Uber launches tool to help urban planners track road speeds in 6 cities

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Uber’s Seattle office. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

In the early days, Uber and city officials were at odds. The transportation upstart had a habit of expanding to new cities without authorization, asking for forgiveness after the service became popular instead of permission to launch in the first place.

But it’s been a decade since Uber’s renegade youth. Since then the company has endured a series of scandals, changed leadership — and last week it went public at a valuation of $82 billion. Under CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has been trying to rehabilitate its image and a big part of that is working more cooperatively with cities. That’s the ethos behind Uber Movement, a portal launched in 2017 to share some transportation data with cities. On Tuesday, Movement is unveiling it’s first major product.

Starting today, a free, public dataset called Uber Movement Street Speeds is available in six cities: Seattle, New York, Cincinnati, Nairobi, São Paulo, and London. The tool allows urban planners and researchers to study vehicle speed on city streets at a granular level.

“Only Uber could pull together that group of cities but I think it’s a nice cross-section of both market size and sophistication of the different city planning departments,” said Emily Strand, who leads the Uber Movement public policy team. “All of the partners that we’ve spoken to globally have said regardless of their level of sophistication, this is a really helpful dataset.”

Speed data tracked by Uber Movement. (Uber Image)

Uber hopes cities will use the tool to navigate infrastructure challenges, like traffic and safety. A planner could use the tool to measure the impact a new transportation project has on traffic flow before and after it went into place, for example.

Uber Movement Speeds was designed to inform policy decisions as well. In April, New York became the first city in the U.S. to adopt congestion pricing, which charges drivers to enter the urban core during the busiest times. Uber has been lobbying for congestion pricing elsewhere to avoid taxes or ride caps as cities grapple with congestion.

Uber Movement Speeds product manager Jordan Gilbertson said the tool helpful in “understanding the before and after impact of both taxing and congestion pricing and what impact that has on the road network.”

The new tool will be compatible with SharedStreets, a nonprofit that provides software to help cities and transportation technologies share information. SharedStreets is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and backed by a coalition of cities and private companies, including Uber.

Data-sharing has been a point of friction between Uber and cities in the past. Ride-hailing companies are sitting on mounds of valuable data about where and when riders move around. But they’re often reticent to share it with cities out of fear that the data will be subject to public records requests under transparency laws. The dynamic has led independent third parties, like the University of Washington, to create data-sharing collectives to bridge the gap.

The new tool doesn’t entirely solve the data equation; Uber ultimately decides what is shared. But it does reflect the more co-operative approach Uber is taking in the next phase of its evolution.

Collaboration is also essential for Uber’s long-term strategy. The company wants to become the on-demand transportation app, incorporating a variety of services including public transit, bike-share, and scooter-share.

“This is really Uber putting its product and engineering recourses behind moving the entire transportation industry forward,” said Strand.

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