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Cities and Industry Launch New Foundation to Manage Mobility

An international coalition of cities, departments of transportation, nonprofits, mobility companies and other stakeholders is taking a big swing at urban mobility data, rules and regulations.

Seventeen government agencies and a handful of private partners launched a coalition today to help steer the future of urban transportation.

The Open Mobility Foundation, a 501(c)6 nonprofit consisting of 13 U.S. cities, one international city, two New York City departments and one county, aims to use open-source technology and input from its global coalition to manage the growing number of vehicles and mobility options on city streets. The foundation’s stated goals are safety, to ensure new tools or policies don’t create or exacerbate inequality, to improve quality of life in a sustainable way, and to protect the privacy of people’s data.

According to a news release, the foundation will collaborate on new digital tools to manage mobility options and data, as well as help cities plan infrastructure, policy and other changes as needs arise.

The founding members are:

  • Austin, Texas
  • Bogotá, Colombia
  • Chicago
  • Los Angeles
  • Louisville, Ky.
  • Miami
  • Miami-Dade County, Fla.
  • Minneapolis
  • New York City Department of Transportation and New York City Taxi and Limo Commission
  • Philadelphia
  • Portland, Ore.
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose, Calif.
  • Santa Monica, Calif.
  • Seattle
  • Washington, D.C.
Other partners include The Rockefeller Foundation; the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards; micro-mobility operators such as Bird and Spin; technology companies such as Microsoft, Blue Systems and Stae; the International Association of Public Transport; Transportation for America; MetroLabs; and the NewCities Foundation.

Ramses Madou, division manager of planning, policy and sustainability for the San Jose Department of Transportation, said the foundation’s early work will involve expanding upon the open source Mobility Data Specification (MDS). Posted to GitHub in 2018 by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, MDS consists of application programming interfaces (APIs) that create standard communications between cities and private companies, allowing cities to gather useful data for real-time traffic management, safety and other policy decisions.

According to the news release, more than 50 U.S. cities and dozens of international ones already use MDS to manage micro-mobility services such as scooters and bikes.

“It’s allowing us to use much less staff to monitor very large outlays of assets. For example, in the city of San Jose, we have roughly 4,500 permitted scooters around the city, but we don’t have a lot of staff to go make sure these scooters are following the regulations we have in place, so the data specification is allowing us to scale our staff immediately to do closer monitoring of that,” Madou said. “The idea is to start bringing this mobility space into this data specification, so that cities have a place at the table to design these systems together.”

The idea that piecemeal solutions won’t cut it anymore is a common refrain from public officials talking about urban mobility. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) unveiled a list of recommended best practices last month called “Managing Mobility Data,” and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, speaking for the new foundation’s only county government so far, made a public statement to that effect.

“Mobility options are arriving at such a fast pace that often it becomes almost impossible for the public sector to catch up,” he said. “We need to stay ahead of the game and speak the same language. The Mobility Data Specification is the first step for government to digitize its policies, and the Open Mobility Foundation will be a great resource to foster practical and sustainable mobility management tools.”

Madou said the foundation will also have a legislative component, such as advocacy at some point, particularly if new proposals preempt city access to data. He gave the example of California’s AB1112, a proposed law to regulate micro-mobility at the state level which could limit the ability of cities to mandate certain kinds of reporting from mobility companies. He said members of the foundation are already working with California legislators to modify the bill.

“As the foundation starts growing and taking on the stewardship role around what mobility data means for cities, there will be a lot of legislative interaction around ensuring that we have access to the data,” he said. “One of the larger problems we’re really trying to solve is, all of us cities really need more data … to do things like regulation, but we also need it to make better decisions around infrastructure — those planning-level decision-making pieces. We’re ever more expected to have this level of data and make decisions based on it, but it’s very hard to get it, so we’re building up this data world for city governments to use, while making sure we keep data privacy and security forefront of mind.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.