City report says Uber and Lyft are hoarding vital transit data

Lyft Driver. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Uber and Lyft — whose ride-hailing services bring an estimated 45,000 cars into the city each day — generate trip data every time they pick up or drop off a passenger. This data, say city transit officials, is essential for long-term planning.

And yet, as a recent draft report from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority makes clear, mobility tech companies have declined to share vital data with city and county transportation planners.

That draft report, “Emerging Mobility Evaluation Report: Evaluating Emerging Mobility Services and Technologies in San Francisco” evaluated mobility companies currently operating in the city against the city’s guiding transportation standards. The problem is the lack of data: Fully 85 percent of all possible “outcome metrics” were not reported by any company, Uber and Lyft included.

And that’s no mere oversight. In a 2012 filing to the California Public Utilities Commission, Lyft argued that trip data was a “closely guarded trade secret” that guaranteed Lyft’s ability to raise capital investment and compete in a market dominated by Uber, which Lyft characterized as “ruthless.”

The CPUC agreed. In May of 2017, CPUC attorneys refused to share ride-hailing data with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

This is an egregious mistake, according to both Jason Henderson, professor of geography and environment at San Francisco State, and Andy Thornley, senior analyst in the Sustainable Streets Division of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Henderson and Thornley agree that while newer additions to mobility — standing scooters, mopeds and e-Bikes — need to fit into long-term plans, the lasting changes that will lower emissions and decongest city streets that will only come by regulating the number of cars on the streets.

Both men agree that, without the raw data from the ride-hailing giants that’s embargoed by the CPUC, efforts to plan for the future of transportation in San Francisco will be fruitless.   

According to Henderson, the CPUC has agreed to allow the data to remain secret because of political pressure from the tech sector. “They have political operatives who say ‘no, we don’t have to share data. We’re a private company.’” Henderson noted that Uber hired Obama-administration alums to lobby state officials. “As a result, we have no policy.”

The trove of data kept under wraps is the stuff of dreams for a transit planner.

A passenger disembarks from an Uber. Photo by Emma Neiman.

In a 2017 comment filed with the CPUC, Lyft detailed the type of information it collects: trips completed, time and location of pick-ups and drop-offs, miles and hours traveled by drivers, all of which would shed light on the exact number of ride-hailing drivers entering and exiting the city and their patterns of travel within city limits.

This data, Henderson says, would allow city transportation planners to do their jobs. “Uber and Lyft are using the public right-of-way. They need to be telling us where they’re parking, where they’re picking people up and dropping them off, where they live, where they idle, and what their [vehicle miles traveled] is.”

Thornley agrees. “We have no way of knowing how many of them are out there, how often they’re running fares, or where the fares are going,” he said. “We don’t know their business. And therefore, we have a big blind spot about what’s happening on our streets.”

The city knows how many taxis are on the streets, however. The medallion system the city uses to cap the number of taxis is currently at 1,705, according to the most recent SFMTA report.

In contrast, there are no caps on the number of ride-hailing vehicles in San Francisco, a perennial sore point with San Francisco taxi drivers — and a problem for planners, who need to meet lowered emissions goals by 2030. (It also warrants mentioning that the estimated number of Ubers and Lyfts on San Francisco streets exceeds the city’s agreed-upon maximum for taxis by a factor of 20. That’s a lot of cars. That’s a lot of data.).

The city’s goals are clear: By 2030, San Francisco transit agencies want 80 percent of all trips within city limits to be taken on foot, bike or using high-occupancy mass transit, such as BART or Muni. This will allow the city to lower emissions below 1990 levels by 2050. California’s official goal, as expressed in AB 32, is even tougher. The state wants a return to 1990 levels by 2020.

Henderson says we’re not going to succeed. “We’re not on track to make that goal. Lowering emissions will be impossible without purging the car out of the city.”

This is clearly at odds with Uber and Lyft’s business model, which both companies claim reduces car ownership. But both Henderson and Thornely say that car ownership is a red herring: Rather, it’s all about car usage.

As planners wait for data from Lyft and Uber, permits are being issued for e-bikes and stand-up scooters. Thornely noted that the pilot programs will capture user data, including location, charge level for e-bikes and stand-up scooters, collisions, and total trip distance.

The draft report is due to be re-submitted to the Transportation Authority later in the summer. How much will change before that happens is anyone’s guess. Probably not a whole lot.

