New Yorkers are typically a misanthropic lot, but Uber is finding success in convincing a growing number to share rides with complete strangers. In the last week of October, around 50,000 New Yorkers took UberPool rides, double the number from a similar period two months ago. And now Uber is testing a system where customers are asked to walk a few blocks to a more optimal pick-up location.
This is sort of analogous to the new bus-style "Smart Routes" the ride-hailing company is piloting in San Francisco, which has led some to ponder whether Uber is interested in getting into the business of public transportation. Earlier this year, CEO Travis Kalanick spoke about the concept of a "perpetual" trip, with pickups and drop-offs synchronized in such a way so that a driver's car is never empty.
Uber, but for buses
Uber says carpooling is not its play to compete with subways and buses — and really, with 5.56 million people riding New York City's subway system every day, it's not much of a competition — but about taking more cars off the road through matched rides. Customer who opt into UberPool get 25 percent off their fare, and can see their fare price upfront. By comparison, UberX riders only see their fares at the end of the trip.
But if Uber continues to convince more people to share rides with each other, and the company's automatic routing system grows more precise, it's easy to imagine a future where a fleet of minivans or charter buses using Uber's platform are transporting herds of commuters to and from work everyday, alongside subways, buses, dollar vans, and other modes of transportation. Last week, Uber unveiled a new feature to allow party hosts to purchase rides for their guests in bulk, a subtle sign of the company's intent to muscle in on the lucrative party bus industry.
"It seems there is a continuum of transportation services from bus to jitney to taxi to luxury car. Uber is wisely filling in many of those gaps by utilizing its scalable dispatching system," said Evan Rawley, an associate professor at Columbia University who studies ride-sharing. "On the margin, yes, a ‘pooled' ride competes with public transit, but UberPool and transit services are not direct competitors for a wide range of riders and situations.
"Many people will routinely opt for the lowest price transportation service no matter what," Rawley added. "Indeed, one could imagine UberPool and transit could be complements in many circumstances. For example, if UberPool solves the ‘last mile' problem for people who use transit to get near a destination."
"I sense we've hit a breaking point."
Josh Mohrer, Uber's New York City general manager, agreed that UberPool should be seen more as a "useful complement" to public transportation rather than a legit alternative. He noted that in 2009, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to convince strangers to share yellow cab rides, but wasn't successful because the city lacked the technology to make it work. Today, Uber has the technology, and it's convinced carpooling will become the new, cool way to travel.
The company is eagerly sharing stories from satisfied riders about business opportunities, friendships, and possible love connections all forged during UberPool trips. But drivers tell a different story on message boards, where they complain about managing passenger expectations and the effect UberPool will have on their individual ratings, which can mean life or death for a driver on Uber's platform. "Uber pool is awkward uncomfortable and stupid," a driver from San Jose wrote on one popular message board last month. Other drivers said the service could pose security risks for female passengers who may not want other passengers to see where they are being dropped off.
Mohrer dismisses those complaints as unreliable anecdotes that don't reflect the reality, in which drivers who opt into UberPool earn more money and higher ratings from riders. But some of that extra cash for drivers appears to be coming from Uber itself rather than riders. Some customers choose the pool option but end up taking un-shared rides, which Uber considers "pool fails" because the rider gets the 25 percent discount while the driver is paid the full fare, with Uber covering the difference. "We just kind of eat it," Mohrer said. The numbers that Uber released Monday are just matched rides, and don't reflect any of those failed pool rides.
Mohrer promised the system will improve as more drivers and riders opt in. "I sense we've hit a breaking point," he said. "The match rate spiked, so the experience is better. The time people are being taken out of their way has shrunken down." Uber is piloting features that make suggestions about where should be picked up to increase the system's precision, he added. This echoes smaller scale pilots in San Francisco, where riders interested in mostly fixed rates can be picked up in special zones for rides between the city and other towns in Silicon Valley.
"The idea is in a grid full of one-way avenues and streets," Mohrer said, "sometimes walking half a block can save a bunch of time."