Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The ride-hailing giant is convinced that L.A.’s data-tracking tool is violating state privacy laws. But the stakes for its business go further.
The great scooter data wars of Los Angeles have officially begun. After months of skirmishing with the L.A. Department of Transportation over its collection of real-time trip data from dockless scooters and bikes, Uber filed a lawsuit and temporary restraining order against the city agency on Monday.
Now an ongoing fight between the on-demand ride giant and LADOT’s pioneering mobility regulations is heading towards court. But while Uber’s combative stance is based on privacy concerns with L.A., it also reflects the threat these requirements could pose to its business model.
To back up: In 2018, Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT, began to develop a system allowing the city to communicate with, and preside over, the many different forms of mobility using public rights-of-way. Like many 21st-century transportation leaders, she’d spent years navigating clashes with ride-hailing startups such as Uber, which earned its early reputation for flouting local regulations and stonewalling attempts by officials to access its troves of trip data. Determined not to repeat that experience with incoming new modes, Reynolds envisioned a tech-savvy path that put the city in charge, starting with the electric “micromobility” devices that were suddenly ubiquitous in 2018.
Last November, L.A.’s mobility data specification—“MDS” for short—went live, along with a software program called Provider that required all dockless scooter and bike operators in L.A. to send real-time trip data back to city headquarters. A few months later, the city flipped on a second accompanying program, called Agency, which allowed L.A. to talk back directly to companies and alert them of, say, an improperly parked scooter, an imminent street closure, or other regulatory problem.
Gathering such large amounts of detailed data was the only way for L.A. to effectively manage the unwanted side effects that new transport modes can bring, Reynolds argued. Scooter clutter might be today’s sidewalk irritant, but tomorrow could bring a hellish sea of zero-occupant autonomous vehicles, or a buzzing army of delivery drones. “At LADOT, our job is to move people and goods as quickly and safely as possible, but we can only do that if we have a complete picture of what’s on our streets and where,” Reynolds said after announcing the first two micromobility companies, Lime and Spin, that agreed to comply.
Other cities around the world facing the same problems cheered—and rushed to adopt the open-source MDS code that let L.A. work its magic.
But no other U.S. city had reached nearly so far in its requirements for information from mobility operators, and Uber—by far the biggest dog in the yard, as well as the owner of the micromobility subsidiary Jump—was not about to let L.A. stick its nose so far into its business. The company immediately attacked the weak spot of MDS, playing up the Big Brother-esque privacy implications of a government that can track individual trips. The company began to campaign Sacramento legislators to support a bill, AB 1112, that would have restricted local governments from collecting granular location data on the basis of privacy. Lyft and Bird co-signed a letter of support for it, and undertook their own lobbying efforts to encourage legislators to preempt MDS and its ilk.
Soon, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) weighed in as well. “[LADOT] has failed to adopt clearly articulated policies regarding how it will use the data, how long it will retain the data, when it will delete the data, and the conditions on which it share data with third parties,” wrote the EFF in a fiery April letter. “LADOT must start taking seriously the privacy of Los Angeles residents.”
The city responded by issuing a set of privacy principles and reasserting its belief that collecting detailed trip information was the only way to level the playing field with private operators. It also negotiated some minor changes to its data-sharing requirements. And AB 1112 died over the summer.
But Uber has continued to refuse to fully comply, and has kept pushing the case that L.A.’s rules effectively constitute surveillance. Partly at Uber’s urging, in August the California Legislative Counsel analyzed whether LADOT was violating privacy statutes, and concluded that the city could indeed face legal issues down the road. L.A. disagreed. Earlier this month, LADOT sent a curt letter informing Uber that it had a week to start following the rules or the city would move to suspend its scooters and bikes.
Uber’s response was more or less, see you in court. After another exchange yesterday, that’s where it’s going.
“[W]e will file a lawsuit and seek a temporary restraining order in the Los Angeles Superior Court, so that a judge will hear these concerns and prevent the Los Angeles Department of Transportation from suspending our permit to operate,” the company wrote. “We sincerely hope to arrive at a compromise solution that allows us to work constructively with the City of Los Angeles while protecting the data privacy and security of our riders.”
L.A. might try to patch things up: It sent a letter back to Uber on Monday offering an administrative appeals process that would allow the company more time to comply. But a compromise out of court seems unlikely, given the battle of the past year, and Uber says that it plans to pursue its legal strategy.
In a statement to CityLab, LADOT responded:
LADOT has the responsibility to manage the public right-of-way, ensuring safety and access for everyone. To be effective, the department requires reasonable information about the tens of thousands of shared vehicles operated by transportation technology companies that use our streets for profit. While all other permitted scooter and bike companies are complying with our rules, Uber has repeatedly refused. LA’s requirements have been clear since last November, and Uber agreed to abide by them. By 5 pm Tuesday, we expect Uber to come into compliance or they will face suspension proceedings, which could eventually lead to revocation of their permit.
It may seem a bit rich to see Uber get indignant over user privacy, given the company’s history of massive customer data breaches and close rider tracking. But the stakes over MDS for Uber—as well as for its competitor, Lyft—go beyond privacy. Both companies are angling to become one-stop shops for booking rides on demand, whether that’s in a car, on a dockless scooter, or even on a public bus. For a long time, they enjoyed relatively few impediments in the way of regulations towards that goal.
But now, the ride-hailing industry is facing a sea-change in California labor law that could upend its business model. L.A. is one of the largest mobility markets in North America, and having it manage local streets with such a tight leash might interfere with Uber’s vision of becoming the “Amazon of transportation,” dispensing routes, tickets, trips, and deliveries from its centralized platform.
Now that more than a dozen other cities have made MDS the gold standard for regulating mobility, that threat to the ride-hailing business had spread beyond Southern California. Grab the popcorn and sit back: This is a major power struggle over the future of city streets, and it’s just getting started.