Inside the Transportation Data Tug of War

How cities and new mobility services are battling over the data they create.

The relationship between cities and new mobility companies was tense from the start.

Uber, which launched in San Francisco in 2010, had spread across the country by the end of 2011, opening operations in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C. Slowly in some places, immediately in others, the company found itself in bureaucratic showdowns with city councils, mayors and regulators. Bans were proposed, cease and desist letters were sent, lawsuits were filed. Silicon Valley-style disruption was veering towards chaos.

“Those companies basically had the attitude of, it’s the Wild West. We’ll fight the regulatory battles after we do what we want,” says David Zipper, who was the director of business development and strategy in the office of Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray when Uber launched there in late 2011. After months of grappling, the city and Uber settled on regulations that formally allowed the company and similar services to operate in the city. Compromises were made in cities across the country, and Uber, Lyft and a growing number of other new mobility companies have woven themselves into the network of urban transportation.

Cities, of course, have confronted disruptive new civic technologies before. In the 1800s, when gas lighting first made its way to the U.S. from England, cities established franchise agreements with gas companies to do the then-novel work of digging up roads and laying down the pipes that could carry gas to street lamps, homes and businesses. The technology was so new it made sense for cities to simply let the experts handle implementation, albeit with strings attached. Cities granted gas companies the right to operate in the public realm as long as they complied with certain standards and rates. It was an imperfect process at first, leading to bribery by companies and arbitrary rate setting by vote-hungry politicians, as this 2006 paper on the history of public utilities lays out. But over the course of decades, regulation improved and both cities and utility companies like those early gas providers reached a state of cooperation with the goal of providing a needed service to a wanting public.

New mobility is the gas lighting of the 2010s, but cooperation between the companies and the cities in which they operate is far from settled. ...