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Uber needs to stop nudging me into carpooling

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My trusted relationship has turned awkward

Amelia Krales

I should’ve known it was too good to last. It started out slow, as the best relationships often do, but I quickly found myself needing him more and more. Whenever I reached out, he was there without questions or judgement — on late nights, when no one else showed up, and even when I forgot my wallet at home. It just worked. But a few months ago, he wanted other people to join us, and I refused, which made everything more complicated. Now I feel nervous and confused about contacting him.

I just want things to go back to the way they used to be, when my Uber app simply sent me an UberX rather than trying to force me into taking UberPool.

If you’re not familiar with UberPool, it’s Uber’s ride-sharing feature. If you use it, you get asked where you’re going, then it pairs you up with one or two other people to ride somewhere together. This costs less than other Uber ride options, but it means waiting for other people to get picked up and dropped off, which you might not want to do. UberPool was introduced in San Francisco in 2014 and became available in Washington, DC, in October 2015. But it only started barging its way into the workflow of Uber apps in DC about a month ago, in late April. San Francisco and New York are still safe, but here in DC, the once-straightforward Uber app now pushes you into carpooling, by default.

Here’s how Uber used to work in DC and still works in San Francisco and New York: open your Uber app, tap Set Pickup Location, maybe enter your destination (this happens in some locations but not all), and an UberX car shows up for you — often in a matter of minutes. If you wanted a different kind of car, like an uberXL to carry you and a few friends, or an UberSUV to hold your big suitcase, you could select that by sliding a tiny car icon below your choice at the bottom of the Uber app’s screen.

Now, you open the app, tap Set Pickup Location, and are immediately asked to enter your destination. So you do it, somewhat puzzled.

"How many seats do you need?" An in-app message asks innocently, suddenly displaying options to tap: 1, 2, 3, 4.

"Umm, one seat, like always, Uber," you think to yourself, selecting the "1" from the list.

The next screen says "REQUEST POOL" at the bottom in all capital letters. This is the first reference to UberPool, but you still might not know what it is because it’s just called "POOL." Two price options for your ride show up on this screen. The one on the left represents UberPool (but again, never uses that name) and is selected by default. It says say something like, "$13.91 share your car with 1-2 people."

"But it’s 9:15PM, and I’m just trying to get home from a long day at the office," you think. "I don’t want to get plopped in a car with someone or (even worse) two someones who have been pounding cocktails since happy hour began at 5PM."

The other price option, which is not selected by default, says something like, "$18.80 & up get your own car up to four people." This, my friends, is the UberX ride you originally wanted. But again, it’s not labeled as UberX, and it’s buried under workflow that’s designed to send you off on a carpool ride.

If you’ve made it this far in the Uber app — and a lot of people give up far before this point — you might wonder about the "& up" part in "$18.80 & up to get your own car up to four people." How much "& up" money is this, really? This language is needed because the uberX fee is just a fare estimate, not a guaranteed fare. Along with lower costs, UberPool is a guaranteed fare, which people like.

But come on, Uber! If you're so confident in the popularity of UberPool, let me be the one to choose that from the start. Don’t toss me into finding a carpool without my consent — especially when I just want to open the app, click twice, and get home.

A spokesperson for Uber says that the company created this two-price screen for customers who wanted to see how much UberPool cost compared to UberX. Though Uber says its UberPool numbers are doing just fine, I have a more cynical, alternative theory that there weren’t enough people taking UberPool in DC, so Uber decided to nudge people into it by default.

Of course, Uber could update or change its app at any time. In the future, the company plans to clean up some of this messy, misleading app workflow by doing a few things. It plans on taking out the capacity question, so you won’t be asked how many seats you need. And Uber admits that the screen showing two prices is confusing and that the app would be clearer if it explicitly said which service was being offered for each price. In fact, this is already done in London, where the cheaper, left-side fare is labeled UberPool and the pricier, right-side option is labeled uberX.

If you make it through all of these confusing screens and figure out how to opt for the uberX ride, the next time you use Uber, your default fare will be uberX (or UberPool, if that's what you used).

Uber has a lot of loyal passengers who’ve created close relationships with its app. But any app that tries to force people into doing something — especially sharing a small space with a few other strangers — isn't creating a relationship of trust. In fact, Uber’s latest app interface has encouraged me to cheat on it with smelly, old taxi cabs.