Piloting The Pulse with Austin’s Dockless Bikeshare Program

Kicking off The Pulse of Austin

Last week, Kaley and I launched our first round of content for The Pulse of Austin. On Day 1, Tuesday April 10th, 16 Austinites engaged with us via SMS about the city’s dockless bikeshare & electric scooter pilot. Our content framed the narrative around rider data, and we asked for input on two key issues: transparency and privacy. Other questions and points came up along the way, too – all reported below.

Note: we sent this report to Laura Dierenfield, the city’s Active Transportation Program Manager who is running the dockless pilot. She had some additional information to share on the current (docked) B-cycle system:

“We are actively expanding our station-based Austin B-Cycle system in several ways. The Austin City Council authorized $200,000 towards that end, per Resolution 20180201-057. We have also taken steps to expand the system in and around the UT campus.” 

Laura Dierenfield, Active Transportation Program Manager, City of Austin
Laura Dierenfield, Active Transportation Program Manager, City of Austin

Ridership Data Transparency

The City plans to privatize their dockless bikeshare and scootershare operations, rather than making them part of the city’s public B-cycle service. This means that the city will not have ownership over ridership data. Dockless bikes could provide particularly granular data on where Austinites are biking, helping to prioritize biking infrastructure. However, a lot of dockless bike companies will not make this data open.

Ofo, one of ten companies Austin is considering, even reported false data in Aurora, Colorado, claiming 2.5 daily rides per bike, when they were really clocking 0.18 daily rides.

Should Austin’s selected provider(s) be required to share their ridership data? What level of transparency is important?

Ofo Bike
Ofo Bike

People almost unanimously agreed that the city should have access to ridership data.

(see argument for tradeoff below)

“Data should be 100% open–the value of how (and if) people are using different transportation options may be worth more than the service itself.” -78723 resident

“Ridership data needs to be available.” – 78702 resident

“Transparency is important to me.” -78723 resident

“They should definitely share the data.” -78705 resident

bikeshareinput

“I think transparency is very important on this issue. The city is actively trying to gather more robust data when it comes to bike ridership and partnering with a bikeshare company could provide a lot of useful insight.” -78705 resident

Q: Due to FOIA risk, could companies report data to a third party collector that anonymizes and shares with CoA?

Yes, this is what Seattle has done to ensure riders’ privacy with the data they publish. The University of Washington acts as their intermediary, collecting all the data and sending the city reports that have been reviewed for compliance.

seattle dockless diagram

Thoughts on payment

“Feels like city should need to pay for this data – like they do to Strava right now.” -78702 resident

“I think that any entity receiving public funding should be required to make valid information, in this case daily ridership, publicly available.” -78722 resident

Q: What currently happens with B-cycle data?

Currently, anonymized B-cycle trip data is available on Austin’s Open Data platform.

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https://data.austintexas.gov/Transportation-and-Mobility/Austin-B-Cycle-Trips/tyfh-5r8s

Rider Privacy + Scope of Data Collection

Rider tracking and data sales

In addition to control over ridership data, some dockless bike companies track users even when they are not using the bikes, reserving the right to sell that data to third parties. Austin riders could become our provider’s key source of income.

On the other hand, monetizing user data could result in lower bike rental rates for residents. We are living in an age where so many products we use track us and store our data. Is bikeshare one service on which we need to draw the line? Residents weighed in:

“Not sure. All of my fitness tracking apps are already tracking and selling all my data already. If it’s anonymous, maybe it’s par for the course.” -78702 resident

hudsonmessage

“Given the currently political climate I would say having bikes that give away data would be a very poor move for the city. Personally, I wouldn’t use a system that stored my data, feels really creepy.” – 78702 resident

“Oooh [the non-bike trip tracking] is devious and gross. Def strong dislike on that.” -78722 resident

“Protect privacy.” -78705 resident

How peripheral data could improve the service

“I think limiting data collection to when users have the app open would be a good way to regulate it. It could be useful to know where people are when they decide to look for a bike – at transit stops? At community gathering places?” -78705 resident

Alternatives to selling data

“I think an alternative way to keep lower prices could be to either sell advertising space on the bikes to third party companies or provide incentives to bike share companies if they keep their costs below a certain threshold.” – 78705 resident

Private vs. Public – why privatize now?

Revenue vs. Investment

Privatization would mean less or no capital investment on the part of the city, and they would even get fees from the companies (estimated at $30 per bike). The city may also require the companies to put up a bond.

Data Access vs. Investment

angelica message

Social Impact

Being public has given Austin B-cycle the leverage to create $5 annual memberships for low-income Austinites, and now free memberships for UT Austin students.

Next Steps

The City of Austin is engaging with the community through the end of April. The Pulse will continue to update its users on any progress with the pilot!

City-run open houses:

  • Monday, April 16 – 6-7 p.m., Willie Mae Kirk Library, 3101 Oak Springs Dr.
  • Saturday, April 21 – 12 p.m., Earth Day ATX, Huston-Tillotson University, 900 Chicon St.
  • Saturday, April 28 – 2:30-4 p.m., Twin Oaks Library,1800 South 5th St.

Mobility Committee Meeting, April 17th – 3-4pm, City Hall

Get on The Pulse

Fill out the super short form on our website, pulseofaustin.org, to be in the know on happenings in Austin and weigh in.