“You know — we’re curious about stand-up scooters,” says Thornley. “And we want to know about mopeds and bikes.” But without access to information about Uber and Lyft trips, Thorney says, longterm planning will be difficult. “We really want to know about the tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft trips. We really need that basic operational data.

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10 Comments

  1. John Thompson

    “Uber and Lyft are using the public right-of-way. They need to be telling us where they’re parking, where they’re picking people up and dropping them off, where they live, where they idle, and what their [vehicle miles traveled] is.”

    Anyone driving uses the public right of way. Why doesn’t the government just put a tracker on all cars so they can see where everyone is going at all times?

    • Brenda Rasmussen

      I agree that tracking would be good for UBer and the ilk, but what an invasion of privacy for the rest of us good citizens. Obviously you don’t drive or you MIGHT not have said that.

      • John Thompson

        Brenda, I was being facetious. Was trying to point out the slippery slope these idiots don’t ever seem to get. I guess sarcasm is hard when you can’t see my facial expression or hearmy tone.

        UBER and Lyft are private companies. Just because they are a company doesn’t mean we should make them give all of their private infomration away. Next thing you now is sf pols will want to track every human being in the city and make up some excuse why this would be good for the overall population. Just because something can benefit the whole doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Often times it tramples on the rights and freedoms of individuals.

        The taxi industry was over regulated in the 70’s by well intentioned yet poor thinking individuals. They limited the number of medallions making them very expensive. This made it way harder for the little guy to start a cab company and over time caused the taxi industry to be run by just a few large corporations. The city did not give enough medallions that were necessary as evidenced by the popularity of UBER and Lyft. If the politicians didn’t regualte taxi’s so heavily, more taxis would have been on the road and Uber and Lyft wouldn’t even be a figment of anyone’s imagination.

        Very common of liberal policies to think only about the current time and not about the long term effects. This is much like the housing industry in SF. Rent COntrol is great in the short term and screws over people in the long term.

        Good question to ask anyone trying to make a new law or regulation. What does this look like in 30,40 or 50 years?

  2. There’s a bit of editorializing at the end of this article that doesn’t ring true to me. The author claims that reduced car ownership doesn’t have any connection wit reduced car usage and therefore it’s meaningless to reduce car ownership. I disagree. It’s good to reduce car ownership. The cost of using Lyft or Uber creates a slight barrier to using a car, whereas when you own a car, it seems free to use it. Worse, maybe you pay so much for your car/parking that you feel compelled to use it.

  3. Aaron Goodman

    Remove them like the bike-share and scooters, until they give up the info. no info. no play…..

  4. Mildred the Librarian

    We could try managing the curb, and charging Lyft, Uber and everyone else to use it.

  5. Howard Epstein

    No business in their right mind would give SF or any other government their trade secrets. These people live in their own little world. Another example of them living in their own little world – the 2030 goal that 80% or transportation will not be in cars. Goals should be set realistically. Every one on bikes, foot, Muni and BART by 2030, or ever, is preposterous.

  6. Brenda Rasmussen

    Good one Lyft and Uber, you’ve already ruined the cab industry and the livelihoods of so many cab drivers, reducing the value to ZERO of owning the Medallion, which is basically the right to own and operate a cab in SF for those who weren’t aware of this. Are these tech “Start ups” even required to doing any studies on the impact of their new creations on humanity! Cab drivers used to have enough income to buy houses and retire! Altho not many in SF too expensive. In the early years while the Cab industry was in its first tech created crash, I know of cab drivers who spent their savings s to pay their gate and gas while being left with nothing upon retirement but Social Security. Does Uber and Lyft pay City taxes? Required to get permits and pay fees?

  7. Dijonaise Fitsimmons

    I propose a ballot amendment that says “If you carry humans in your vehicle for money, you are a taxi”. Simple as that! Start with the license, if you have a human life in your car(e), you shall have a commercial license – period! Screw Uber.

  8. David Smith

    This is a little bit confusing because a large portion of Uber and Lyft customers use their carpool service which has more transportation density than taxis and most private vehicles. Additionally, taxis don’t utilize technology to increase their utilization so they have lots of street-clogging idle time (this was the case before Uber and Lyft came on the scene).

    It seems like the best approach would be to reduce the number of private cars in the city by much more aggressively taxing vehicles registration and usage, phasing out idle taxis, and adding a surcharge to private Uber/Lyft rides to steer more people to use shared modes of transportation (including their carpool services).

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