Mobility and data are moving fast, and investment needs to keep up

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The way people get around is changing more rapidly now than in several generations.

On city streets, the disruptive force of ride-sharing services, such as Lyft and Uber, has been joined by the appearance of bike-share schemes, scooters and e-bikes. These new developments represent new modes of getting around and new ways of delivering transportation as a service (TaaS).

These changes originate from massive demand for better ways to travel as well as a frustration with the limitations of cars (and parking) — and at their best — are fueling economic growth and making places more livable.

But they're also exposing fault lines in infrastructure investment and local decision-making.

We all know that infrastructure investment across the country is badly overdue, but how can we drive funding for projects in a way that can keep up with the pace of change instead of waiting for the next 10-year master plan?

There's a great opportunity here to use data to understand the changing mobility landscape, prioritize areas for investment and, critically, evaluate the effectiveness of investments in much shorter time frames.

The public right of way is finite, and the design of many streets does not support the safe co-existence of several modes of transport traveling at different speeds. For those who use the road, the risks are increased by the growth of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, whose usage skews toward short trips and frequent drop-offs. TNCs’ demand for places to stop and the lack of safe places to do so leads to conflict with other cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Meanwhile, due to the risks of riding on roads without separated bikeways, some riders take to the sidewalk, causing unsafe and inaccessible conditions for pedestrians. The so-called battle for the curb has expanded to the full width of the corridors that connect our public spaces.

There’s an untenable human cost to the lack of safe infrastructure: Fatalities among bikers and pedestrians are rising again after years of progress and bike accidents now cost $24 billion a year in medical costs. The lack of safe infrastructure also affects who participates.

For example, despite being half the population, women in the U.S. take one-quarter of all bike trips. Studies here and overseas have shown that women are more likely to cite safety as a deterrent to cycling than men, and analysis by the Strava Metro team demonstrates that installing safe infrastructure can rebalance gender participation in sustainable modes of transportation.

Unfortunately, political and media attention around new mobility has centered on the regulation and taxation regimes rather than responding to the conditions that caused non-car modes to flourish and creating the conditions necessary for everyone to get around safely and efficiently.

To be sure, there is an intimidatingly wide range of stakeholders and conflicting interests involved. So let’s start on the things we all agree on.

First, we all know that infrastructure investment across the country is badly overdue. Second, we all want safer and better ways for people to get around. Third, if we’re going to make interventions, we need to know if they’re working and be able to change course if they’re not.

To solve the investment gap, safety problem and unlock the potential of the new mobility landscape, it will require intentional, large-scale initiatives.

The last time the Federal government made a step change of this kind was the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 that removed a cap on infrastructure spending for bike and pedestrian projects and kicked off a seventyfold increase in investment over a decade. And let’s not neglect to mention that the investment needed is dwarfed by the sums we regularly spend on infrastructure for cars.

State and local governments need to be empowered not only with funding, but also the kind of data and insights that will enable them to move and correct course quickly, and develop mutually beneficial partnerships with mobility providers.

Organizations such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) have made the case quite clearly that public agencies should have access to data about usage of mobility services, that it should be a precondition for companies seeking to operate in a new place. Additionally, there should be robust data standards to ensure interoperability and transparency.

All these approaches can and will surely at some point also need to be applied to car manufacturers, who now collect massive amounts of data from their vehicles and whose participation will be essential to improving the way our roads serve us.

But the data question for public agencies is not simply a case of “specify a format and harvest as much as possible.” In a post-General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) world, we should expect to see more legislation like California’s Consumer Privacy Act that takes a dim view of organizations that put their own strategic goals above individual privacy.

For public agencies, this means thinking carefully about the questions they need to answer and insights they want as opposed to simply asking for more data. They should be cautious of the data brokers who sell large-scale passively collected cellphone data and attempt to repackage it as mobility data since their tempting offer doesn’t meet reasonable standards of user consent, as the Weather Channel found out when reports that it was re-selling user data emerged.

When working with mobility providers and data stewards, public agencies should seek levels of aggregation and de-identification that deliver insights without compromising privacy. Mobility data collected at the individual trip level poses significant liability to any organization that holds it — not to mention the individuals concerned.

Responsible companies will and should be extremely cautious in protecting the data of the individuals they serve and at a practical level, many local governments don’t have the resources to crunch and analyze every data source they need to.

The good news is that there are great opportunities for data stewards to partner with public agencies. While there are many new players in this space, there are also organizations with established track records and a wealth of historical insights to help us understand not just today’s traffic, but the broad sweep of changes affecting our communities.

To take advantage of that opportunity, policymakers and investors need to embrace a more agile approach to infrastructure investment, supported by the private sector partners who truly understand the scale of the challenges we face.

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