Uber, the “Metropocalypse,” and Economic Inequality

Posted on  by , Georgetown, DC

Public transit infrastructure in Washington, D.C. is crumbling. Metro and bus services have been cut. Fares have gone up. And, safety remains a problem. After 40 years of deferred maintenance, poor management, and the lack of decent, long-term funding, the Metro system needs $1.4 billion worth of repairs, and it must close a $290 million budget gap just to continue basic operations. Some call this the “metropocalypse.”

Private taxi services haven’t been much better. It’s often hard to get a cab, especially for people of color or people who live outside of the wealthy, White areas of the city. Racial prejudice among the mostly immigrant taxi drivers means that Black residents are regularly refused service.

In light of these transit problems, Uber might seem like an obvious win for D.C. Ridesharing services are cheap for riders, require no significant public investment, and limit some of the discrimination that has made getting a taxi so difficult for so many people. Our research shows otherwise. Indeed, Uber could undermine the very thing city officials are working hard to address: economic inequality.

In 2016 we conducted 22 in-person interviews with local policymakers, business leaders, transit planners, lobbyists, and labor advocates as well as 40 in-person interviews with Uber drivers in the D.C. metro area. Our project found a close relationship between Uber and the city government, one that actually decreases economic opportunity.

A poster promoting a new Uber office in D.C.’s 7th Ward

Uber’s relationship with D.C. city officials is cozy and widespread. Together they have created promotional videos, held ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and collaborated on transit plans. As an Uber lobbyist put it, city officials have “adopted our view of the world.” The city’s regulation of UberX—the low-cost, digital ride-hailing service—is the clearest example. The legislation, according to Uber, is “one of the best models for us” because it “basically allows us to set out the standards.” To make this happen, Uber spent $300,000 lobbying the City Council, its CEO testified at city hall, and it coordinated 5,000 emails to Council Members within a 24-hour period arguing against a legislative edit the company did not like. As one City Council employee explained, in the three months leading up to the passage of the act, he had “either a meeting, at least one phone call, or at least one email probably every day” with Uber representatives.

D.C.’s bare bones regulation of Uber includes background checks, general vehicle requirements, a mandate regarding insurance, and a requirement that the Taxi Commission collect 1% of all gross receipts for Uber rides. In an unusual step, the legislation also prohibits journalists, researchers, and policymakers from using the federal Freedom of Information Act to access basic information about how many vehicles are on the road during a given week or how many registered Uber drivers live in the city. Uber claims 1.9 million riders and 42,000 drivers in the D.C. region, but this policy makes it impossible for us to verify the claim.

Last year, Mayor Muriel Bower expanded the city’s ties to Uber by announcing a formal partnership with Uber Movement, a service that offers access to certain, anonymized data about congestion and travel patterns. Uber describes its data on 2 billion trips worldwide as a treasure trove for cities and frames itself as a key resource for local governments concerned about transit development. However, the data that Uber Movement offers falls well short of what many planners actually need or want. A recent report by the National Association of Transportation City Officials lists seven types of data that cities need in order to improve the transportation process. Uber has only been willing to share one.

The growing relationship between D.C. and Uber raises four concerns. First, Uber does not promote decent jobs. As we have shown, drivers labor under poor working conditions with high risks and no financial stability. Other research suggests that these jobs may even increase inequality.

Second, Uber is not accessible for everyone or everywhere. Our research found that drivers avoid poor neighborhoods, and, if they have to drop off a passenger in one such area, many turn off the Uber app to avoid picking up new passengers there. As one driver explained, “ I don’t pick up in southeast D.C. or [Prince George’s] County because I don’t know the area. It has nothing to do with racism, demographics, or anything like that.” In Arlington, where he lives, or neighborhoods with many bars and restaurants that he knows, he feels more  “comfortable with finding people.”

Other drivers explained that they concentrate in wealthier neighborhoods because Uber provides them with opportunities to earn more in those areas of the city. Uber maintains that these surges reflect demand, which may well be the case, but this algorithmic pricing nonetheless makes transportation equity elusive, and poorer residents—including many people of color—have less access to Uber. Disability activists have found similar limitations and argue that Uber does not meet federal standards for disabled riders.

