Travis Kalanick’s company is now planning to share some of its data with local authorities through its Uber Movement platform. The San Francisco road mobility giant is thus serving notice that it wants to play a leading role in overall future transportation policy.

Uber is seeking a central role in future mobility

On 8 January, Uber announced the launch of a new product called Uber Movement, a platform which will provide interactive maps on which local authorities will be able to view Uber-gathered data on people moving around their town or city. Rather like shining a torch on a letter written in invisible ink, Uber Movement is thus looking to make the invisible visible. City officials, planners and policymakers will henceforth be able to obtain a far more accurate picture of current road traffic flows and how they are evolving, based on millions of trips made by Uber users. More specifically, the Uber Movement platform, which at the moment is available in Boston, Manila, Sydney and Washington, measures the time needed to get from A to B. In addition, the software calculates the impact on journey time of the time of day, the day of the week, plus one-off factors such as road improvements, major events and mass demonstrations. All the data gathered is anonymised, which means you cannot track the journeys made by any individual Uber user.

During a presentation in Washington DC, Uber Movement Product Manager Jordan Gilbertson used the platform to display the variations in traffic caused by the temporary shutdown of the city’s entire metro system last March. Once the data had come in, Uber Movement was able to show a 10-30% increase in road traffic right across the city and a 50% surge at Washington’s main entry points.

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A hidden treasure

This data is extremely valuable for city authorities. Firstly, it provides clues as to where infrastructure work needs to be carried out. The planners can for instance see which are the most clogged-up roads, and so where the need to build new roads is most urgent. Secondly the data enables local authorities to choose the best period of the year and the best times of the day to carry out these works. Having a more accurate view of traffic flows also helps them to decide on easier-to-implement improvements – incremental enhancements such as adding traffic lights, shifting a pedestrian crossing or amending street signage.

Last but not least, having this data also enables City Hall to provide residents with holistic navigation apps that allow them to choose between a range of transport options. The city of Denver, Colorado is building a platform which will provide a real-time picture of residents’ journeys across the city. Users will be able to download it on to their mobile phones and choose the best option for their trip. The authorities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are working to install traffic lights that adapt in real time to traffic flows. Meanwhile in Portland, Oregon there are plans afoot to install sensors on buses and taxis in order to gather even more traffic data, with the aim of creating a local authority city navigation app.

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Uber’s ambitions

So it is not hard to see just how useful Uber Movement could be for City Hall. On the other hand, given that Uber is presumably not acting out of purely philanthropic motives, what exactly does the company stand to gain from Uber Movement? Uber has always had strained relations with local authorities and is embroiled in a number of lawsuits around the globe. In December, the tension rose another notch as the ride-hailing specialist wrangled with the California Department of Motor Vehicles following the company’s decision to deploy self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco without proper authorisation. In the end, Uber was forced to give in and withdraw its autonomous vehicles from Californian roads.

So we may see in the launch of Uber Movement evidence of the company’s desire to develop more peaceful and collaborative relationships with the powers that be. At a purely pragmatic level, the platform should, as we mentioned above, help local planners to streamline traffic flows. Uber will benefit directly from this kind of improvement: smoother traffic flows mean faster trips, more satisfied customers and consequently higher profits. That is certainly a logical short- or medium-term consideration. But further down the line, the launch of the new platform also shows, if we did not already know, that Uber is far more than just a low-cost technology-packed taxi firm. In the long term, Travis Kalanick’s company is aiming to act as a pioneer, pointing the way towards the mobility system of the future and staking out a place for itself as one of the cornerstones of public transport policy.

 

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The future of car-pooling

With this goal in mind, Uber is now adding strings to its bow. With its UberPOOL option, which enables several people going in the same direction to share the same vehicle, the company is now presenting itself as a car-pooling service drawing on the latest technologies. This allows Uber to offer its customers an alternative to using their private cars, a service that should certainly help to unclog the roads, with all the positives that will bring, not least in terms of air quality.

There is one phrase that we hear Uber CEO Travis Kalanick repeating rather like a mantra. He wants to “make using Uber cheaper than owning a car.‟ Susan Shaheen, Co-Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that Uber and other ride-hailing firms – Lyft, Chariot, Leap, et al – are now being used by an increasing number of Americans who would otherwise have taken their own cars to drive to the office. “In the past, many people used car-pooling systems to get to work. The number has been falling for some years but these new services are changing things,‟ she writes.

First and foremost, Uber wants to be a transportation service positioned halfway between the public and private sectors, for example supplementing public transport services on little-used or non-profitable routes. In large cities such as Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Dallas, Uber is working in conjunction with the local authorities to take passengers to and from major public transport arteries. The cities of Centennial, Colorado, and Altamonte Springs, Florida even subsidise the fares of people who use Uber and Lyft to link up with public transport services.

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Complementing public transport

In the United States, where the transportation infrastructure is sparser than in Europe, Uber and its rivals appear to offer the ideal short-term solution for optimising journeys at lower cost, as Adam Stocker, a Research Associate at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, UC Berkeley, explains: “There are barely five major cities in the United States where a significant proportion of the population use public transport on a daily basis. This is why, when it comes to optimising people flows, encouraging services such as Uber, as opposed to people using their private cars, appears to be the easiest solution. Public-private partnerships between local authorities and Uber and Lyft are already underway.‟ The goal is not to replace public transportation, but to provide a complement to it, with aim of reducing as far as possible the number of vehicles on the roads carrying only one person.

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Shaping the future of mobility

In the longer term, Uber has even more ambitious goals. The company could well become the platform of choice for accessing the self-driving, electric, shared vehicle ecosystem. A number of initiatives, such as the Drive Sweden programme – which aims to develop ‘this completely new approach to mobility’, as the website states – and City Car from the MIT Media Lab, are very much in line with this vision of the future. A city that manages to switch from private car use to this type of taxi will reap many benefits including fewer vehicles on the roads, hence fewer traffic jams and less noise and atmospheric pollution; less need for parking spaces and thus more space for other infrastructure; a lower accident toll, and so on.

Uber is investing a lot of money in research into autonomous vehicles and is currently testing a number of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. When the technology is ready and the appropriate legislation in place, Uber, with its platform already in use all over the world, will enjoy a huge competitive advantage. The company could get people to adopt its app as their preferred access channel to these futuristic taxis. This is why it is very much in Uber’s interest to team up right away with local authorities, gain their trust and start to prepare the ground for the advent of tomorrow’s vehicles.

By Guillaume Renouard