Illustration: Shira Inbar

Uber has troves of data on how people navigate cities. Urban planners have begged, pleaded, and gone to court for access. Will they ever get it?

Grace Dobush
Published in
14 min readSep 9, 2019


Joe Castiglione compares his job to playing SimCity.

As the deputy director for technology, data, and analysis at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, Castiglione spends his days manipulating models of the Bay Area and its 7 million residents.

From wide-sweeping ridership and traffic data to deep dives into personal travel choices via surveys, his models are able to estimate the number of people who will disembark at a specific train platform at a certain time of day and predict how that might change if a new housing development is built nearby, or if train-frequency is increased.

The models are exceedingly complex, because people are so complex. “Think about the travel choices you’ve made in the last week, or the last year,” Castiglione says. “How do you time your trips? What tradeoffs do you make? What modes of transportation do you use? How do those choices change from day to day?” He has the deep voice of an NPR host and the demeanor of a patient professor. “The models are complex but highly rational,” he says.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority participates in planning across the nine counties of the Bay Area, considering current issues like congestion pricing, while also creating plans decades into the future. To build models of the 25 million trips Bay residents take every day, Castiglione and his team process a lot of publicly available datasets for many modes of transportation: private cars, buses, trains, bicycles, going by foot. But one growing gap in the data is the footprint of ride-hailing services like Uber.

If regional agencies had that data, they could add public transit routes or adjust service times to offer more incentives to get people out of cars and onto trains and buses. What Castiglione craves is an anonymized dataset of all Uber rides with the origin and destination ZIP codes, dates, and times. San Francisco agencies right now are working on plans for $100 billion in transportation improvements like tunnels, bridges, and rail lines. “What happens in the absence of data,” Castiglione says, “is the risk that we make poor…