Third, Uber can undermine working-class riders’ access to public transportation. New research shows that Uber shifts riders to private cars and away from public transit systems. This pattern can lead transit companies to reduce services, which are critical to working-class residents. It can also lead to cuts to unionized transit jobs, which provide opportunities for upward mobility.

Finally, the D.C. Uber story is not exceptional. In 2016, Uber and Lyft hired 478 state lobbyists—more than Amazon, Walmart and Microsoft combined—to challenge local government regulations in 41 states.

Last year D.C. had the highest rate of income inequality of all U.S. states. The average income for the top five percent of city households is $531,000, but for the bottom 20 percent, the average is only $9,900. That’s a significant divide of both class and race. D.C. leaders want to create an urban future not defined by inequality. Local policymakers have taken steps to mitigate economic and racial inequalities. They have adopted a $15 minimum wage, passed a paid family leave act, and approved a requirement for workers to have paid sick days. Next step? They should take a close look at how Uber’s problematic jobs, limited service, and emphasis on corporate profits rather than a public good fit into their vision of a just and equitable city.

By Katie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen

Katie Wells is an incoming Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information, contact Katie at wells@gwu.edu.



The Lyft Shuttle is pretty much a glorified city bus — with fewer poor people: The ride-sharing company’s much-hyped shuttle service seems designed to segregate transit customers by class, by Keith Spence 19 June 22017

Imagine riding in a vehicle that, for a small fee, picks you up at a predetermined location and drops you off at another predetermined location, making stops on the way and dropping off others who might be in the vehicle with you.

This sounds an awful lot like a city bus, right? But it’s exactly how ride-sharing giant Lyft is selling its new ride scheme, Lyft Shuttle. “Ride for a low fixed fare along convenient routes, with no surprise stops,” the company’s marketing declares.

Commenters around the internet roundly mocked the hubris of Lyft and its boosters in marketing an everyday public service as a faux-innovative private one.

 Shuttles, the Lyft Shuttle competes with public transit. But as a venture-backed startup, Lyft, like Uber, has the power to undersell its competitor until its venture capital runs dry. Except in this case the “competitor” is a public good, and “underselling” it could further harm the efficacy of public transit in cities like San Francisco.
By David Zimmer, Who Owns Transit Data? City Lab 2017The emergence of these mobility options is good for commuter choice—provided, of course, that society protects the traditional role of public transit. (Noting how Lyft Shuttle in San Francisco strategically avoids low-income areas, Salon warns that private bus-like services will exclude less-affluent riders, furthering transit inequities.) But there’s another, hidden problem: When a passenger decides to take Lyft Shuttle instead of MUNI, she is moving more than her money from public transit to a private company—she is also moving data about her trip. But no private transportation service today provides local government with point-to-point information about their passengers’ rides. The result is transportation policy that cannot be optimized to serve residents.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider why private data is such a critical part of transportation policy. Imagine you’re the director of your city’s transportation agency, and you’re looking for a way to ease congestion in the evenings at an intersection near bars. Ride-hailing companies have suggested that you take out a parking meter and turn the street space into a pickup/dropoff zone, predicting that drivers will spend less time circling the block trying to find their passengers (and thereby contributing to congestion). That sounds great, but your city gets $10,000 annually from that parking meter. Should you do it?
If you’re a good technocrat, you’d ask for data before making a decision. How many passengers are getting picked up at that intersection now? Within nearby blocks? How much traffic on a weekend night is rideshare vehicles, and is there evidence that they are circling trying to find their passenger? Without the trip data from Uber, Lyft, et al, it’s hard to tell. But that’s precisely the position today’s planners and transportation executives are in. (Note: Uber makes some ride information available through Uber Movement, but only by neighborhood and average trip time, not specific locations or individual rides). Such data limitations can constrain other policy decisions too, such as implementing road diets or closing lanes during construction. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has published data sharing principles for private transportation companies, but current practices fall far short.
There are several reasonable arguments to explain why these companies can’t simply hand over individual trip data to the public sector. Issues of passenger privacy are at stake, and valuable business information could be leaked to competitors. There are simply too many one-off data requests from local government for the private companies to comply with each one—and government staff may not know how to analyze and understand the data even if they have access to it. Each of these arguments has merit. But as private services like Lyft Shuttle develop and scale, city officials are forced to base policy decisions on data derived from public sources, and that information is becoming less representative of residents’ total trips.Is there a path forward?The answer might be found in a very unrelated field: cardiology. Cardiovascular disease accounts for one of every six dollars spent on American healthcare, and hospitals compete fiercely to maximize their share. But there are only so many patients who will receive care in a given hospital, which limits the data analysis possible in any hospital (or network of hospitals) that wants to improve treatment. An obvious solution would be for hospitals to pool their patient data so that researchers can answer questions like “is drug A or B better for a patient with XYZ conditions.” But competitive pressures among hospitals stack the deck against such peer-to-peer sharing.

