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San Francisco Seeks Uber Data as Company Touts Commitment to Urban Transit

How can cities plan for a future full of Uber cars if Uber won't share its trip data?

Franck Boston/Shutterstock

Today, Uber’s carpooling product UberPool hit its one-year anniversary, and the company released new stats on it to celebrate. At the same time, a San Francisco transit official called for Uber to share its data with local government, to help the city plan for its transit future.

In its celebratory blog post, Uber claimed that drivers saved 200,000 gallons of gas over the last year in San Francisco by taking UberPool. It also said passengers have saved millions of dollars with these trips.

“Our vision for UberPool means helping urban environments solve some of their toughest problems, whether it’s congestion, pollution, or lack of access to transportation,” it said in the post.

Although Uber is proclaiming its commitment to urban transit, Tim Papandreou, the director of strategic planning at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told Re/code that Uber has ignored his repeated requests for more information on the service.

“Are the Uber cars reducing pollution and congestion and car ownership?” Papandreou said. “They could be flooding the city with cars or they could be doing great things. We don’t know because we don’t have the data.”

Uber, for its part, says that it reached out to the SFMTA a few months ago to start a dialogue about ride pick-ups on Market Street downtown. Although it hasn’t given internal data to the city yet, Uber claims it hasn’t rejected requests.

“Uber has become an integral part of San Francisco’s transportation network in the past five years, and that is why we proactively reached out to SFMTA to collaboratively find solutions to city planning issues and are having positive, on-going conversations,” Uber spokesperson Laura Zapata said.

The trip and passenger information Uber collects could play a key part in its attempts to gain legitimacy with local governments. In January, it announced its plans to share certain parts of its data with cities, starting with a Boston pilot program. But the company has also tussled with regulators when it has balked at reporting some aspects of its service, like causes of accidents.

The SFMTA is looking for data on mileage, most trafficked routes, the times of day that trips are taken, anonymized passenger demographics and other details.

As one example for why the city needs that data, Papandreou pointed to the new “Smart Routes” product Uber is testing, where people can take discounted UberPool rides if they set their pick-up location on highly trafficked roads. One of the lines is on Valencia Street in the popular Mission District of San Francisco.

That also happens to be a street where the SFMTA has removed bus lines. “We worked so hard to make that street safe for biking and walking,” said Papandreou.

He says that if Uber is concerned about sharing data for competitive reasons, it should give information to an objective third party, like a university, to study and report back to the city. “My advice to them is talk to us. Engage us on this,” Papandreou said.

Uber is under no legal obligation to work with the SFMTA in this way. It is regulated by a state entity, the CPUC, which doesn’t require ride-hailing companies to give data to local city governments.

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