Uber made a series of announcements Wednesday designed to position itself as a leader in sustainable mobility. The ride-hail company said it would commit $10 million over three years to support eco-friendly causes in the cities in which it operates, including $1 million to promote congestion pricing in New York City. It will donate $250,000 to a nonprofit data-sharing project between tech companies and cities. And it will begin installing charging stations for electric bike-sharing in Sacramento, with the goal of expanding to other cities as well.
It’s a coordinated series of moves aimed at advancing Uber’s goal to become something more than just a car service company with a fancy app. Since taking the helm over a year ago, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has been rushing to remake the company in his own image. And as more evidence emerges about the harmful effect of ride-hailing on traffic congestion and public transportation in cities, it’s a public effort by Uber to be seen as part of the solution rather than a source of the problem.
“we recognize we need to step up and support cities that take bold steps to solve their transportation problems”
“As more people have come to rely on Uber, our technology has become an important part of the transportation fabric of cities,” Khosrowshahi said in a blog post today. “With that comes a responsibility: we recognize we need to step up and support cities that take bold steps to solve their transportation problems. We are in a unique position to have a meaningful and positive impact on the communities we serve across the globe—a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”
Uber says it will spend $10 million to advertise and lobby in favor of the goals outlined in a recent report on shared mobility and livable cities, authored by a consortium of leading international NGOs. One such policy that Uber plans on throwing its weight behind is congestion pricing, which it plans to spend $1 million to promote in New York City.
Congestion pricing, in which drivers pay a fee to enter Manhattan’s central business district during certain hours, has been held up as a partial solution to New York City’s subway crisis. Uber supported its passage earlier this year, but it has been blocked by outer borough legislators who oppose efforts to impose a fee on driving into Manhattan. The state legislature punted the issue this year, thanks to lukewarm support from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“We don’t benefit from congestion”
Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation policy at Uber, argued that regardless of the company’s role in slowing down speeds in Manhattan, congestion was ultimately harmful to their bottom line. “We don’t benefit from congestion,” he told The Verge. “We share the objective of limiting congestion because congestion ultimately is not good for our business. There’s no gain for us in a world where streets are more congested.”
Uber is happy to “pay its share” of congestion pricing, but acknowledged that those fees would need to be born mainly by riders. “The whole point is to provide the correct incentive to the rider,” he said. “You want to charge more so that person doesn’t choose to take a car from Williamsburg to Manhattan. So you want to make sure it’s reflected in rider behavior.”
Moving over to data, Uber says it will donate $250,000 to a nonprofit called SharedStreets, which is a project of the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the Open Transportation Project. The money is intended to help fund the creation of a set of standards for private companies to share data with cities. Road speed data, in particular, will be a focus on this project. “This is something cities have been asking us for, and we’re thrilled to be able bring it to life in cities across the globe,” Khosrowshahi said.
Uber has previously teamed up with SharedStreets on a project to compile and analyze data on curb usage in Washington, DC. Uber shares its data on popular curbsides for pickups and drop-offs in the city in the hopes of convincing officials to designate more space exclusively for ride-hailing services like Uber. The company also released a new study it says outlines a series of actions cities can take to better utilize curb space.
(Curb space is increasingly becoming a hot subject to tackle by giant tech companies. Coord, a project by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, is another group looking to redefine the humble curb.)
Earlier this year, Uber announced its plans to expand its Movement project to over a dozen new cities. First launched by Uber in 2017, Movement is an online tool for cities for mapping travel times, powered by the company’s vast store of trip data. The site allows users to measure travel times between various parts of a city, tracking how those trips get faster or slower over time.
Lastly, Uber says it plans to begin installing charging stations for its fleet of dockless electric-powered bikes in Sacramento. The goal is to convince cities it has a feasible plan to help them manage the influx of dockless bikes and scooters, many of which are left blocking sidewalks or cluttered in front of local businesses. Uber says it is working in tandem with Sacramento’s local government and institutions to offer charging stations for installation at public transit stations, government buildings, and universities.
But unlike scooter startups like Bird and Lime, which have promised to set aside $1 per day from each scooter in operation to help cities build new protected bike lanes, Uber isn’t ready to begin funding infrastructure improvements. “For us, we’re thinking less about directly financing the infrastructure, and more about enabling the policy environment to get those things done,” Salzberg said.
All together, these announcements are meant to drive home the message that Uber isn’t the ruthless, win-at-all-costs tech giant it once was, but rather a team player happy to work with cities to advance their goals of shared mobility and more livable streets. It’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that its own rapid growth has contributed to the present problem cities are facing, and it now wants to help them figure out solutions.
“The idea is to put our voice, our resources, and some financial commitment behind groups that are pushing for more sustainable transportation,” Salzberg said.