Before Cities Can Enforce Multimodal Policies, They Need Good Data

Companies want to help cities enforce and regulate new mobility devices like e-scooters, bikes or car-shares by offering up real-time data.

by / September 27, 2018
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Movement through cities is becoming more multimodal — taking the form of bikes, scooters, trams and more — and the management of these transportation options is becoming more complex, driven by a relentless supply of data.

Increasingly, cities are partnering with private mobility providers — like Bird scooters or Jump bikes — to operate services that can offer both cheap transportation and help to get cars off of already clogged streets. As part of these partnerships, city officials are requiring bikes, scooters and others to help them achieve intrinsic city goals around topics like equity, sustainability or safety.

“I think it’s really important to see cities leverage those partnerships to achieve the local goals,” said Paul Supawanich, head of mobility policy at Remix, a San Francisco-based software technology firm specializing in transportation. “I don’t think it’s enough for a city to say, 'Yeah, we want to permit these things and allow them just to exist.' I think cities should be treating them as just another level to help them achieve those broader livability, economic development types of goals.”

Cities like San Francisco, Columbus, Ohio, and others are requiring that e-scooter operators place the devices in underserved or economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Meanwhile, nearly all cities are being explicit in their demands that scooters and bikes do not block sidewalks, doorways, parking spots and other areas in the public space.

To achieve these goals, companies like Remix are stepping in and suggesting they can help enforce rules and maintain oversight. By gathering location data from scooter, bike-share or other sources like public APIs, Remix is able to present key pieces of data to city transportation departments in real time to allow officials to see what devices are in demand, where they are being used and whether they are available to disadvantaged or other communities.

“[Cities] are overseeing a private company who is helping them achieve their goals. There just hasn’t been the infrastructure in place to allow a city to have insight to what is going on. And so you can imagine a situation where… we don’t have enough options in this particular community for x, y, z reasons. We want to make sure we leverage these private companies to help provide those options,” said Supawanich.

Today’s real-time data starts to answer the question of “what is the volume of movement here so that I can justify the bike lane, or justify the improvement, which has always been the struggle,” Supawanich said .

Cities understand the role data can play in enforcement of the various policies and regulations overseeing e-scooters or car-shares and have made the sharing of this data a cornerstone in their agreements with the private companies.

“Part of the responsibility of managing this is also to enforce it,” said Jeff Ortega, assistant director of public service in Columbus. “And of the ways to enforce this is to have a situation where there is a requirement for robust data-sharing.”

Electric scooters, electric-assist bikes, electric-vehicle car-share programs — all rentable for a few pennies or dollars a minute — are taking off, in various forms across the country as smart city-focused mobility efforts guide residents toward more sustainable forms of transportation.

“If the cities don’t have those policies and guidelines in place to require the data compliance, and the API compliance, then what Remix is offering has no teeth,” Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for shared mobility at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, explained.

The movement has opened the door to new opportunities to use the data assoicated with these devices to achieve larger policy goals.

“I think a lot of cities are walking into these pilot programs for initial agreements, with good intentions, but still saying to themselves, 'We have to figure how we are going to do 'policy implementation,'” said Supawanich. “How do we take these well-intentioned policy goals and make it a reality?’”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.