Read more articles by Betsy Gardner

By Betsy Gardner • February 18, 2020

New York City is the biggest city in America, and the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) is tasked with making sure that the movement of people and goods happens in a safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible way. Guided by their most recent strategic plan, from 2016, the DOT is committed to making sure that the city operates in a way that is “safe, green, smart, and equitable.” 

Headshot of Polly Trottenberg
Image from NYC Department of Transportation. 


As the New York City Transportation Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, who graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School in 1992, facilitates these goals by working with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), rideshare companies, taxi drivers, and dockless bike companies. According to Commissioner Trottenberg, the DOT identifies issue areas and measures progress by collecting an “extraordinary” amount of data, both from internal and external partners. The ultimate goal of this data collection? Influencing policy in alignment with what she describes as “a far-reaching set of social goals.” The DOT wants to make sure that transit provides all New Yorkers with access to education, services, and economic opportunity, regardless of income, where they live, or their physical abilities.


In a conversation with Commissioner Trottenberg, Senior Director for Special Projects Will Carry, and Department of Transportation official Kyle Yakal-Kremski, Data-Smart learned how the NYC DOT navigates data sharing, manages relationships, and influences transit policy. Read on to learn how cities can work with external partners and use governmental levers to achieve social goals. 

Keep equity at the center:

The DOT brings its focus on equitable mobility access to its partnerships with new mobility partners, like Lyft and Citi Bike. The DOT makes sure to build this priority into its contracts; in the original contract with Citi Bike, the city’s bikeshare system, the department made sure there were discounts for housing authority residents. The equity requirements have since expanded to include better access, and community engagement has helped promote bikes as a cheap and healthy mode of transport. With the city's carshare program, the DOT requires that 20 percent of on-street spaces and vehicles be in areas with statistically low incomes. Since the department has income and equity data, they can provide the basic value requirements and identify gaps in the new mobility networks.

Utilize city levers:

The city can utilize levers to negotiate and shape the data agreements with these companies. For example, Lyft (which recently acquired Citi Bike operator Motivate) is required to give the DOT all its bike and dock availability data in real time. The information is open source and available to the public, and includes operations data so that the city knows that bikes are safe and have been recently inspected. As Commissioner Trottenberg explains, the city has a trust-but-verify policy with the data provided by the new mobility companies to ensure that the city has accurate information. 


The Commissioner knows that NYC is one of the most unique cases in the country in terms of its ability to collect data. There is no preempting state TNC law, and the DOT works closely with the Taxi and Limousine Commision (TLC), which has the power to collect data from companies like Uber and Lyft. Although those TNCs initially tried to enter as mobility disruptors, the TLC had the authority to set them onto the taxi and limousine regulatory framework. Once they were in that pathway, the DOT could work with the TLC to collect data, including detailed information on trips, ride origin and destination, and whether the driver’s app was on or off. Although it wasn’t always a smooth process, the city knew that gathering this data would allow them to maintain their social equity goals. They utilize the TNC information to make sure overly-fatigued drivers aren’t on the streets, and to ensure that drivers are fairly compensated in accordance with the city’s minimum pay rules.

Understand points of alignment:

The companies also have levers, and can work with the city to exert influence in accordance with city equity goals. For instance, the Bike Angels program is a type of gamification from Citi Bike, which rewards riders “who improve the availability of bikes and docks for fellow riders.” Senior Director Will Carry lives at the top of a hill in the city. Citi Bike rewards his arduous bike ride home, to a dock that is usually empty, with Angel Points. In this way, the bikes are more equitably spread throughout the city and the riders are nudged to assist with disbursement, instead of relying on companies to drive the bikes around.   


However, the new mobility companies and the city are not always aligned. The DOT is responsible to city residents, while the private mobility companies are responsible to shareholders and investors. This can create tension around things data sharing, privacy, and employment practices. The economic realities of the new mobility companies are a consideration for Trottenberg, who tries to accommodate both their needs and the needs of city residents; “if we load them up with too many social goals and demand, it makes it even harder for them ever to turn a profit.” 

Know the whole landscape:

Commissioner Trottenberg wants to make sure that New Yorkers, particularly those with lower incomes, have access to a reliable and fast transportation network. But she is realistic about the investment this will take, particularly when she compares new mobility companies to the NYC subway. One statistic she gives compares the city’s L train to the six East River crossings; during morning rush hours, the L train moves more people than the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and the Queensboro Bridge combined. “Nothing moves people like that,” she says, “so when you talk about transit deserts, you have to start with that.” 


Trottenberg is dedicated to ensuring equitable and efficient mobility for all New Yorkers, in line with broader city equity goals. Her clear vision of the NYC mobility network, and its potential to improve economic and social mobility, is due in large part to her attention to data. As Commissioner, she is charged with making the mayoral equity goals a reality, and the lessons above are her keys for success.