Twenty years ago, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) proposed a solution. ACC would act as a neutral broker, pooling anonymized patient information from hospitals nationwide through their National Cardiovascular Data Registry (NCDR). NCDR’s data would be available for analysis at carefully selected analytic centers (universities like Duke and Yale), with groups like drug companies paying for the privilege to access it.
“We’re neutral among patients, payers, providers, and pharmaceutical companies,” says Kevin Fitzpatrick, formerly the chief innovation officer of ACC, now CEO of the American Society of Oncology’s new data registry, CancerLinQ. “The ultimate goal of these big data initiatives is to allow a professional association to serve as an honest broker of the evidence—ideally becoming, if you will, the single source of truth.”Here’s how that model could be applied to urban transportation. All providers of transportation services—public transit agencies as well as private companies—would hand over anonymized trip data to a trusted third party that would standardize it and ensure trade secrets are not revealed. Researchers, city officials, and company employees could then access the data through a limited number of analytic centers—likely universities with strong transportation or urban planning programs. These centers would ensure neutrality and help registered users utilize the data to test their hypotheses.To return to the earlier example, a DOT official could run the numbers to test how much congestion would be alleviated by converting a parking meter to a pickup/dropoff location. The transportation companies could pay for the opportunity to run their own analyses as well—and they would no longer have to worry about one-off requests for information from city officials who may need hand-holding to do analysis. And the public would benefit from more data-driven policy.

A data registry is not easy to establish, and it will not happen overnight. But if the rapid ascent of shared ride-hailing shows us anything, it’s that private mobility providers are poised to handle a bigger share of total urban trips in the future. If we want government decisions to be based on hard numbers rather than hunches, we need that data, and we need it ASAP.

David Zipper is a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a Partner in the 1776 Venture Fund, where he oversees investments in smart cities and mobility ventures. Following his tenure as director of NYC Business Solutions in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in New York City he served as director of Business Development and Strategy for two mayors in Washington, D.C.

German commuters await a train in 2011. Only three cities in Germany—Berlin, Mannheim, and Ulm—have opened their transit data up to third-party developers. Reuters

Most U.S. cities share their transit information freely, which helps trip-planning services and boosts ridership. But most German cities don’t. Should they?

As the hometown of Daimler and Porsche, the German city of Stuttgart has a powerful car culture. The city also has—perhaps unsurprisingly—an acute problem with air pollution. Last year the air quality in Stuttgart was so bad that the mayor implored residents to leave their cars at home and use the city’s many transit options, which include subways, commuter trains, streetcars, and buses.

