Los Angeles: Harnessing Data for Transport Innovation

Shared Mobility in Practice

By Emma Latham-Jones and Will Duncan

An urban transport revolution is underway in Los Angeles, the epitome of a car-reliant city – and it revolves around data.

Los Angeles, California’s largest city, has long been infamous for its traffic. But now app-based services revolving around shared vehicles are taking off. The city government is embracing these new services as a way to reduce the number of polluting cars clogging its gridded streets. To regulate — and benefit from — shared mobility, L.A. has found that data transparency and data management are essential. 

The way in which Los Angeles was planned and built has made it a car-dependent city. Throughout the 20th century, L.A. grew outwards rather than upwards; residents preferred suburban-style neighbourhoods to tall apartment buildings – and urban sprawl with low population density has precipitated a car-centred lifestyle.

“The city layout is very challenging,” says Wei-Shiuen Ng, Sustainable Transport Advisor at the International Transport Forum. “It’s just not planned in a way that public transport can thrive.”

Eighty-four per cent of Los Angeles’ commuters drive – that is double San Francisco’s percentage. Meanwhile, only 5% walk or cycle. This car dependency is causing serious problems: poor air quality, constant traffic congestion, and increasing obesity. The government estimates that owning and operating a car in L.A. costs its citizens an average of USD 9 122 per year.

The promise of shared mobility

But it’s not all bad news. Los Angeles is rising to the challenge and has quickly become a North American leader in rethinking urban mobility. Mobility options enabled by new technologies are reshaping how people navigate L.A.’s 7 500 miles of streets— whether they use free-floating shared bicycles and e-scooters or ride-sharing apps like Uber Pool or Lyft. L.A. is one of three US cities to earn the perfect score on the Shared Mobility City Index (SMCI), which evaluated 20 cities. This reflects the wide range of new shared vehicles and on-demand transport services available.

“New shared mobility tools are helping our residents realise that they have choices about how they move around our city,” explains Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation (LADoT).

The L.A.’s Department of Transportation recogonises the potential of shared mobility to reduce congestion, improve the city’s environment and enhance access to jobs and services for its less well-off citizens. In 2016, L.A. released Urban Mobility in a Digital Age: a ground-breaking playbook for transport in the digital age that charted specific strategies to be implemented by the city (available here with its implementation plan here). In 2018, it teamed up with environmental organisation NRDC and with the input from transport, technology and other experts, released the Los Angeles Shared-Mobility Climate and Equity Action Plan (available here). Another L.A. first, the Action Plan aims to leverage shared mobility as a tool to address climate change and inequitable access to transport.

Data management: cities’ new toolkit

So how can L.A.’s elected leaders stay in control while novel shared mobility services enter its transport market? The city government has found that the answer lies in data. On the one hand, access to the data generated by the service providers enables LADoT to gain a comprehensive picture of how shared mobility is used in L.A.. On the other hand, the technical capacity to handle data enables authorities to communicate with service providers in real time and use digital language to enforce rules and regulations. 

“We’re leveraging the innovative spirit that has defined our city for generations,” says Ms. Reynolds. “We’re using it to plan 21st century streets for all Angelenos, with a focus on creating more options and more access.”

In 2018, L.A. unveiled the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a data and API standard that allows the city to gather, analyse, and compare real-time data from shared mobility operators. Realising the need to go beyond L.A., MDS is now governed by the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), a multi-city-led governance body. MDS has now been taken up by more than 80 cities around the world.

“The genius of MDS is that it allows cities to put out machine-readable regulations,” says Philippe Crist, Innovation and Foresight Advisor at the International Transport Forum. “This allows much better control of these app-based platforms by public authorities. Imagine it like information from a street sign but in a more instant digital form.”

Using algorithms to manage mobility services has a lot of potential to improve cities’ ability to better enforce rules. For example, digitally-coded instructions can help ensure that e-scooters are parked properly and do not become obstacles. They can also declare certain roads off-limits to vehicles in the event of road works, a demonstration, or an on-going emergency.

“We have to create a digital set of management tools,” Marcel Porras, Chief Sustainability Officer at LADoT, told Smart Cities Drive in a recent interview: “Our Mobility Data Specification provides the foundation for [it].”

Shared mobility can do more than take pressure off the city’s roads, the L.A. Department of Transportation believes. It can also bring meaningful equity benefits. Porras describes this as a critical question for cities when it comes to managing shared mobility: “How do we equitably distribute resources?”

Access to data is the first step, as it can make the needs of citizens more transparent. The second step involves ensuring innovative transport services are not only made available to customers with deeper pockets than others. Again, algorithmic regulation may be able to help ensure that ride-hailing operators serve all of the city’s neighbourhoods, not just the more prosperous or safer ones. For example, a city government of the – perhaps not so distant – future could require a specified minimum number of automated shared vehicles to serve select geographic areas.

ITF’s Philippe Crist thinks it is likely that “machine-readable regulations could require operators to meet certain equity-based key performance indicators”. This kind of regulatory environment “requires different, and digital, building blocks than those we are used to,” Crist explains. “And all of this is ultimately in the hands of cities.” 

This article is part one of a series on Shared Mobility in Practice, which looks at how cities around the world are incorporating innovative transport solutions in real life, today. Shared mobility is one of the central transport disruptions explored in the 2019 ITF Transport Outlook. It is also one of the ITF’s key research areas. More information on the ITF’s work on this subject can be found here: www.itf-oecd.org/itf-work-shared-mobility