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The Transport Revolution Will Be Digitized

It’s time for cities to build their digital transport infrastructure to ensure a more efficient, sustainable and equitable future for their residents.

From ride-sharing to dock-less scooters to autonomous vehicles, the way we move around cities is fundamentally changing. The tools cities use to ensure movement is safe, orderly, sustainable, and equitable need to change, too. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we are excited to support the launch of the Open Mobility Foundation, a city-led initiative to develop advanced technology that could become a cornerstone of urban transport.

Twenty years ago, there were a handful of urban vehicles: public transit (buses and subways), taxis and limousines operating largely independently, and private cars or bicycles. Today, these have been joined by a broad set of digitally enabled options.

Docked bikes, app-hailed rideshare fleets and car-sharing operations using designating parking have already become commonplace in urban settings. In the past five years, shared vehicle fleets that scatter cars, bicycles, and scooters across cities have joined the fray. Autonomous vehicles and unmanned drones on land and in the air will soon join them.

Amidst these changes, cities still have the same jobs: to promote safe and swift movement and to provide transport options that ensure everyone can take advantage of what their city has to offer. These are joined by the urgent need to cut carbon emissions.

The Open Mobility Foundation’s mission is to build standards and tools that cities need to bring the management of urban transport into the digital age. The heart of OMF is the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a set of standards first created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. MDS defines how a mobility operator sends information about the location and status of a vehicle to the city, and how the city transmits information and instructions back to providers.

For example, cities can use MDS to monitor agreements with providers that specify that a certain proportion of vehicles be placed in neighborhoods where the poor and most vulnerable live, to ensure more equitable access. MDS also allows cities to collect detailed, real-time data about transportation demand. Using this data to optimize insight, public transport and infrastructure will be crucial to meeting ambitious equity and environmental goals like New York State’s proposal for net zero emissions by 2050.

New uses for MDS are on the horizon. Public transport could respond instantly to demand, rerouting vehicles to connect people to jobs away from today’s transport hubs. The congestion charges that cities now implement with flat fees over broad zones, could instead be tweaked block by block and moment to moment for better traffic flow and emissions reductions.

Los Angeles is donating MDS to the OMF to develop as freely available open-source code, backed by a founding coalition of more than thirteen global cities. Cities will lead the OMF, but private sector members committed to digital cooperation on transit will also contribute to the OMF and MDS. Any city will be then be able to apply MDS to their own local priorities.

Collecting any location data, even if anonymized, creates the risk that data could be misused to invade individuals’ privacy. Yet cities can’t simply abandon their responsibilities as transport goes digital—they must build the capacity to both use this data and vigorously protect privacy. The OMF provides a way for cities to work with each other and privacy advocates to make this happen.

The OMF points toward an exciting future for both urban transport and the way government works. Today’s transport regulations are written down, communicated through signs and paint, and updated every few years or decades. That risks missing out on the potential of technology and falling behind today’s challenges. OMF represents a bold alternative vision in which governments build the capacity to sense and respond in real time to advance safety, sustainability, and equity in our urban centers.

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