Minneapolis Should Focus on Data When Selecting Car-Sharing Provider

As a transportation researcher and a student of urban planning at the University of Minnesota, I am interested to learn of the City Council’s current efforts to select a provider for a city-wide on-street car sharing service. On May 1, the Star Tribune reported that city staff had recommended that the Council “authorize staff to negotiate terms for a two-year agreement with Car2go N.A.”

Currently, a public debate has developed around the fairness of the City’s approach to selecting a company to run the pilot program. On May 3 the Star Tribune detailed HourCar’s response to the staff recommendation; the local company contends it is just as capable of providing on-street car sharing as the Daimler AG-owned Car2Go.

“On-street” car sharing programs are an exciting new approach to offering car-based mobility without requiring car ownership. From the user perspective, the most important feature of these programs is that cars do not have an assigned “home” — when you are done with your rented car, you just park in any legal space, log out, and walk away. I think that users will find that flexibility very appealing compared to traditional “assigned-space” car sharing programs like ZipCar and the locally-run HourCar. There is a lot more to say about the differences between these two types of system, and I’m sure we will also hear more about HourCar, Car2Go, and the city’s selection process.

But I think a different issue will, in the long run, have both broader and deeper implications for the future of innovative approaches to transportation in Minneapolis. I hope that Mayor Rybak and the City Council appreciate the importance of choosing a provider that is able to provide detailed data for use in research, analysis, and evaluation.

The flexibility provided by on-street car sharing services make then an exciting new development in urban transportation. As the City has recognized by pursuing a carefully-controlled pilot program, new systems must be evaluated thoroughly and methodically. This is especially important in an urban context, where both the benefits and the costs of new technologies will be experienced by many people.

Therefore, I call on Mayor Rybak and the City Council to ensure that any on-street car sharing program which operates in the City of Minneapolis is required to produce detailed data — not merely summaries or reports — which describe each trip made by a car-share vehicle.

User privacy is a critical concern. Public data should never allow identification of individual users without their consent. However, privacy concerns should not be used as a scapegoat to avoid collecting or releasing data. There are no technical barriers to producing useful data that does not identify individual users.

The staff recommendation of Car2Go cites that Car2Go was selected in part because “the size of the fleet will provide [a] large amount of user data.” I’m glad to see this, but I’m not satisfied. I hope that, regardless of what vendor is ultimately chosen, the City develops a contract that explicitly requires detailed per-trip data collection that will be available for public research and analysis. The city should require vendors to demonstrate plans for collecting, storing, and publishing this data in a manner that preserves user confidentiality.

The Twin Cities’ Nice Ride bike-share system provides an example of the value that can be gained by establishing this type of data source.. Nice Ride released data describing every trip made using the bike-share system in 2011 and 2012. The data were quickly analyzed by local researchers to gain insight into the patterns of bike-share use and the ways that bike-share stations support local businesses:

Without the data provided by Nice Ride, this and other knowledge would not be available to the citizens of Minneapolis. If the City selects an on-street car-sharing provider that does not provide similarly robust data, we will have missed an opportunity to thoroughly evaluate how car-sharing systems meet or miss the needs of Minneapolis residents, and to expand our broader understanding of transportation systems.


Andrew Owen

About Andrew Owen

Andrew Owen is the director of the Accessibility Observatory (http://access.umn.edu) and a research fellow in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota.