The high-stakes data fight over the future of transportation
As scooters and bikes take over city streets, cities and companies are engaged in a battle over how people will find them.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images
As scooters and bikes take over city streets, cities and companies are engaged in a battle over how people will find them.
More than a decade ago, Bibiana McHugh saw the future of transportation. In 2005, McHugh, an executive at Portland's TriMet transit agency, wanted a way to get bus and train directions the same way she got driving directions. So she worked with Google to develop a standard called GTFS — Google Transit Feed Specification — that made it easy for Google Maps to integrate real-time public transit data. Fifteen years later, it's a global standard for transit data, and the G in GTFS stands for General.
Now, McHugh sees the next step coming. It's even bigger this time. She remembers the exact moment she figured it out, on her way back from a trip several years ago. "I flew in really late on a Sunday night, and had to get clear across town," she said. A quick Google Maps search said public transit would take 90 minutes to get her home; opening the Uber app said it'd cost $30. Two not great options. Then McHugh remembered she was supposed to be testing a beta app, built by her team at TriMet, that might help.
So McHugh opened her tester app and plugged in her home address. It spat out a happy medium: Take an Uber to the first train station, and a train home. Half the time of the train, half the cost of the car. This — what she calls multi-modal transport — felt more like the future than ever.
In McHugh's ideal world, getting around doesn't involve choosing a mode of transport. She imagines data moving freely among services, giving people one-stop access to every train, scooter, car, bike and jalopy in the vicinity. All you do is plug in points A and B, and you should get a personalized, ultra-efficient way to get there.
In many ways, the transportation world has spent the last few years manifesting options to enable McHugh's vision. Scooters, taxis, bike-shares, helicopters to the airport, all summonable with a few taps on your smartphone. But most have become walled gardens, each hoping you will choose one brand for all your getting-around needs. A few apps and platforms are working on ways to bring it all together, to build a new navigation system that includes every available mode of transport, but transportation startups are fighting against that utopian-sounding vision. So while streets and sidewalks flood with new options for getting around, the more important battle is raging under the surface: A battle not over how you get from A to B, but over who gets to manage your journey.
"To tell you the truth, like a lot of things, the technology is easy," McHugh said. The hard stuff is the politics, the policies, the figuring out how to work together. Right now, cities and companies are arguing about lots of things, but mostly about data: who gets it, how it's used, who's in charge. Cities see this data as crucial to the way they build infrastructure, manage fleets and plan for the future. They're also eager to make sure they don't get burned again, after watching Uber and Lyft circumvent permits and processes for so many years. Dozens of companies, meanwhile, are betting billions of dollars on the space, with each company vying to be The One True Transportation Service to the exclusion of all others.
If the industry can't find a middle ground, McHugh and others believe, there will be more transportation than ever but no good way to get around. But even against what seem like intractable differences, there's reason to believe it might work out.
As bike- and scooter-sharing have become popular in many cities, a number of companies and organizations have developed a new GTFS-inspired standard to manage them. It's called GBFS — General Bikeshare Feed Specification — and it, too, is designed to transmit real-time information about available vehicles.
Virtually all of these new "micro-mobility" companies, from Lime and Bird to Spin and Skip and Gruv and all the others that seem to magically appear on street corners every week or so, have adopted GBFS in some form. Most have been required to by cities and transit agencies. Many governments, like Chicago and Denver (to name just two from a much larger list), are taking an aggressive stance when it comes to allowing bikes, scooters and other vehicles onto their streets. They're working with select partners, allowing limited numbers of vehicles, and demanding access to data — for the city and for third parties.
GBFS is designed to provide a real-time snapshot of a city's fleet, so people can find a ride — it doesn't keep trip records or personal data. Some cities want more than that: The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, for instance, developed a new data standard called the Mobility Data Specification that more than 80 cities have since adopted. MDS builds on GBFS, providing an even richer two-way stream of data, including information about the routes riders take, instructions for how fleets should be managed and distributed, and more. Uber and others have balked at this, saying sharing this much data is an invasion of user privacy. Cities say they need this data to understand how these mobility services are working and how they could be improved.
The fight between MDS and GBFS, between LA and Uber, is important and well-documented. But there's a party that gets lost in these debates: The apps that help people make use of all these new options. Back in 2005, McHugh said, "what really helped and increased the adoption [of GTFS] at a rapid rate was having it demonstrated in an application." Once companies and agencies saw how useful Google Transit could be, they bought in. This time, there's a whole genre of apps designed to bring all these publicly available data feeds together, caught in the middle of the data wars.
Apps like Scooter Map.
Victor Pontis built Scooter Map to solve a simple problem: There were too many scooter apps. Scooter Map put multiple companies' scooters onto a single map, so that the service workers — the people who run around a city charging, fixing and redistributing the fleet — could work for multiple companies at a time. "If you're going out and picking up scooters for Bird," Pontis said, "you might as well pick up scooters for Lime, because they're right next to each other." Lime would never show Bird scooters in its own app, and vice-versa — but a neutral third party could make something that worked for everyone.
