The truce between two old foes—city governments and secretive private companies like Uber—began at the curb.
If you think the curb seems an unlikely Appomattox, you haven’t been pay attention. Today, the curb represents the most contested space in the urban world. Cyclists pedal through bike lanes, cars battle for parking spots. Taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts pick up and drop off riders. Delivery trucks unload Amazon Prime boxes and buses pull in and out of stops. People on foot scuttle through it all, trying not to get hit.
The people running cities believe there should be a place for all these things. Maybe a few designated Uber pick-up and drop off zones, or spaces reserved for trucks making deliveries. The companies want curb space, too, so they can do their thing. But before city governments can start reallocating that space (too long given over to private, parked cars), they need information.
“The autonomous age is upon us but most cities really don’t even have the network password to log in,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City transportation commissioner and the chair of National Association of City Transportation Officials. Some don’t have their curbs mapped at all. Others do, but the info is spread out across agencies, file formats, and incompatible maps. (One agency’s master files won’t include intersections; another’s might skimp on curb cuts.)
You know who does have that data? Private sector companies like Uber, which collect piles of information on who goes where, and when. And historically, they’ve been loath to let it until the sunlight. “The data is essential, but because so many companies wouldn’t share the data, we were planning blind,” says Sadik-Khan.
Until now, perhaps. In January, NACTO quietly rolled out a data-sharing project called SharedStreets. And last week, it landed a very important private sector partner, in Uber. The ride-hail company has started using the project as an intermediary, to share sensitive pick-up and drop-off data for Washington, DC.
DC is pleased. “Data today is worth more than gold, oil and cryptocurrency,” says Ernest Chrappah, the director of the city’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which oversees taxi, limos, and ride-hail companies in the district. He says the city could use the newly available info to understand whether, say, drivers are too often blocking traffic to pick up passengers—and reconsider its street designs or traffic patterns to accommodate the new ways of getting around.
Indeed, SharedStreets may be exactly what both sides need. First, it will establish data standards for curbs, traffic speeds, and transit data, formats that can be shared between companies, agencies, even across cities. (No more, My computer can’t open that file.) Now, there’s a common language for curb data and maps, with agreed-upon locations for curb cuts and intersections.
This urban Esperanto is a major help, say the people who work with curb info every day. “All of these debates that people are having, you have to have some kind of shared truth,” says Michal Migurski, an engineer at the startup Remix, which builds transit planning software.1 “You have to have an agreement on how many miles of streets, how many miles of curbs. If not, it ends up devolving into testiness early on.”
SharedStreets’ second key advantage is that it serves as a non-profit, non-political third party, a data-holding buffer between occasionally adversarial cities and private companies. That’s key for the companies that have hesitated to share data, fearing less cautious of technically savvy users could compromise their customers’ privacy, or reveal their various secret sauces, like routing algorithms.
“They have made it very clear that they understand private companies have legitimate constraints on what they do with data,” says Andrew Salzberg, who heads up transportation policy at Uber.
So Uber is working with SharedStreets to build a tool that will process and aggregate private companies’ data, put it in the correct format, and leave it completely anonymized. After all, the city says, it isn’t after Uber’s routing info—how your particular car got from, say, the White House to the Capitol building. It just wants to know how often and when vehicles are picking up from that spot outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe the city should carve out a designated meeting point there.
This is nice timing for Uber. The ride-hail company is in the midst of a PR glow-up, eight months after dumping former controversial CEO Travis Kalanick in favor of the ultra–apologetic Dara Khosrowshahi. With a spate of announcements this week—about SharedStreets, its acquisition of a city-friendly bike-share company, and a mobile ticketing integration with public transit—Uber is working to prove it can be an excellent partner for cities.
SharedStreets’ success is not quite guaranteed. The platform has plenty of competitors, like Coord from Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs, and Ford’s Transportation Mobility Cloud. These big dogs want to be the operating system for the modern city, with everyone—governments, companies like Uber and FedEx—feeding their info into their all-knowing, number-crunching transportation platforms. For now, though, cities and private companies say they are attracted to SharedStreets’ non-profit status. With its connection to National Association of City Transportation Officials, it feels safe. Now the project just needs to execute.
“If SharedStreets could become the place that could assure the private providers that they would protect the information but provide it in a usable form to the city for planning purposes, that would be very helpful. ” says Stephen Goldsmith, who studies big data and government at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I think it's a good first step.”
Now the initiative just has to get more organizations—the bike-share companies, the e-scooters, the cities, the UPSes, the Lyfts, maybe even automakers—onboard. Imagine a glorious world where everyone speaks a common curb language.
1 Correction appended, 4/16/18, 1:15 PM EDT: A previous version of this story misspelled Michal Migurski's name.