Changing the way cities commute

Changing the way cities commute

Changing the way cities commute
Riders pay less and drivers transport more riders at once with the UberPool service, which could have a big impact on local economies and the national transportation infrastructure.

One day not long ago, an Uber driver picked up a passenger in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin district. Let’s call our passenger Abby, because her real name has been lost to database anonymisation, an effort to keep her identity private.

Abby needed to go to Noe Valley, a 25-minute drive that might ordinarily have cost about $15 (Rs 993). But she had chosen UberPool, the ride-hailing company’s 18-month-old carpooling program. In the process she had unwittingly initiated one of the service’s more epic recent trips.

Unlike a standard Uber ride, in which a single rider starts a one-time trip, UberPool works like a party line for cars. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive, describes it as the future of his company — and thus the future of transportation in America.

Call up the app, specify your destination, and in exchange for a significant discount, UberPool matches you with other riders going the same way. The service might create a ride just for you, but just as often, it puts you in a ride that began long ago — one that has spanned several drop-offs and pickups, a kind of instant bus line created from collective urban demand.

The trip Abby started would last nearly an hour and meander over 10 miles across San Francisco, stopping nine times to pick up and drop off passengers. After Abby got in, the driver collected his second passenger — let’s call him Ben — a few blocks away. Ben got out after about a mile. A couple of blocks later, Carrie got in. By this time Abby might have been getting annoyed; fortunately, about six minutes later, the car reached Noe Valley. Abby got out, but Carrie was still in the car, so the trip went on. Danny got in after about a mile, then Carrie got out, then Edward got in, then Danny got out. Finally, after about 55 minutes of driving, the car reached Edward’s destination, and the trip was done.

In total, Uber collected about $48 (Rs 3,179) for the ride, of which the driver kept $35 (Rs 2,318). The company had collapsed five separate rides into a single trip, saving about six miles of travel and removing several cars from the road. For riders, the discounts amounted to savings of at least half of a standard Uber trip. For the driver, an hourlong trip with no idle time resulted in steady earnings (Uber drivers make money only when riders are in the car). And though Uber made less from the single ride than it would have from multiple rides, the company benefited by installing itself as a fixture in people’s lives.
“When rides get cheaper, it means that for more people in more cities, Uber is cheaper than owning a car,” Kalanick said in a recent interview. “And when Uber is cheaper than owning a car, we can become a mainstay of transportation in that city.” Here’s another way to put it: UberPool may push us to re-evaluate how we think about Uber and its impact on the world.

The car service has long been polarizing. Though Uber is beloved by many riders, the way it has muscled into cities and the public consciousness, and the manner in which it has altered labour relations and urban planning, have rattled lawmakers, activists and even its drivers.

UberPool raises the stakes. Because it reduces price and increases volume, it suggests that if Uber ultimately succeeds, the company could have a much bigger impact on urban mobility, labor, the environment, local economies and the national transportation infrastructure than we’ve all supposed — and its effects could confound the expectations of its harshest critics. In many cities, UberPool now accounts for more than half of Uber trips taken. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, more than 100,000 people take UberPool trips every week. In China, Uber is running 20 million UberPool trips a month.

A representative for Lyft, Uber’s primary American competitor, said its carpooling service, Lyft Line, has also become a sustainable business. About 30 percent of Lyft rides are now pooled. In San Francisco and New York, Lyft’s biggest cities, the proportion is now more than half. Last week, Lyft introduced a separate carpool service called Lyft Carpool, aimed at daily commuters.

Kalanick said it was likely that soon, in big cities and even in many suburbs, most Uber rides will be pooled, meaning each Uber car will be serving more than one rider most of the time.If that occurs, and if Uber continues growing at its breakneck pace, it would represent a momentous transformation in how Americans get around. Carpooling was popular in the earliest days of the automobile, but for much of the last 100 years, the numbers have been going in the opposite direction. Today most Americans drive to work alone.

Transportation scholars are now looking into whether carpooling by ride companies could reverse these dismal numbers. Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has begun a study with the Natural Resources Defense Council to determine the environmental impact of Uber and Lyft’s carpooling systems.

Uber has calculated the environmental impact of UberPool rides. In the first three months of 2016, the service has eliminated 21 million automobile miles; that’s about 400,000 gallons of gas and 3,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, it says. The company says that by reducing prices, the program has also expanded access to Uber.

Critics of Uber’s rise have long feared that cheaper rides could undercut support for public transportation, but a new study by the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group of transit organizations, found the opposite.

“The more likely someone is to use Uber and Lyft, the more likely they are to take public transportation, and for our industry that is very heartening,” said Darnell Grisby, the group’s director of policy development and research. People who use these services tend to own fewer cars, Grisby said. As a result, they become more interested in all forms of transportation — trains, buses, taxis, bikes — and see Uber and Lyft as a complement to other transit, not a replacement for it.

Uber’s data bears this out. In Los Angeles, 14 percent of UberPool trips start or end near a Metro station. In San Francisco during the morning commute, 10 percent of UberPool trips are to or from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train.

Uber and Lyft are expanding their carpooling operations and their partnerships with transit systems. In Seattle, Toronto and Manila, Uber is testing high-occupancy sport utility vehicles that run along fixed routes during commuter hours. In Chicago, Uber has an option for commuters to pick up casual carpoolers, and Lyft is starting a similar program in San Francisco this week.

Kalanick said these experiments would continue, because reducing traffic was part of Uber’s mission.

“I grew up in L.A., and I spent almost 30 years of my life there, and I spent years of my life stuck behind the wheel, thinking about how to make this better,” he said. “So there’s going to be a big smile on my face if Uber can have any impact on reducing traffic on freeways. It would feel like a big deal.”

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