Data for Sustainable Urban Mobility: Views from Germany and the United States


Data and digital technologies can support the transition to greener and more equitable urban transportation systems. This transatlantic project looks at how public-private data-sharing and seamless mobility across transportation modes can support cities in reaching their climate and inclusion goals – across very different regulatory systems.

Hintergrundbild Mobilitätsstudie

Urban mobility is at the center of debates over reducing emissions and socioeconomic inequity. Climate change and congestion of urban space are pushing auto-centric countries to reimagine and reshape their mobility systems. All over the world, urban residents are demanding easy and equitable access to places of education, employment, and other services as well as livable public spaces. Access to clean, safe, and reliable transportation is key to achieving these twin urban goals of sustainability and equity.

Both Germany and the United States have failed to substantially decrease their CO2 emissions in the transport sector since 1990. The way cities use data and digital technologies in their transportation systems can play an important role in both countries’ efforts to get on track.

Two policy papers, presented by the Eno Center for Transportation and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, develop specific recommendations for the United States and Germany, building on current mobility trends and existing frameworks. Across systems, the authors agree on the need to expand the availability of mobility data, while striving for harmonization and adopting strict safeguards for data privacy and security. This includes creating regulatory and governance systems that facilitate secure exchange of mobility data among various stakeholders with the objective to improve sustainability and equity.

Data on passenger movements, vehicle fleets, fare payments, and transportation infrastructure has immense potential to inform cities to better plan, regulate, and enforce their urban mobility systems. In addition, internet access via mobile phones has given rise to new mobility services. These may be interlinked by Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platforms to facilitate seamless journeys across several modes of transportation.

Local solutions in the U.S., centralized approach in Germany

The U.S. and the EU are taking different paths towards using mobility data and MaaS platforms for the common good. In the U.S., solutions are developed at a local level – with cities acting as labs for local experimentation, whereas the EU and Germany are moving towards comprehensive data-sharing mandates for transport operators and private actors. In the U.S., cities and states are using mobility data to better enforce safety, sustainability, and equity in the private mobility sector. The German debate is focused on the reduction of cars and their use by facilitating intermodal alternatives such as bikesharing and on-demand ridepooling.

There are no specific laws for shared micromobility (e.g. e-scooters or bikesharing) in the U.S., but many cities have used their authority to force providers to share data with the cities as part of the permit or contracting process. They have struggled to do the same with ride-hailing companies (such as Uber or Lyft), for which most U.S. cities don’t have the same regulatory authority. The situation is similar in Germany, where cities have used a combination of methods, including MoU or special use permits (for micromobility, carsharing) or procurement processes (for public transport) to obtain data on mobility services. Cities in both countries, even when they can access data from private mobility service providers, struggle to use the available data as the task of data access, integration, and analysis exceeds their resources.

At the EU-level, the European Strategy for Data, provides a push to develop a commercial mobility data marketplace for exchanging data among stakeholders from different branches such as mobility, health or the energy sector. Germany recently launched the Mobility Data Space, a commercial mobility data-sharing community aiming to standardize data formats, contracting and security. Contrastingly, in the U.S., federal or centralized efforts to integrate mobility data and facilitate secure exchange of mobility data among different stakeholders are limited. The US Department of Transportation has established the Secure Data Commons (SDC), which allows data providers and data analysts to share data based on individual agreements, usually within the frame of time-bound research projects.

Public-private data sharing for better planning and services

Data sharing is an important instrument for furthering sustainable and equitable mobility outcomes. Under the right regulatory and incentive framework, cities can use data to make trips more efficient, minimize the usage of single-occupancy vehicles, prioritize sustainable modes of transport, and enable a transition to zero and low-emission fuels. They can also improve access and equity by offering a range of transportation services that serve all people, irrespective of their gender, physical abilities, economic power, and geographic location.

Ridership data from ride-hailing companies, for example, can inform cities about whether they are replacing sustainable transport trips, resulting in an increase in congestion and emissions. Such data can further be used for designing targeted emission reduction programs such as a congestion fee program or to plan high-quality sustainable transport services to reduce car trips. Similarly, mobility data can also be used to plan on-demand services in sparsely populated and transit-poor neighborhoods, where fixed transit services are very expensive.

Shared mobility data are not only relevant for transportation planning, but also for creating seamless mobility options for users through so-called Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platforms. These platforms allow for trip planning across transportation modes (including public transit, ride-hailing and micromobility). MaaS solutions can reduce dependency on private car usage by making transportation services more versatile, reliable, and convenient.

In Germany, public transport companies are at the center of mobility provision, at least in cities. They started expanding their services in the last years by introducing bike sharing and on-demand ride-pooling services under their labels and by offering integrated routing and ticketing. Many private mobility service providers – which have vested interest in a good relationships with the cities that regulate them – “voluntarily” cooperate with the publicly owned platforms yet engage in tough negotiations about integration costs and service areas.

