How Cities Can Prevent Mobility Wars

can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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Lyft wants to erect a walled garden in New York City. While that sounds like a lovely addition for New Yorkers to enjoy more greenery, that’s far from the case. Created by tech-billionaire John Malone, the term means limiting information or access to users for the purpose of preventing them doing business with other companies.

  • In New York City, Lyft cut off Transit, a transportation app aggregator, from including Citi Bike.
  • The feud points out the weaknesses in how cities currently deal with mobility companies.
  • With the current, haphazard way cities negotiate, rideshare companies are getting the upper hand.
  • If rideshare companies rather than cities are dictating terms, citizens lose.

CityLab explains how Lyft did exactly that to the Montreal-based startup Transit, an app designed to allow users to see various transit options in one place. For example, instead of having to download and browse several different apps, such as Lyft, Bird and Jump to plan a trip, Transit allows you to access those apps all in one place.  In essence, it’s a transportation aggregator.

The Transit app interface before Lyft pulled Citi Bike from its platform. (Photo: Transit)

Rideshares don’t want to share

In an effort to create one-stop transportation shopping and capture more business, rideshare services such as Lyft and Uber are buying up micromobility companies. Last year in April, Uber bought electric bike company Jump. Lyft  followed suit a few months later in July with the acquisition of Motivate. The largest operator of bikeshare systems in North America, Motivate owns and operates Citi Bike. And, here’s where the seeds of the clash began.

Before acquisition by Lyft, Motivate had signed an agreement with Transit that would allow the app to unlock Citi Bikes. However, once the ink dried and Lyft officially owned Citi Bike, the integration onto Transit’s platform never happened. In May of this year, Lyft integrated Citi Bike into its functionality, allowing people to unlock the bikes within the app. With this move, Citi Bike achieved phenomenal ridership numbers, hitting a record 90,000 riders in one day.

Tired of waiting for Lyft to make good on its agreement with Motivate, Transit went ahead last month and turned on the Citi Bike application program interface (API), which allowed Transit users to book rides on Citi Bike. None too happy with the audacious startup going ahead without its blessing, Lyft shut it down within three days.

The bigger issue

While the clash between Lyft and Transit might seem like an isolated battle, it points to another larger and more important issue: accessibility to a variety of mobility options. When Lyft removed Citi Bike from Transit’s platform, it cut off Transit app users from a potentially vital link in choosing a greener option to get to their destination. And, if users can’t access Citi Bike, that could also crush Transit financially.

Lyft acquired Citi Bike and integrated the app into into its system. (Photo: Lyft)

Both companies subscribe to the philosophy of Mobility-as-a service (MaaS). But, as usual, most business skirmishes come down to dollars and cents. Uber and Lyft want to keep you on their platforms to buy their services. They don’t want to share revenue with aggregators, such as Citymapper and Whim that pull together a variety of apps without shelling out big bucks to own mobility companies themselves.

CityLab points out the higher level conundrum that taxpayers subsidized bikeshare systems and now companies that own them are trying to limit their access to them. In addition, the situation brings up the question of how much should cities get involved with helping its residents plan and book trips when there are companies competing in the same space.

Lack of a city standard

In each city they operate, Lyft has a bikeshare contract, but there is no standard for how to handle data access. The language varies. If the terms aren’t ironclad about making data available to everyone, cities can find their hands tied when Lyft and potentially other rideshare companies pull a move like this.

With a first-of-its-kind program, Columbus, Ohio has taken over the mobility reins with its “Smart City” project. In partnership with Siemens Mobility and Bytemark, it will bring together all transportation apps under one roof in a single payment system. By taking charge of managing mobility, Columbus can make its own rules to best serve its citizens’ mobility needs. As a result, it doesn’t have to worry about ending up at the mercy of a war between players in the mobility space.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Deep pocket mobility companies are moving into cities and prioritizing financial goals over serving the public. Cities could bypass the conflicting agendas by implementing their own systems, and only allowing mobility companies that play by the rules to participate.


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can be reached at meehna@gmail.com
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