Updated: Thursday, March 8, 2018, 5:24 PM
About 90,000 Uber and Lyft trips happen in Philadelphia every day.
At least, that’s the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s best guess.
The agency, which regulates the ride-hailing services, doesn’t know for sure, because the companies won’t say. The information that transportation experts, urban planners, and regulators have remains very limited, even as ride hailing creates new demands on city streets and new competition for public transit.
Uber and Lyft argue that secrecy protects riders’ privacy and protects information that could be valuable to competitors, but the PPA’s new top executive, Scott Petri, has said the confidentiality is so extensive that it limits his agency’s ability to regulate effectively.
“I don’t accept that argument,” said Petri, who wants legislators to change the taxing formula for ride hailing and taxis to generate more money to cover the PPA’s regulatory burden. “It doesn’t make logical sense to me. The regulator needs to know.”
Consider what government agencies and the public can’t easily find out about ride hailing:
The number of vehicles or drivers working in the city. Customer complaints. Detailed information on dispatch, routes traveled, busy times, and frequency of service in city neighborhoods. Detailed revenue information. Taxes on ride-hailing revenue generate money for both the PPA and the Philadelphia School District, but the only information Uber and Lyft provide is a gross receipts number, with no data to confirm the accuracy of that figure.
Petri has gone so far as to question whether the PPA can guarantee the safety of ride-hailing services without more funding and information. He highlighted customer complaints as a resource that could help his agency decide where to focus its efforts.
Uber and Lyft both submit to mandated inspections by the PPA, and say their own internal quality control system is an effective tool to ensure riders are safe.
Philadelphia officials’ frustration is shared by counterparts nationwide as the popular services are changing how people move around.
“This is about what do cities and states require … to carry out their functions?” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant based in New York City who has researched ride hailing’s effects there. “The states have simply failed because of the lobbying efforts of Uber and Lyft; to be sure, they’ve failed to put in the proper requirements.”
Indeed, in Pennsylvania, Uber and Lyft note correctly, their confidentiality violates no laws. The 2016 legislation that legalized ride hailing in the state gave the companies broad latitude to maintain confidentiality.
Uber and Lyft retained 23 lobbyists when the legislation passed, according to state lobbyist disclosure data. Taxi medallion owners, by contrast, had one lobbyist from one firm working on their behalf in Harrisburg, said Danielle Friedman, general counsel for the taxi company 215GetACab.
Uber executives said they have good reason to protect the details of their operations. Data about trips that become public could be used to identify individual customers, said Stephanie Bryson, the San Francisco tech company’s public policy manager. Uber does share data with private companies, which contractually agree the information won’t be shared. Government is more porous, she said, raising concerns that agencies would share data or a worker could leak it.
“We have a profound sense that we need to be reluctant,” she said.
Ride-hailing companies also say sharing data could hurt business. Information that shows, for example, where Uber has seen growth, is investing effort, or that gives insight into the quality of rides, could be used by Uber’s competitors.
“We have very sophisticated competitors all over the world,” said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. “There’s a lot to be gained from other people having that kind of fine-grained look.”
The PPA can get more detailed information about Uber or Lyft operations only as part of an investigation into a specific complaint about a driver or company. The enabling legislation was written to ensure that even if the PPA obtains detailed information, it is prohibited from sharing it — a protection not given to taxi companies also overseen by the PPA.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates ride-hailing services outside Philadelphia, cited initial issues when ride hailing services began operating in the state, but declined to say if they had concerns about whether state legislation provided access to enough information about the industry to effectively regulate it.
Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from Washington County, who sponsored the ride-hailing bill, did not respond to calls for comment. Petri, though, was a Republican representing Bucks County in the Pennsylvania House when the bill passed. He recalled that the popularity of ride hailing, which at the time was operating illegally in Philadelphia, created intense pressure on legislators to act and drowned out the PPA.
“The legislature was looking to satisfy the general public’s desire for this service,” said Petri, who voted in favor of the bill. “I just don’t think the regulator in any sense has a loud voice within the legislature.”
Petri argued that regulatory agencies could receive sensitive operational data without making that information public. But it isn’t just the regulators who want the information.
In 2016, SEPTA partnered with Uber from Memorial Day to Labor Day to offer discounted rides to some suburban Regional Rail stations. SEPTA was looking for a way to boost ridership and reduce the demand for limited parking at its train stops. At the end of the partnership, Uber refused to share any raw numbers about how many people took advantage of the discount, said Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of business innovation, though he added that SEPTA had no contract with Uber that would have mandated that the company provide data.
SEPTA hasn’t partnered with Uber since, even though ride hailing could play a valuable role in a determination to increase access to commuter rail. A partnership doesn’t make sense without data on its effectiveness, SEPTA officials said.
Philadelphia officials have been similarly rebuffed, said Christopher Puchalsky, the director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s transportation office. Ride-hailing data are critical to understanding how the industry affects traffic and transit, accessibility for disabled people, and mobility for minorities and people in outlying neighborhoods.
“We don’t want any personally identifiable information,” Puchalsky said. “I don’t want that data; I only want the aggregate data.”
New York City already gets the kind of data that people like Johanson and Puchalsky want. The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) there requires ride-hailing companies to register all drivers and vehicles; provide the date, time, and location of every passenger pickup and drop-off, and report whether a ride is a pool trip or not. That information is aggregated so nothing about individuals is included and made public, New York officials said.
“We’ve gone from formulating policy using more conventional means to an agency that now for the last few years has been able to make policy that is data-centric,” said Allan J. Fromberg, spokesman for the TLC, saying other city agencies also make extensive use of the data.
Uber executives say they recognize the value of their data and are open to exploring ways to share it. In Cincinnati, the company is experimenting with sharing data with a private company that will work with municipal agencies to produce reports. It is also expanding a resource that provides some trip data.
“Transit agencies would like to be empowered to be able to adjust to the future,” Uber’s Salzberg said. “What is that data set that would be most useful for transit that would meet the high bar we would set for privacy?”
Some cities are looking for ways around corporate secrecy. In San Francisco, officials teamed with academics to collect data on vehicle movements directly from the ride-hailing apps. Boston has tried extensive surveying of riders, Schaller said.
Another option, he said, comes from the era of private streetcar companies, which had to share information with cities because they ran on rails that were public rights-of-way. “It seems to me like cities could use their franchise authority to say, if you want to use our public streets, you have to submit this data to us,” Schaller said.
Philadelphia might consider some of those options if ride-hailing companies don’t become more open, Puchalsky said.
If the PPA’s head isn’t successful getting legislators to act soon, the law authorizing ride share operations in Pennsylvania expires in 2019, creating an opportunity to demand more information.
“There should be the opportunity for robust public discussion of these issues,” he said. “We should not have to rely on what a public agency decides to spend its resources looking at or not.”
This story has been updated to clarify the PUC’s comments.