Can Uber Help Drive the Design of Smarter Cities?
With its Movement initiative, Uber is promising to share extensive route data with city planners to sharpen urban planning.
This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.
City governments have a history of strained relationships with Uber, which routinely flouts regulations as part of a no-holds-barred approach that has made it the world’s most valuable private technology company.
But in an effort to place nice with city officials, the Silicon Valley ridesharing behemoth recently announced its Movement initiative to share anonymized data on traffic patterns and driving times between destinations.
“The aim is to be better partners with cities around the world.”
— Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy
For Uber, it’s the first step toward a future where municipal planners might factor in the company’s ridesharing service as they make tweaks to existing roadways and transit systems. For cities, the program could offer valuable data to understand people and traffic flow—and to analyze what happens when, say, an accident occurs on an inbound freeway or roads are shut down for a major event.
“The aim is not to sell [data]. The aim is to be better partners with cities around the world,” says Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation policy at Uber.
Private Data Goes Public
Initially, Uber is rolling out its transportation data to three pilot cities: Washington, D.C., Sydney and Manila. Eventually, the company plans to make Movement data publicly accessible.
Uber has tried this before. In 2015, the company announced it would begin sharing data with Boston city officials. The city, however, complained that the agreement put restrictions on which city agencies could use the data. In addition, data was being shared in infrequent bulk downloads, which didn’t help city planners who were trying to get a feel for what was happening with traffic patterns from day to day or week to week.
“You don’t want a static data dump. You might want a product that’s built around a use case,” Salzberg says. “We show you data, let you download it, but we also gray out where we haven’t protected driver and rider privacy yet.”
Right now, that means Uber is sharing data on travel times between destinations, and how those travel times fluctuate.
Traffic Patterns Inside the Beltway
The company has already analyzed data for D.C. officials to demonstrate what effect Metro system shutdowns have on roadway traffic during peak commuter hours (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.).
“Uber data most directly links in with roadway operation. It’s not something that’s real-time, but all of the different data comes together to show the impact of what happens when you close a road, or when there’s a major accident on the freeway,” says Stephanie Dock, research program administrator for the Planning and Sustainability Administration inside the D.C. Department of Transportation.
How, exactly, this Uber data will play a part in the transportation planning of D.C. remains to be seen. Dock says officials are only now starting to figure out how to use Movement data to complement data the city already collects on other components of its complex transit system, including private cars, D.C. Metro and the Capital Bikeshare program.
The potential of Uber’s anonymized data lies in how it is combined with the other data streams D.C. officials analyze. And that, in turn, might change the way city planners approach municipal projects in the future.
“I’m not sure we totally know where we're going to go with it. For an individual project or corridor, this data alone is insufficient,” Dock says. “What I think it can do is give people a baseline of understanding of what does happen if the road system is congested.”