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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