Unfortunately, residents could not turn to many of the technology solutions that American commuters might use when plotting their trip on public transport, such as Apple Maps, Bing Maps, or a startup like CityMapper. None of those are available in Stuttgart—or in almost any other German city.The reason? Stuttgart’s VVS public transport system is one of many cities around the world that doesn’t share transit data with startups or mapping companies. As a result, commuters cannot access trip-planning tools that many in the United States take for granted. That’s holding down transit ridership, increasing vehicle emissions, and stifling economic innovation.
By way of disclosure, I have a direct stake in this issue: My employer, 1776, is an investor in TransitScreen, a startup that displays up-to-the-second information for multiple modes of transportation, from both public and private providers. The idea is, if you live in a city, you might decide at the spur of the moment how to get from point A to point B; depending on price and convenience—you might drive, take a bus or subway, flag a taxi, or grab a bike-share cycle. Further complicating these decisions is the emergence of private transportation providers like Uber, Lyft, and Bridj, which seldom coordinate with public transit agency websites or apps.
To take a step back, it’s worth considering where trip-planning apps came from and how are able to tell you when the next train or bus will arrive. These services rely on Application Program Interfaces (APIs) from a transit agency that shares schedules and information about train positioning, arrival projections, and accidents. Transit agencies make this information available through their websites (like this one), with data feeds that keep the information current. Every time you open an app or use Google Maps to plan your bus ride, you’re relying on these APIs.

Transit apps are able to expand easily into new cities because many transit agencies share their data through a standard language called General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which originated because of a collaboration in 2005 between Google and TriMet, the regional rail system of Portland, Oregon. Bibiana McHugh, the TriMet employee who initially approached Google, says she did so out of frustration that Google Maps and MapQuest made it easy to plan a car trip but were largely useless for transit. Google used the GTFS data to launch Google Transit (now part of Google Maps); within four years, 25 transit apps had emerged in Portland to offer their own way of guiding local travelers.

Such third-party tools also rely on information shared from private transportation providers like Uber and Lyft, who deserve credit for making some of their APIs public—though not for the exclusivity requirements that prevent a company accessing their real-time data to do the same with loosely-defined “competitors.”

Soon after Portland’s experience, transit systems like BART in the Bay Area and MARTA in Atlanta also adopted GTFS, opening their data to third-party developers. “We’ve put SFMTA in front of customers in so many places that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own,” Timothy Moore of San Francisco’s MTA noted.
Some other American cities, however, pushed back. In Washington, D.C., WMATA halted an initial move toward GTFS by claiming that making data available to Google and transit startups “was not in our best interest from a business perspective.” WMATA never explained how it might profit from its data, and it wasn’t clear whether it could even do so legally since transit schedules are public information. Under pressure from transportation advocates and entrepreneurs, WMATA relented and ultimately embraced GTFS.Today, a map of the United States today shows that virtually every transit agency makes its data available through GTFS. It is also the most common standard abroad, used by almost 800 transit agencies around the world. Though a few holdouts, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, still don’t share data, in the 11 years since GTFS’s emergence, I have not found a single example of a transit agency making money from keeping their data private.But the story is very different in places where transit agencies continue to resist opening their data. Germany is a particularly egregious example.  In Germany, there are only three cities in the country that currently utilize GTFS: Berlin, Mannheim, and Ulm. Other German cities use their own national transit data standard called VDV 452, which was born in the 1980s. Even then, companies have to ask permission to get access to the VDV 452 data; there is no transit open data portal in cities like Stuttgart. Google, with its $73 billion war chest, can invest in accessing Stuttgart’s data and converting it into Google Maps, but other services, like TransitScreen or even Apple Maps, won’t bother. In a country like Germany that is committed to reducing pollution and combating climate change, easier trip planning should be a no-brainer.

Why the German resistance? One researcher exploring the reluctance of these cities to part with their transit data cited agencies’ desires to provide a single “official” mapping tool, rather than open the door to transit apps of varying quality (though America’s experience suggests that the market can sort itself out pretty well). I recently had a chance to raise this question with Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. He acknowledged that German cities are lagging in open data, and he mentioned a fear of missing out on potential revenue—an echo of what was voiced in some American cities seven years ago. “We have to move away from the principle of data minimization and towards a creative and secure wealth of data,” he told me. “Public data is open data.”

Minister Dobrindt has his work cut out for him: A recent study of Stuttgart’s real-time transit planning celebrated the app provided by the government’s Travel and Transport Association, but made no mention of attracting trip planning companies through adopting the GTFS standard.

That’s a missed opportunity—as American cities learned years ago, transit agencies harm themselves and their passengers by shackling their data.