News

City's partnership with Uber, Lyft stalls

Refusal to share data puts plan to subsidize downtown rides in limbo

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.

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"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.

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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."

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City's partnership with Uber, Lyft stalls

Refusal to share data puts plan to subsidize downtown rides in limbo

by Mark Noack / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 19, 2018, 1:17 pm

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."

Comments

A Talking Cat
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Jan 19, 2018 at 1:56 pm
A Talking Cat, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Jan 19, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Sure, they could use taxpayer money to fund already-VC-backed, privat,e for-profit companies. OR the city could:
1) build infrastructure to support alternative transport options (hello, bike lanes?);
2) enforce policies that increase parking turnover (meters or enforced 2 hour limits in lots, or force companies with private lots to allow public use during non-business hours);
or 3) just add some additional parking downtown.


Kal Sandhu
Castro City
on Jan 19, 2018 at 2:34 pm
Kal Sandhu, Castro City
on Jan 19, 2018 at 2:34 pm

What a waste of money and parking spaces. I have never seen either uber or lyft drivers picking passengers at the designated zones. Passengers still wait where they want and always blocking the flow of traffic on an already busy Castro Street. If the city needs to make money put in parking meters; this will keep vehicles moving and hopefully the city won't charge the exorbitant fees it charges restaurants downtown for parking.


PeaceLove
Shoreline West
on Jan 19, 2018 at 2:38 pm
PeaceLove, Shoreline West
on Jan 19, 2018 at 2:38 pm

Just to clarify: For tech companies like Uber and Lyft, their data is worth more to them than any city subsidies. When you use them, your travel information becomes their privately-owned data.


Bad Move
Rex Manor
on Jan 19, 2018 at 4:34 pm
Bad Move, Rex Manor
on Jan 19, 2018 at 4:34 pm

The city council once again is looking in the wrong direction. Obviously Uber and Lyft don't want to work with the city so just move on. It's over. Instead they should just work with the resources they already have. Just start putting more Police patrol on Castro St. and start writing tickets. Uber and Lyft drop off where their riders want because they don't want the bad review, guess what, if they driver starts losing money, they may learn to drop off in the designated areas.

and @a talking cat, while MV is in a housing crisis, can I stay at your home when your out of town, since you believe the council should "force companies with private lots to allow public use during non-business hours"


Who's if For?
Cuernavaca
on Jan 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm
Who's if For?, Cuernavaca
on Jan 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm

C'mon Council...make this work.

The end users (residents and others visiting your downtown) don't give a hoot about this data. You're being greedy expecting proprietary info...which you probably wouldn't know what to do with anyway.

Deliver a deal. And start delivering transportation solutions. Lots of talk. No action.


Wesh
another community
on Jan 20, 2018 at 5:23 am
Wesh, another community
on Jan 20, 2018 at 5:23 am

Anyone who drives around MV regularly knows exactly where the traffic is going to and from. It's not arcane magicks or anything... if you want to alleviate traffic density, start ticketing idling uber/lyft drivers or limit the number of ride share cars in town. They just loiter in parking spaces drive in circles downtown waiting for fares. The city government shouldn't be partnered with a business that got its start by blatantly operating an unlicensed (read: illegal) car service. Everyone in the Bay just loves a living wage and protective government regulations, unless it's for cab operators!


Evan
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2018 at 3:34 pm
Evan, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2018 at 3:34 pm

Why is the data a holdup for this deal? Is it really worth blocking everything to get ALL data for Mountain View?


just_jay
Registered user
Shoreline West
on Jan 24, 2018 at 5:51 am
just_jay, Shoreline West
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2018 at 5:51 am

"city officials asked to inspect general data, such as ... the start and end points of each trip"

WHAT?!?! Half of that data is likely to be someone's home. So the city wants records where it can tell someone that Just_Jay left home at 8:00pm to Castro, and he returned from Castro to home at 2:00am. Or worse, at 6am there was a trip from an apartment complex to Just_Jay's home. Why does the city want this? This is crazy.


Andy Chow
another community
on Jan 24, 2018 at 12:16 pm
Andy Chow, another community
on Jan 24, 2018 at 12:16 pm

Mountain View has cab companies that could be partnered with. There used be a lot of cabs waiting at the train station several years ago and I don't know how much they got decimated. Partnering with a TNC is like partnering with McDonald's which no city would partner with if they have locally owned and locally branded restaurants.


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