Uber is notoriously stingy with its data, often refusing requests from cities for reasons around privacy and the desire to preserve its competitive advantage. That’s changed a little over the last few years with the launch of Uber Movement, an online tool expressly for cities to map travel times, powered by the company’s vast store of trip data. Today, Uber announced an update that would allow cities to track vehicle speeds on a granular, street-by-street level.
This new tool “provides historical aggregated speed data along street segments for select metropolitan areas,” the company’s website says. Those cities include New York City, Seattle, Cincinnati, Nairobi, and London. The idea is to give city planners and experts a view of the flow of traffic on their streets over time so they can make more informed decisions around traffic management.
The dataset includes speed averages during specific time ranges, days of the week, and times of day. These ranges can be as short as a part of one day or as long as three months. You can adjust the data to only show segments with speeds that fall within a certain value. And you can observe which streets have average speeds significantly lower than the regular free flow of traffic. Alternately, streets with higher than average speeds could be targeted for traffic calming measures.
A quick glance at New York City over the course of January 2018 reveals a lot of red, meaning speeds that are much slower than free flowing traffic. That’s not surprising to anyone who has driven in the city lately: a recent report found the average speed of a car in midtown Manhattan is 4.7 mph — barely faster than walking. Lawmakers cited this statistic, among others, in the run-up to the successful passage of congestion pricing in the city, which would charge drivers a fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan during the week.
Uber and its rival Lyft bear some blame for these low speeds and rising congestion. In 2017, there were 470,000 trips taken by taxis and for-hire vehicles in the central business district, which includes all of Manhattan south of 60th Street. That was up nearly 25 percent from four years earlier, despite a decline in trips in yellow cabs. Another recent study found that between 2010 and 2016, traffic congestion in San Francisco increased by about 60 percent — and Uber and Lyft are responsible for more than half of that increase.
Uber hopes its speed dataset can help cities make better decisions around traffic regulation and infrastructure improvements. But the company isn’t typically so generous with its data, and at times has been known to fight cities over data sharing requests. Uber strenuously objected to the city of Los Angeles’ attempts to obtain data on scooter and bike usage, calling it a “massive overcollection” that could endanger rider privacy.
Uber is hoping to convince cities it can be a cooperative player in this new world of ride-sharing and multimodal transportation. But that will be difficult, given its history of tussling with officials over regulations and licensing.