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Uber is giving Cincinnati a glimpse at the data so many cities covet

Cincinnati’s streetcar maintenance and operations facility in fall 2015. (Cincinnati Streetcar)

When it comes to ride-hailing, data is a sought-after resource for local transit agencies that want to know how Uber and Lyft’s explosive growth is affecting travel patterns, where and whether the companies are scooping up riders, and how they can benefit from first- and last-mile trips that connect users to their buses and streetcar or rail networks.

So far — aside from some mandatory data dumps and limited peeks at ride-hailing travel times through the Web platform Uber Movement — the company has closely guarded its data. That will soon change for one fast-growing Midwestern region.

On Tuesday, Uber announced the Cincinnati Mobility Lab, a three-year partnership with Cincinnati that includes expanded driver resources, a curbside traffic study, access to its data-sharing website and several other initiatives aimed at improving the commuting experience throughout the city. The deal includes a first-of-its kind analysis for local transit agencies in Cincinnati and adjacent Northern Kentucky to draw on Uber data — probably including hot spots, response times, costs of service and trends — for planning. It’s a jump start on data that so many other cities covet.

Are Uber and Lyft cutting into Metro’s ridership?

In Washington, Metro has commissioned a study examining, among other things, the impact of Uber and Lyft on its flagging ridership. It’s a massive question for cities and transit agencies: How are Uber and Lyft affecting how people interact with roads and transit networks?

“I mean, I think it’s an incredible opportunity to grow together and learn together, and I believe that cities that learn how to collaborate with the private sector for the greater good are the cities that are going to continue to thrive,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) said in an interview in advance of the announcement.

Cranley said Uber’s selection of Cincinnati reflects the city’s economic growth, with mixed-use developments such as the Banks, revitalized downtown neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine, and a bustling arts and culture scene. The New York Times listed Cincinnati as its No. 8 Place to Go in 2018, citing its microbreweries, its farm-to-table restaurants and a “trio of new theaters [that] heightened its cultural allure.”

The Queen City is largely car-dependent outside its downtown core. Cranley said the city could use more links between neighborhoods and its bus networks, which cover major routes but not arterial areas where people can access them. And Cincinnati’s 3.6-mile streetcar, the Cincinnati Bell Connector, saw lower-than-expected ridership after opening in fall 2016.

Uber’s new tool is a glimpse of how much it knows about cities. Planners want the full picture.

Uber officials said its selection of Cincinnati for the initiative is a testament to the city’s coordination between municipal and regional entities, as well as the city’s business community. Like other municipalities, including the District, the city straddles multiple states, and complex projects require coordination between regional governments. Uber said it saw not only impressive coordination between the jurisdictions but also the “scalability” of any findings, making Cincinnati an ideal test market.

There are about 200,000 Uber app users and 4,000 active drivers in the region, the company says. Exact cost details were unavailable, but Uber said the initiative is a “substantial investment” on its side.

“The thinking is if it works in Cincinnati, it will probably work in a much bigger city,” said Meghan Joyce, regional general manager of Uber’s U.S. and Canada city operations. Joyce said the study aims to “evaluate the impact of ride-sharing on city streets,” with an eye toward smart urban planning.

Uber is notoriously protective of its data, largely for competitive and privacy reasons. Through a third-party consultant, which has yet to be hired, Uber will give the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) a look at how its operations are impacting road networks. The company, officials said, will then determine whether to coordinate on data sharing with cities nationwide.

Uber and New York City spar over rider data

“Transit agencies would love to know more about what’s happening on Uber’s side,” said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. “We’re sympathetic to that. We want to find a way to answer that request and find a way to be a good partner without putting ourself in a more [difficult] situation.”

Here’s a glimpse of the initiatives Uber is launching in Cincinnati, according to the company:

  • The third-party study, in which a consultant will be given access to Uber’s data to “combine that data with insights derived from local transit agencies.”
  • A “Curb of the Future” study that will examine ideal pickup and drop-off spots to ensure they don’t interfere with traffic and public transit.
  • Uber Movement, the company’s data-sharing platform, which includes historical trip-time data based on large-scale analysis of ride-hailing trips.
  • A new in-person service center for drivers.
  • An employer forum at the Chamber of Commerce to address commuting issues, as well as a summit engaging experts to solve local mobility issues.