Uber says each week 100,000 New Yorkers are using UberPool, in which riders pay discounted fares to share a car with other passengers. That's double the number of customers Uber said were using its carpooling service just six months ago. It represents a rapid expansion of a feature that Uber says could be the future of its business, even as some critics say it applies further pressure on struggling drivers.
The company unveiled the new numbers in conjunction with an announcement about a partnership with the New York City Council in support of the first #CarFreeNYC sustainable transportation initiative. #CarFreeNYC, which is planned for April 22nd, is the brainchild of Ydanis Rodriguez, chair the council's transportation committee who is a vocal critic of Uber and has tried many times in the past to pass restrictive rules on the ride-hail service.
"I welcome Uber's support of my #CarFreeNYC initiative"
But in an interview Friday, Rodriguez made no mention of his past animosity toward Uber. "I'm always open to innovating ideas in our city," he said. Asked if he shared any of the criticisms about UberPool from drivers or riders, he said, "I have not been approached by anyone with those criticism." (He is also partnering with Lyft and Via for the promotion.)
It's a shocking about-face for Rodriguez, who last year seemed to take delight in trying to rein in Uber's popularity. He sponsored the bill put forward by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to cap Uber's growth at 1 percent to study the effect on app-based ride-hailing on traffic congestion. Uber rebelled, claiming the legislation would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, and rallied minority communities in opposition. The bill never came to a vote, and a subsequent city-backed study found that Uber was not solely responsible for slower speeds in Manhattan's central business district.
Twitter feuds turned joint press releases
Later, Rodriguez accused Uber of failing to insure drivers against traffic accidents, which the company's general manager called "a lie." They then proceeded to feud over Twitter. Just like it did with de Blasio, Uber spotlighted donations Rodriguez had received from the yellow taxi industry as evidence of his bias against the disruptive new company.
The fact that the two antagonists are laying aside their past feud to join forces for #CarFreeNYC shows how successful Uber has been in portraying its new carpooling service as environmentally sustainable travel on par with public transportation — never mind that it isn't truly "car free" travel. Uber says if all of its New York City customers used UberPool for one day, "117,263 miles on the road and 52,241 kg of carbon dioxide would be saved."
Of course, Uber's claims of sustainability should be taken with full knowledge of the exploding number of cars it has out on the streets in New York City. In September 2014, 10,000 uberX drivers, which operate as black cars, were in operation. By March 2015, about 13,000 car-service drivers were using Uber's app to arrange rides with passengers. By September, that number had grown to 20,000, as well as another 4,000 yellow- and green-cab drivers who could be hailed through the app's uberT feature. Taken together with the company's limo, SUV, and carpool services, there are now over 30,000 Uber-affiliated vehicles in New York City.
Many observers, including New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, say UberPool could be the company's saving grace, especially as it continues to face questions about and legal challenges against its practice of classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. UberPool has been praised by transportation advocates for helping complement subways and buses. But others say that the rising popularity of UberPool and other carpooling services, like Lyft Line, mean more work for drivers without the promise of higher pay.