Last year, Mountain View officials entered a deal to underwrite the costs of downtown Uber and Lyft rides in exchange for data to help guide the city's future transportation planning. But after nearly a year of discussions, city officials say they are no closer to reaching an agreement because both companies refuse to share their trip data.
Even when made anonymous, general statistics on rider trips is being tightly guarded by both companies, and representatives have shown little willingness to negotiate, according to city staff. This refusal has undermined a central goal of the program and leaves its future prospects in limbo.
Uber and Lyft representatives relayed an entirely different message last February when they came before the Mountain View City Council. At the time, city leaders were discussing putting forward $50,000 for what they thought would be a relatively simple pilot program that would be rolled out to the public within a few months. Under the proposal, Mountain View agreed to pay half the cost of any Lyft or Uber rides in the downtown area as a way to help alleviate problems finding parking.
Speaking to elected leaders at the time, Lyft and Uber officials both said their ride-sharing data could be easily adapted to help municipal planning.
"We're opening up our aggregated data and providing it to cities to help them decide matters like where to put stop signs, or where to put new streets," said Michael Berl, a spokesman for Uber's business development team.
"At Lyft, we're committed to working hand-in-hand with our city partners," said Paul Davis, Lyft's transportation partnership manager. "We have an opportunity here to reshape our communities and start reclaiming parking for more productive uses."
The council unanimously approved the deal, leaving it up to city staff to iron out the particulars. But once the talks went behind closed doors, the deal reportedly hit an impasse. In separate meetings with each company, city officials asked to inspect general data, such as the number of daily ride-share users, and the start and end points of each trip. Both Uber and Lyft representatives resisted that request.
"Both these companies feel that sharing this data would put them at a competitive disadvantage," said Alex Andrade, Mountain View's economic development director. "If it wasn't for this data issue, we would have had this contract done by last fall, at the latest."
When asked to comment by the Voice, an Uber representative on Wednesday pointed to a partnership to study curb space with San Francisco as an example of how it worked with public agencies. The representative did not respond to questions. A Lyft representative declined to speak on the record, but later provided a statement after the Voice's deadline.
"We are in active discussions with the city to provide the city with data they need while protecting the personal travel privacy of Mountain View residents," Lyft officials said in the statement.
City officials and consultants have tried to reach a compromise with the companies. Data on each trip's starting and ending location didn't necessarily have to pinpoint specific map locations. That data could be left imprecise. Still, neither company was willing to negotiate, Andrade said.
Mountain View isn't the first city to hit this roadblock in dealing with ride-sharing companies. Large metropolitan cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Boston have also complained that ride-sharing companies have been generally unhelpful in opening up their wealth of data. Uber and Lyft talk a good talk about aiding transit agencies, but the data they're willing to provide is not all that useful, said Joseph Castiglione, deputy director for technology and data for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.
Hiding data on traffic impacts
The common explanation reportedly offered by Lyft and Uber is that this data is a trade secret that would compromise user privacy if it were shared with public agencies. Castiglione is skeptical.
"These arguments don't hold water," he said. "There's plenty of examples of public agencies being stewards of detailed travel data without compromising the privacy of individuals."
This has led to some clever workarounds. For example, San Francisco transit officials partnered last year with researchers at Northeastern University to scrape data from Lyft and Uber's applications by artificially requesting hundreds of trips from fake accounts. Their work revealed that the two companies were generating more than 170,000 vehicle trips each day in San Francisco, about 20 percent of the city's total traffic. It was just one study among a growing body of research to raise doubts about the claims by ride-sharing companies that their services reduce traffic congestion.
In October, University of California at Davis researchers published what is considered the most comprehensive study of ride-sharing services to date, and it didn't paint a rosy picture. Their report concluded that the service will likely only exacerbate traffic problems, especially in densely populated cities. More than half of people using Uber and Lyft would have previously chosen to walk, bike, use public transit or avoid the trip altogether, they reported. The report's authors also flagged an emerging "data gap" problem, noting that reams of crucial information on transportation patterns is now being tightly controlled by these private companies.
In California, Uber and Lyft do provide annual reports that include detailed data to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the agency tasked with regulating the industry. But these reports have been considered proprietary, and public regulators have declined requests by San Francisco and Los Angeles officials to release them. The CPUC is currently in a review process to consider making this data more widely available.
Despite the speed bumps, Mountain View officials remain optimistic they can eventually broker a compromise with Lyft and Uber that meets the city's needs. One recently proposed idea would have the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce act as a steward for this data. Chamber CEO Tony Siress said that his staff could sign non-disclosure agreements with Lyft and Uber so the specifics of the data could still be kept confidential.
"It really has been a time-consuming effort, but we still want to get to the starting point of kicking this off," Andrade said. "We still believe it's a good use of our time."
"I haven't given up on this," said Mayor Lenny Siegel. "Whenever you do something innovative like this, you have to come up with a template, but then other cities will be able to do it much more quickly."