Why the Urban Mobility Data Debate Matters to Public Transportation

By David Zipper, Visiting Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School

You’ve probably noticed the shared e-scooters and e-bikes (so-called “micromobility” devices) that have quickly become fixtures on American streets and sidewalks. To manage these recent arrivals, cities have begun relying on huge troves of data that the micromobility companies send to city governments. 

Most of this data is collected through a new standard called the Mobility Data Specification (MDS). MDS was initially developed for cities, but the specification could also help improve public transit service-especially for agencies wishing to integrate their service with e-scooters and e-bikes. If you want to be a champion of multimodal urban travel, MDS is something you will want to know about. 

MDS was developed over the last two years by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), which sought a way to manage the sudden influx of e-scooters. Working with private partners, LADOT designed MDS as a way for micromobility companies to send cities real-time location data about trips taken on each vehicle, along with information such as whether the vehicle is broken, running out of battery power or in use. 

Today, more than 50 cities use MDS to manage their micromobility fleets, often with assistance from mobility data companies like Populus and Remix that convert the raw data into dashboards monitored by city staffers. Cities can use MDS data to see whether a micromobility company has exceeded its vehicle cap, and they can flag broken devices that could be sidewalk obstructions. They can also gain information helpful to planning, such as choosing where to build a protected bike lane. 

The emergence of MDS as a standard has benefitted the micromobility companies themselves, since they no longer must provide data in many different formats. That said, Uber (owner of micromobility provider Jump) and a number of privacy advocates have questioned whether MDS trip data could be “deanonymized” to reveal the identity of particular riders, which would create a host of thorny legal and ethical problems (this controversy is ongoing).

Cities have been at the forefront of MDS’s development for an obvious reason; they can make adherence to MDS a prerequisite for receiving a local permit. The data collected through MDS has generally flowed to the citieds themselves, rather than to other transportation entities. Only rarely have public transit agencies accessed it. 

But there are good reasons agencies would want to see local MDS data, and why cities should share it with them in order to improve regional mobility networks. 

Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, says “the most exciting MDS opportunity for transit is the chance to understand how micromobility users are connecting to and from buses and trains.” Several recent studies found that 30-40 percent of e-scooter trips begin or end near public transit. Accessing MDS data could allow agencies to identify which bus or rail stops are most popular among micromobility users, suggesting they could be promising locations for dedicated parking corrals or multimodal mobility hubs, which cities including Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are piloting. 

MDS can also help flag potential conflict zones between modes. Tiffany Chu, CEO of Remix, says that trip data can show “whether micromobility users tend to use a high-frequency bus corridor, which indicates high potential for bus-scooter and bus-bike interactions”. If so, the city and public transit agency could develop infrastructure solutions to keep riders comfortable and safe. 

Public transit agencies could further leverage MDS to fulfill their visions of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). For instance, a scan of MDS data could reveal if micromobiltiy vehicles are unavailable near particular transit stops after 5 p.m. If this is the case, the agency and the city could explore ways to provide more reliable transfers from the train to an e-scooter, and vice versa. 

Over time, MDS could evolve to help cities manage other private forms of mobility, such as ride hail, drones or autonomous vehicles. MDS could even allow regulators to adjust vehicle taxes and fees in real-time to nudge mobility companies to shift devices towards particular places, such as near public transit stops prior to rush hour. 

Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer at LA Metro, is bullish on MDS’s potential to become a vital tool for public transit as well as for cities. “Having data like MDS is critical to making better policy decisions around our own services,” he says, pointing to LA Metro’s efforts to help riders reach a station by walking, riding a bike or using micromobility. “Better policy decisions can ultimately lead us toward our goal of reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips.”

Indeed, that may be the greatest of all potential benefits of MDs: the chance to make it easier for urban residents to replace their personal vehicle with a mix of various mobility services, including public transportation. That seems like something cities and public transit agencies could unite in celebrating.

The article was orginally published in Issue 225 of Passenger Transport


More articles on data and mobility:

U.S. Micromobility Battleground: Data, Privacy, and Regulation

In the Quest For Open Data, How Do Cities and Transport Operators Move Forward?

A Privacy Playbook for Connected Car Data

About the author: As a contributor to The Atlantic and CityLab, David Zipper has established himself as one of the most insightful voices on the confluence of technology and urban mobility challenges. He is now studying these topics as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

You can reach out to David on Twitter @davidzipper