This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
Five seconds after a Los Angeles rider unlocks a dockless electric scooter with a smartphone app and sets off to a destination, a city-operated databank is informed. Five seconds after the trip ends, typically no more than a mile away, another alert updates the record, noting the location. In 24 hours, the exact route is uploaded and logged for analysis.
That ride to the bus stop or the convenience store, emissions-free and nearly silent, would seem to be a zero-disruption event in a sprawling city with millions of people and vehicles. Yet extrapolated over years, it foreshadows a shift of potentially enormous consequences.
While the identity of that rider is unknown to the city, a stream of data from the scooter’s GPS module and cellphone link — speed, time of day, battery state of charge — flows to cloud servers an average of a million times a month during Los Angeles’s pilot program. Each trip is but a trickle of bytes, yet it is a rich resource for the planners and the policymakers who hope to tame the persistent tangle of traffic in this vehicle-dependent metropolis.
That vehicular chokehold can weigh as heavily on a neighborhood dweller as it does on a road user.
“Cities have to assure that their resources are used efficiently, and that includes the shared spaces,” said Stephen Zoepf, chief of policy development at Ellis & Associates, a Silicon Valley consultancy that helps cities develop transportation technology plans. “The effects of crowding, in noise and emissions, are a tragedy of the commons,” he continued, using an economist’s term for situations in which resources are depleted by those acting in self-interest rather than the general good.
The arrival of electric scooters and motor-assisted bicycles, backbones of a transportation mode known as micromobility, has been greeted as part of the solution to clogged roadways and unbearable travel delays. There’s a business opportunity as well, with a projection of a micromobility market valued at up to $15 billion annually in the United States and Europe by 2025, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.
The urgency to sort out the conflict between vehicles and road space is growing. About 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, according to the United Nations; by 2050, that share is projected at 68 percent. Cities, already teeming, are increasingly frustrating to get around.
Yet the route to clearing the congestion has been a highway paved with obstacles. Linking transportation hubs to housing in the affordable last mile, where the need is greatest, proves a hurdle too high. Getting people out of their cars is a vexing problem; delivering goods without bulky trucks is nearly impossible.
Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation since 2014, is an eyewitness to monumental shifts in transportation, her job expanding from oversight of city functions like parking and public transit to coping with the onset of digital platforms for hailing rides.
“What became clear to me was that the digital version was going away from public management of the right of way,” she said in a telephone interview, referring to innovations like Uber and Lyft, which arrived in Los Angeles without regulations in place for driver pay, working hours or background checks.
Mr. Zoepf said cities were caught by surprise. .
“Now we had companies supported by venture capital saying, ‘We’re not providing transportation, we’re platforms,’ and doing business on the public right of way without a permit arrangement,” he said.
But a greater upheaval lay ahead.
“Then scooters showed up,” Ms. Reynolds said, noting that Los Angeles was unprepared for the 2017 arrival of easy-to-ride, motorized upgrades to what were once deemed children’s toys. “We got caught flat-footed in the transformation.”
A Downsized Alternative
In part, the solution to this cat-herding problem lay in making use of the data generated by the dockless scooters for fleet owners, who need to know where the scooters are in order to gather them each night for battery charging and reposition them the next morning where demand will be greatest.
That data set is also a key to solving congestion: Knowing what route they have used historically makes it possible for policymakers to plan infrastructure. The ability to monitor their every movement is no longer alarming to users — privacy is a serious concern, but not a showstopper, given that our smartphones already feed generous helpings to any number of data-digesting apps.
To collect the digital stream in a form useful to all, the Mobility Data Specification, or M.D.S., was created by the Los Angeles transportation department.
As an open-source software platform built on a set of application programming interfaces — the communication protocols between parts of a computer program — M.D.S. is now used by more than 50 American cities and dozens more around the globe. It is governed by the Open Mobility Foundation, chaired by Ms. Reynolds.
M.D.S. in Use
Hoboken, N. J., could serve as the ideal petri dish for testing micromobility. A mile square, with 55,000 residents and little elevation change, it is home to thousands of commuters who connect to buses, trains and ferries that will carry them to workplaces in Manhattan, directly across the Hudson River. City Hall is a showcase of environmental virtue signaling, with a green roof, rain-banking cisterns and permeable pavement.
Hoboken’s six-month e-scooter pilot, which began in May 2019 with Lime (and Ojo for the initial months), fit perfectly with existing sustainability goals. A revenue sharing arrangement brought 35 cents per ride to the city, which paid for dedicated micromobility code-enforcement officers. A survey at the program’s end showed that some 82,000 unique riders traveled 613,000 miles; more than half of the respondents said that scooters let them reduce their use of taxis, ride-hailing services or personal cars. The pilot ended in November, and although city officials were enthusiastic about its success, no date has been set to bring the scooters back.
Ryan Sharp, the city’s director of transportation and parking, said that the data from the pilot program — route volumes and popular ridership corridors — informed moves like installing protected bike lanes (separated from car traffic by flexible bollards) and designating preferred parking zones.
The installed technology also reduced conflicts between scooters and pedestrians that arose in popular areas on the city’s southern waterfront. The solution was to clip the scooters’ top speed to eight miles an hour, from 15, using geofencing enabled by the onboard GPS, he said.
To Mr. Sharp, trials like the e-scooter program provide valuable planning insights for Hoboken. “You can try to fight it, or you can get out front,” he said, echoing the need for the city to have oversight. By comparison, he added, “Uber and Lyft are a black box.”
Future-Proofing the Systems
As cities and mobility providers scramble to coordinate the public’s needs with the realities of emerging technologies, gaps are bound to develop. Though the volume of data sent by an individual scooter is tiny — comparable to a smart light bulb, according to Mr. Zoepf — not all cities are prepared to manage the input.
This is where start-ups like Lacuna Technologies find a niche — building software tools to operate and support open-source systems for transportation agencies. That role, serving as a proxy for the city, demands a forward-looking approach.
“In the last 10 years, digital mapping and GPS navigation became widely available,” said Hugh Martin, the president and chief executive of California-based Lacuna. “Our view is that we have to prepare for the next 100 years, for traffic that includes package drones and air taxis operating in a three-dimensional world. Cities can’t manage that individually.”
Still, Mr. Martin emphasizes, the municipal agencies will have to take the lead in allocating scarce resources.
“The most oversubscribed asset is curb space,” he said, citing ride-hailing services, package trucks and food delivery as competitors for a stopping place on crowded streets. Among the possibilities for a data-enabled system of the future: curb reservation systems.