In Portland and other cities across the country where local governments are partnering with companies to introduce e-scooters, agreements involving data-sharing, equity and other requirements could set precedents for future mobility-related deals in the future — from e-scooters to self-driving cars to delivery drones.
This past Friday, three companies — Bolt, Lime, and Spin — received permits to participate in a year-long e-scooter pilot throughout the city from Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), the agency overseeing the pilot. Several others, including Uber-owned Jump and the new Daimler-BMW joint venture, did not qualify or remain under consideration.
Following an initial four-month pilot last year that included more than 700,000 trips, Portland officials created a more stringent approval process this time around. For instance, the city required applicants to provide in-person demonstrations of their technology capabilities, showing they could deliver e-scooter ride-tracking data in a new Mobility Data Specification standard (MDS) developed recently in Los Angeles.
The technical demos created a level of scrutiny that Bolt hadn’t been subject to in other cities, said Will Nicholas, the company’s vice president of operations. And he’s OK with that — as public-private mobility tech partnerships proliferate, Nicholas said “the city, having responsibility over the public right-of-way, should have access to that data.”
But in its mission to gather meaningful data to help improve city mobility services, Portland also requires e-scooter firms to provide details such as unique e-scooter IDs and precise locations where trips start and end — a level of data granularity some believe is unnecessary.
Tensions over city data requirements in other metros have already been brewing. Uber-owned Jump recently battled the Los Angeles transportation department about the level of data sharing it required.
Transportation officials are grappling with failure to set data requirements earlier when Uber and Lyft launched their ride-hailing apps. These new data demands are tougher asks today because of lax precedents set when cities were caught off guard in years past.
Civic tech researchers such as Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, worry that these requirements ask for levels of data that create privacy, security and data use concerns.
“The [Mobility Data Specification] is a pretty extensive collection of data,” she told GeekWire. “One of our concerns is that the MDS is receiving fairly broad adoption outside of L.A.”
She and others watching how these agreements shake out are concerned that e-scooter data sharing standards being set today do not incorporate data governance policy related to data use and access, retention or privacy. “The way this issue gets decided is going to determine how we approach autonomous cars, how we approach drones and how we approach whatever sort of new mobility thing is coming down the line, so it’s a bit of testing ground,” Quay-de la Vallee said.
To address data privacy concerns associated with its MDS, the City of Los Angeles published new data protection principles which were subject to public comment before approval on April 12. “We’ll continue to release information about aggregation, anonymization, retention, and limitation policies as appropriate,” said Lilly O’Brien-Kovari, a deputy of communications and external affairs with the L.A. Department of Transportation.
There is a lot at stake causing the data tensions. E-scooter companies must balance intellectual property and user privacy concerns with their corporate growth goals, which are tied directly to their willingness to accommodate government officials. Meanwhile, city governments are straddling a fine line between data privacy infringement and their missions to improve transportation services while monitoring mobility tech firms.
Portland wants data showing how many e-scooter trips occur, approximately where they start and end, and other information to track use and impact. It also wants data showing where e-scooters are available to include in transportation apps such as its public transport agency’s Trip Planner, and to ensure partners abide by requirements to provide e-scooters in underserved neighborhoods.
Share Now, a new mobility service formed as a result of the recent Daimler and BMW joint venture, planned to debut an e-scooter offering in Portland. But even though Share Now has more than 100,000 members using its car-sharing service (previously known as car2go) in Portland, it did not receive an e-scooter permit.
Timothy Krebs, Portland communications manager for Share Now, told GeekWire that the company was “surprised.” He did not have much insight into why Share Now wasn’t chosen. “We still wish the city the best of luck with the scooter pilot,” he added.
One firm that participated in Portland’s earlier trial ducked out of applying for the new one. E-scooter firm Skip told Willamette Week that the city’s requirements were “burdensome.”
For now, Bolt, Lime and Spin, which Ford acquired in November to enhance its Smart Mobility division, were permitted to disseminate their e-scooters throughout the city as of Friday. Four other firms — Clevr Mobility, Jump, Razor USA, and Shared Technologies — could still receive permits from PBOT, the agency overseeing the pilot.
Bird, which participated in the city’s initial pilot last year, and Lyft, which operates its ride-sharing service in Portland, did not make the cut. In all, five of the dozen firms that vied for acceptance in the city’s year-long scooter pilot were left out in the cold.
Here’s a statement from Bird spokesperson Mackenzie Long:
“Portland residents, community groups, and local businesses have made clear that they enjoy our service and want Bird to remain an option in the city. We were surprised and disappointed to learn that PBOT has yet to approve Bird for its new e-scooter program. As the founder of the shared e-scooter industry, we have unmatched operational experience and a demonstrated commitment to safety that sets us apart. Bird’s safety record reflects the company’s unrivaled prioritization of protecting the well-being of our riders and communities — something we believe Portland should value in its transportation providers. We plan to continue to engage the city so we can return to the road as soon as possible and deliver the best e-scooter service available to the people of Portland.”
The substantial applicant turnout is a sign that the still-unproven escooter business is becoming increasingly attractive, even to traditional auto industry giants. Up north in Seattle, officials have yet to authorize any companies to operate scooter fleets, even though the city embraced bike-sharing services.
Despite safety concerns and a healthy amount of anti-scooter sentiment in several places including Portland, e-scooters are appealing for city governments that want to reduce traffic congestion and reliance on fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. However, Portland’s goals for the new trial also include increasing access to shared scooters by people with low incomes, people of color, and people with disabilities, particularly those living in East Portland, where many lower income residents have been driven as home and apartment prices in the city skyrocket.
There is an initial cap of 2,500 total e-scooters, but if providers make good on promises to generate high ridership in East Portland, they could qualify to add to their fleets. The companies will also have to prove that they do not allow e-scooters to operate in parks and that trips cannot end at spots where they become obstacles, such as bus stops.
As many as 9,000 total e-scooters could be cruising the streets and bike lanes by January, the city’s transportation agency estimated.