Initially, Pontis said, scooter companies were supportive of Scooter Map. If anything, Pontis was making their systems more efficient, and saving them from having to work on their own tools. But when Pontis released a new section of Scooter Map, this time aggregating all nearby scooters for riders, the scooter makers changed their tune. Soon after, when another Scooter Map update made it possible to unlock those scooters from within Scooter Map, Lime and Bird both demanded he turn the feature off.
Scooter Map is not the only company trying to tie this data together that had such a run-in. Last September, Transit, a multi-modal transportation app that first made it easy to get bus and train schedules but has since branched out into scooters and bikes, rolled out a feature allowing riders to use the app to pay for Citi Bike rides in New York. Lyft, which took over Citi Bike when it bought bike-share provider Motivate in 2018, immediately shut down the feature. Lyft cited rider safety and theft as reasons for cutting it off; Transit saw it differently. "They're weaponizing bike-share to force you to use their ride-hail app," the company wrote in a scathing blog post.
When they made it possible to rent a scooter or bike without ever opening another app, Scooter Map and Transit stepped on one of the third rails of the transportation revolution. Companies like Lime and Lyft didn't raise hundreds of millions of dollars just to put scooters on streets; they can't afford to be seen as a commodity provider of the same hunk of Ninebot-built plastic as everyone else. These companies want to be lifestyle brands, one-stop-shops for the future of transportation. Sure, Lime might integrate with Google Maps, but you still have to unlock the scooter in the Lime app. (And Google's investment in Lime may have something to do with the partnership.)
Sometimes it goes beyond rides, too: Bird now wants you to pay for your coffee with the same app you used to get to the shop. To do that, micro-mobility and ride-hailing companies need you to open their app to find their scooters and their cars and their bikes, not just find the closest ride, logo be damned. A nightmare scenario for a micro-mobility startup like Lime or Bird is that you open an app to find their scooter and then decide to take a Skip — or just get in a car — instead.
Lyft and Uber are the furthest along this road. Uber calls itself "The Amazon of Transportation," and hopes that you'll open its app whenever you want a ride, a bike or a pizza delivery. Meanwhile, Lyft hopes people will "subscribe to a transportation service just like you subscribe to your cell phone plan or your content streaming plan." Lyft, obviously, would like to be that transportation service. The company is building its own transportation universe, hoping to be the only place you go no matter where you need to go. But Lyft will never show the scooter that's even closer to your location, not as long as it has someone else's logo on it.
If there was one app that integrated everything, you know, wouldn't that be great? — Pauletta Tonilas, a transit agency executive
While big companies work to bring more services into their apps, the standards-makers are pushing the other way: They want to make it easy to do more in any app. "The long-term goal for GBFS is to become an all-encompassing standard that would allow for unlocking mechanisms," said Tran-Quan Luong, the head of mobile at the multi-modal app Transit. In Transit's perfect future, the standard would let you unlock a scooter, a bike, a rental car, and any other transit option right from the Transit app. Even unlocking isn't the end of the story, said David Block-Schachter, Transit's chief business officer. "Going to step three is really about sign-in, account creation, payment and unlocking. That's really what opens up the layer that we think adds a tremendous amount of value to the customer."
There's no question people want an all-in-one transit app. "We've heard this a lot," said Pauletta Tonilas, an executive at RTD, the transit agency for the city of Denver. "If there was one app that integrated everything, you know, wouldn't that be great?"
The holy grail version of that app, for proponents of GBFS, is platform agnostic: It integrates data from every transportation company and organization, large or small, public or private, and recommends route options based on distance, time, price, and allows people to pay for everything right there.
That holy grail is also a nightmare scenario for the private companies who have spent years and raised billions on the promise that they'd make a fortune one day by dominating all other transportation options and becoming the one, very platform-specific, transit app to rule them all. If an app like Transit were able to own the whole customer experience, operators like Lyft and Lime and all the rest risk becoming simple hardware providers — which could be their death knell. Or, at least, that is the fear of the four-letter tech companies.
There may very well be a way for open-data-sharing and integration to win without destroying the companies who actually provide the transit. McHugh said history may simply be repeating itself — she sees lots of parallels to the last time she tried to standardize transportation data.
"Initially, there was a lot of reluctance," she said, "and I think Google Transit was the perfect showpiece for GTFS."
Once cities and operators saw it work, and once people understood how much real-time information could change the way they got around, there was simply no going back. And now that people are getting a taste of things like Transit, Scooter Map and other truly multi-modal transportation tools, relying on a single company for getting around may become a thing of the past.
It's all out there, ready to be put together, McHugh said. She can see it now: "You have your calendar alert you and say you have to leave now to catch this bus, and you're going to take it downtown, to this meeting, and after this meeting you need to get across town to your office, and you need to take a scooter. You plan your trip, and you pay for it all at once, and you go."
That's where we're headed. The billion-dollar question is, who gets there first?