Aside from the publicly owned platforms, a few private platforms have also emerged in Germany. Most notable is the platform FreeNow (founded by Daimler and BMW), which is available in 150 cities in several European countries. FreeNow revolves around auto-mobility services but also includes micromobility and one regional public transport provider in Germany.

In the U.S., there have been efforts at the federal, state, and local level to launch technology tools that can help in modal integration and the adoption of MaaS. Yet most cities and their public transit providers do not currently offer an online ticketing platform. The most recent comprehensive MaaS tool (Move PGH) was launched in Pittsburgh through a partnership among the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), electric scooter provider (Spin), car-share provider (Zipcar), electric mopeds provider (Scoobi), and carpool service provider (Waze Carpool). This is supplemented by setting up of “mobility hubs,” places that physically connect different modes of transportation. In the absence of wider legal mandates that require data sharing, a significant challenge for U.S. cities has been negotiating data access with private service providers, especially with ride-hailing companies, which typically don’t support trip-planning applications that would lead to price comparison with their competitors.

Addressing data risks: Privacy harms, bias, and rebound effects

Mobility data has immense potential to help cities realize their vision of making transportation safe, efficient, environmentally sustainable, and equitable. The reports by Eno and Wuppertal advocate for broader sharing of mobility data and the expansion of multimodal MaaS platforms – provided that several risks and concerns are fully addressed:

Personal data must not be put at risk. Protecting people’s privacy and security is a priority for any type of data sharing, mobility data included. While a lot of transportation data is non-personal, this changes when ride-hailing or micromobility providers provide access to individual trip data. In many instances, with sufficient data points, mobility data can be easily de-anonymized when supplemented with external datasets that contain personal information.
In the EU, personal data falls under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This means that it can only be used with user consent or under certain conditions. The data subjects need to be informed which data is stored about them and how they can request its deletion. Any collector or processor of mobility data must investigate potential threats to the data subjects and send a respective report to the regional data protection officer. But the GDPR is not very exact with regard to mobility data, and differing judgements on the same data processing in different German states have left companies confused.
The situation can be even trickier in the absence of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States. As of March 2023, 6 U.S. states have passed comprehensive privacy laws that define obligations of businesses and rights of the consumers to opt out of collection and sale of information. Further, at least 32 states in the U.S. require state agencies and other government entities to employ data security measures.  Yet most of these laws do not apply to local governments. In this vacuum, cities have adopted their own policies and guidelines.
Multimodal mobility should not promote car dominance. Under certain circumstances, car-based mobility services such as car-sharing or ride-hailing can create rebound effects by increasing rather than decreasing the carbon footprint of urban transportation. This happens when car trips replace sustainable transport trips (public transport, walking, biking, etc.) or when ride-sharing services make empty journeys made to pick up or drop off passengers.
Similarly, trip-planning tools can run counter to sustainability goals when they prioritize car-based transport. One policy solution could be to oblige or encourage MaaS platform providers to inform customers on the CO2 emissions of their trips, as in the eco-friendly routing options on Google Maps.
However, on-demand ridepooling and carsharing also offer the potential to reduce car journeys and ownership. On-demand ridepooling may bundle several rides and allow for covering the last mile between trains and homes in sparsely populated areas. For people who only need a car for a few trips per week, carsharing or ridepooling may allow them to give up their private vehicle. Car-based mobility services should be integrated in applications that promote ecologically beneficial options but provide different solutions for different needs.

Mobility data and MaaS apps must not exclude vulnerable groups. MaaS apps and the data that fuel them will have to be adjusted for bias before they can serve as means for inclusive transportation planning. In their current form, micro-mobility services such as e-scooters and bike-sharing are usually not suitable for transporting children and shopping, or for unaccompanied trips by children and disabled people. However, on-demand ridepooling and ridehailing often offer local pickup and accessible vehicles, so they can offer great mobility gains for mobility-impaired people and relieve those doing care work.

Mobility data can also be biased against certain user groups. For example, using data from location-based services for planning and decision-making over-represents people with access to mobile phones and internet services. Transit agencies and cities using such data to assess demand and make planning decisions may end up making policies that favor a minority of users if they don’t use other complementary datasets to triangulate their data.

Better data use to empower citizens and relieve stress on systems

The availability, access, and use of mobility data in the U.S. and Germany differs due to different regulatory and mobility governance systems. In Germany, new EU or national laws may establish nationwide standards for mobility data-sharing and availability as well as comprehensive MaaS-platforms that include all providers of mobility services in the country. In the federal U.S. context, progress is more likely to emanate from cooperation among cities.

What becomes clear from both reports is that a better availability of mobility data gives cities the tools to develop evidence-based strategies toward reach their climate and inclusion goals. Mobility-as-a-Service platforms can furthermore empower all citizens to reach their destinations in a way that reduces stress on the system and on individuals. If governments and the private sector innovate to expand secure data sharing while minimizing its risks, mobility data can help improve the quality of urban life, minimize the environmental impact of human mobility and make transport more accessible to all.