Uber Trying To Make Nice With Cities By Sharing Traffic Data

Image courtesy of Uber | YouTube

Have you ever watched a busy downtown city street and wondered how many of those cars are Ubers, how far they’re going, and how long it usually takes them to get there? City planners and transit administrators do, and so to make their lives a little easier, Uber’s planning to start giving away some aggregated, public-interest data to help transit planners plan.

The data is housed on a new site, which launched over the weekend. The site, Uber Movement, contains aggregated data from about 2 billion trips taken in four major cities worldwide — Boston, D.C., Manila, and Sydney.

For now, would-be users have to apply to access the data, which Uber says is ideal for city officials, urban planners, and policymakers. Eventually, Uber says, it will be making the aggregated data available to the general public as well.

The site largely promises to present bundled travel time data — information about where people are going, and when. As in: how long does it usually take a rider to go from Residential Neighborhood A to Business District B? Is it easier at night? On Tuesdays? At 2:30 p.m.? Is it a longer or shorter ride on Monday than on Friday?

In order to protect the privacy of both riders and drivers, Uber stresses, “all data is anonymized and aggregated to ensure no personally identifiable information or user behavior can be surfaced” through the tool. So you won’t see that Rider 4332 went from one specific address to another specific address on Tuesday, July 12, but you can query “Tuesday, July 12” and have a look at how many trips were taken at a specific time of day.

Transit planners can use this data as one of the tools in their box for making decisions, Uber suggests, presenting some case studies to back that up. For example, last March the entire Washington, DC Metro system went through an emergency one-day shutdown so inspectors could review all of the tracks for safety issues. Because rail travel was not an option, every commuter in the metro area had to hit the roads in one way or another. And so that data provides a glimpse into how travel times magnify when the roads get congestion in the nation’s capital.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has a callout on Uber’s site, saying the city is “excited to be one of the early partners with Uber on this new platform.”

Local Department of Transportation employees told the Washington Post that the Uber data would prove to be a valuable “puzzle piece” to help understand the metro region’s transit, since until now there has been no way of following Uber rides the same way there has been to understand licensed cabs, bikeshare uses, and Metro train and bus rides.

But, as the Washington Post points out, this is only a tiny sliver of the sheer amount of data Uber has been able to collect about travelers and their destinations since the app’s 2009 launch.

And Uber is probably not exactly sharing aggregate data entirely out of altruism. Instead, the company has been at the heart of arguments about data and privacy for ages. Most recently, that’s come up with New York City demanding access to Uber’s drop-off records.

The city already has access to Uber’s pick-up records, the same as it does with licensed cab drivers, but city regulators have said that they need to understand how long those rides are taking, in order to prevent driver fagitue and limit drivers’ working weeks to the legal cap of 60 hours.

A former head of the District Department of Transportation told the Post that “it’s possible” that Uber is basically throwing cities a bone with this data. But he also cautioned that cities need to be explicit about what they want, and how they want it.

“I think cities need to be very clear about what they want,” he told the Post. “When you’re not totally clear about you want, it’s much easier to get ‘rope-a-doped.’”

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.