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Lacuna recently raised $16 million to help cities build digital twins to better manage and monetize transit networks. The new funding brings the total investment in Lacuna to $33.5 million. This may seem like a lot of money for a company that essentially creates a modern SimCity for traffic. But the real value comes from allowing cities to create new revenue streams and incentivize new services for public benefit. Lacuna enables cities to iterate and experiment with digital tollbooths and dynamic policy enforcement mechanisms.
Lacuna competes in the larger market for government digital twins, currently led by geographic information system (GIS) tools providers such as Esri. Lacuna CEO Hugh Martin told VentureBeat, “The tools we create manage these municipal assets and enable reservation and use systems that are revenue-generating. While Esri and GIS have great uses for planning, they are not designed for dynamic operations like e-scooter management, curb management, and urban aerial mobility.”
The tragedy of the transit commons
The investment also points to the role that dynamic transportation policies could play in reclaiming our transit commons from the unintended consequences of new services such as micro-mobility, ride-sharing, drone deliveries, and consumer navigation services. In a letter to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Martin argued that these services amount to a new category of digital signage. The digital backbone of these services essentially controls traffic at scale in ways that are more aligned with corporate profit and individual convenience than public benefit.
The net result is a tragedy of the transit commons in which Waze guides massive traffic down tiny side streets, scooters threaten pedestrians and block sidewalks, Ubers and Lyfts clog downtown streets, and delivery vehicles block ongoing traffic. These services increasingly operate on electricity, which means they do not pay the gas taxes that fund road and sidewalk improvement.
Traditional traffic and policy enforcement mechanisms such as meters, signs, tickets, and fines cannot keep up with rapid changes in traffic from these new services. New digital policy enforcement mechanisms will be required to create dynamic policies that align commercial interests with the common benefit. Martin told VentureBeat that Lacuna provides cities with the open source tools they need to ensure commercial deployments align with public policy.
Building digital twin for L.A.
When e-scooters first showed up in L.A. in 2018, they jammed the streets and the sidewalks and were left in chaotic piles. The city worked with Ellis & Associates, a Lacuna subsidiary, to implement a digital twin for measuring usage and managing special operations zones in areas like the Venice Beach neighborhood that reduced complaints by 73%. This new digital twin also helped identify inequity in scooter availability in lower-income and disadvantaged communities.
While other cities placed outright limits on the number of scooters and the companies that could manage them, L.A.’s transit digital twin allowed a more dynamic approach to align the interests of these services with the transit commons. The city created a program that allowed any company to deploy as many scooters as they wanted within a 503-mile area. But they had to submit verifiable data to the L.A. Department of Transportation using the new mobility data specification (MDS).
MDS defines application programming interfaces (APIs) that standardize and automate the types and formats of data that commercial mobility operators submit to cities to streamline the process. MDS also includes features for protecting individual privacy.
This allowed city policymakers to identify what was working and what was not. Over time, they crafted 110 digital policies that helped enforce public interest to enable service providers to innovate new services in a way that aligned with shared interests.
Scaling transit innovation
L.A. condensed its template into MDS, a new open source software and open data specification managed by the Open Mobility Foundation. The Rockefeller and Knight foundations fund the group, which allows it to license MDS to public entities for free. As a result, hundreds of cities around the world have already signed on to use MDS.
“This rapid adoption demonstrates the scale of the impact this technology is already having in driving municipal digital transformation,” Martin said.
The group has also begun exploring ways these digital twins could facilitate new processes. For example, a reserved curb management program could improve delivery services, reduce congestion, and enhance safety. Down the road, airports may serve as incubators for new transit services and management schemes. “We’ve found that in many cases airports have the same challenges as cities, but in a compacted space and with more flexibility to iterate on new approaches,” Martin said.
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