mapping mobility data (tostphoto/Shutterstock.com)

How transit data can drive urban recovery

Cities are looking to take advantage of data-driven transportation tools for policymaking, particularly as they look for economic recovery opportunities.

A resolution, approved unanimously by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June, homes in on local governments’ rights to use transportation data because that information can be crucial to ensuring that low-income communities get equitable access to jobs, food and other necessities. The resolution is also a direct response to federal and state legislative efforts preempting commercial data sharing with cities.

For example, a California bill seeks to limit cities’ ability to collect trip information from operators of e-scooters, e-bikes and dockless vehicles, and the Federal Communications Commission in 2018 prohibited local governments from imposing excessive regulations and fees on wireless carriers that want to install 5G equipment on utility and telephone poles. A 2018 National League of Cities study found an 11% increase in the number of states implementing ride-sharing preemption laws, bringing the total to 41.

“We’re in some really interesting, historic times,” between the pandemic, the resulting economic disruption and broader social unrest around inequality, said Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., a co-sponsor of the resolution. “Cities need as many tools as possible, not less tools, as we really work our way through these unprecedented times and what I believe will also be an unprecedented recovery.”

The resolution states that “innovative data-driven tools are enabling cities to pioneer programs and regulations to generate new revenue, operate more efficiently, ensure compliance with labor and transportation regulations, and address chronic problems via planning, management and regulation.” If cities’ ability to use such tools are restricted, it says, they will struggle to “advance the major quality of life and equity opportunities for residents while simultaneously unlocking latent revenue potential from the public right-of-way.”

Benjamin pointed to a July 2020 report on dockless vehicle usage from the Los Angeles Transportation Department (LADOT) as an example of the importance of commercial data sharing with cities. Between April 2019 and March 2020, the city conducted the largest dockless mobility pilot program in the country, allowing 37,000 dockless vehicles from eight companies to operate on city streets.

To evaluate the pilot, LADOT used the open source Mobility Data Specification it pioneered. MDS is a digital tool and notification system that lets cities and operators share information in a standard format, as opposed to traditional relationships in which cities ask operators for specific information and vendors deliver custom data feeds or reports.

“During the pilot, digital tools helped LADOT communicate city policy directly to the companies operating in the city using code,” the report states. “MDS enabled LADOT to monitor and hold companies accountable to their obligations” through service-level agreements.

In Portland, Ore., public transit provider TriMet added ride-hailing and bike-sharing to its trip-planning app so that people could more efficiently get to their destinations using multiple modes of transportation. To do this, the city’s app interfaces with bike-sharing and ride-hailing companies to include real-time locations of bikes and cars on a map.

It’s critical that cities have “the ability to build these new tech tools with open source solutions” and not be prevented from accessing transit data, Benjamin said. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and that’s why having … the data to understand [mobility] is so important to us as public leaders.”

Overall, conference members called for federal support of any transportation initiative that would improve the navigability of cities to boost equity and safety. That includes embracing “shared mobility services and resources that expand travel options in cities and their regions and increase the throughput of urban networks serving people and vehicles,” the Mayors’ 2020 Vision states.

“We’re standing on a stage right now that’s going to help determine the future of our cities,” Benjamin said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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