooter brand Jump. Bird, another scooter brand, was founded by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden.
Collectively, two dozen organizations, including Bird, Lyft, Uber and Jump, have offered their support for the California proposal. A letter signed by those companies says the legislation would help riders avoid a patchwork of local scooter-related ordinances that might make it difficult for them to understand whether they're in compliance.
Further, they say the bill provides a protocol for sharing "relevant data with local authorities" while not mandating any "unduly restrictive requirements on a provider, including requiring operation below cost or requiring providers to pay unreasonable fees."
Sticking points abound. Exactly what data is relevant remains in the eye of the beholder. Though trip data can be anonymized, cities still want information on individual trips, which can help them understand when scooters are being used, which locations riders are traveling between, how scooters might complement other transit options and where scooter parking might be warranted.
"The type of data that cities are able to access … is fundamental to today's transportation policy and planning," said Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, a San Francisco startup that provides a third-party data platform that serves as a conduit between scooter companies and city transportation departments. "Cities need this information to make streets safer, cleaner and less congested."
Perhaps more equitable, too. In Oakland, Calif., city officials want to ensure residents from all corners of the city have access to scooter transportation and that scooters are distributed in neighborhoods that lack transit options. But those policy goals might conflict with provisions of the legislation, which would prohibit cities from requiring below-cost operations.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than Los Angeles, where transportation executives find scooter-related data so compelling, they built and launched their own tool, the Mobility Data Specification, to ingest the data they require of the operators who have placed 36,170 scooters within the city's borders, the most in any city in the country.
Critics say that, although the city has crafted a document of data protection principles that are supposed to ensure consumer privacy remains protected, there's no way to ensure those principles are followed.
In May, SAE International started efforts to address data sharing. It intends to develop standard data definitions, metrics and best practices to ensure safeguards for geolocation and personal information that's shared between cities and private industry. Initial members of the consortium include Miami-Dade County, Jump, Spin, Populus and others.
In the meantime, Assembly Bill 1112 looms in California, and similar legislation is likely to appear elsewhere.
"We all know data is the currency of the 21st century, and companies are trying to hold onto this proprietary data for business purposes, and I understand that," Rainwater said. "But there are ways to share it for planning purposes, and we can utilize that while protecting it at the same time. Fundamentally, when it comes to data, people can't be left out of the picture. And cities are working on behalf of the public."