The Verge, 1 Sept 2016 excerpt
As Bloomberg noted in August 2016, both Uber and Lyft have been striking agreements with transit agencies, mostly for so-called “first-last mile” programs — meant to shuttle commuters to bus or train stations. Since last year, Uber has scored public transit agreements with San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, among other cities. Uber and Lyft have also been edging into niche public transportation services, like transit for disabled people or low-income residents who need rides to work or the grocery store. Last month officials in Washington, DC proposed having Uber respond to some 911 calls for ambulances.
Even Google’s Alphabet, through its Sidewalk Labs program, has joined the transit bonanza. The company recently offered to overhaul transit in Columbus, Ohio with a system that sets parking prices based on demand and funnels low-income commuters into subsidized ride-share vehicles.
“We recognized this much earlier than most, that the issue of transit usage was not about infrastructure,” Martz said. “It’s about convenience and control.”
When Martz dialed Uber in November, the company jumped at his inquiry. Within two weeks of the call, an Uber manager flew from Washington, DC to Orlando to meet with him, he says. After two months of discussions, Uber sent Martz a chart laying out the possible future of their partnership. At a subsidy rate of 25 percent — and assuming the ridership would grow annually by 100 percent — Uber would receive roughly a million dollars per year from the city. A potential indication of Uber’s aspirations, the chart also included a scenario in which Altamonte would pay Uber a full 100 percent subsidy, putting the town on the hook for up to nearly $7 million in ride-share funding over a two-year span. Uber also sent Martz a document instructing that its logo “should be treated with respect” and laying out in anxious detail what that entails. In promoting the program, Martz was forbidden from placing the Uber logo “anywhere that could degrade our brand.”…
Martz settled on a 20 percent subsidy for any trip within Altamonte, and 25 percent for rides to and from the city’s commuter rail station. Martz foresees the yearlong pilot costing taxpayers less than a hundred thousand dollars, far cheaper than building a new bus system. Nor does it involve navigating the regional transit authority or negotiating with potentially unionized public employees.
In the final days of February, the city cemented the details of its new public transit system, and on March 4th, it announced the pilot.
The response shocked even Martz: in the weeks following the launch, Uber ridership within Altamonte exploded, rising tenfold, Martz told me. Calls cascaded in from officials in other cities curious about Martz’s experiment
Just weeks after the March launch, the neighboring, more affluent suburb of Maitland began considering an identical pilot program. By July, it and three other cities in the northern Orlando area had approved copycat Uber deals, bringing more than a hundred thousand of the region’s residents into the sphere of Uber-run public transit. Interest in Martz’s deal was not limited to central Florida, either. Martz said transit officials from Los Angeles, Boulder, and Boston have called him for information on the partnership.
During my time in Altamonte, the government-backed Ubers worked just as intended. The two-mile ride to city hall came out to around $4 — two dollars more than the local bus system, but taking a fraction of the time.
More than half a dozen residents I spoke with in Altamonte had been shut out of the city’s new transit system for various reasons — some lacked credit cards or smartphones, while others were disabled and would have difficulty getting in a regular car. Unlike taxis, Uber isn’t required to provide services for disabled passengers.
At a bus station near the freight area of the Altamonte Mall, I spoke with a homeless man who has no credit card or smartphone, a wheelchair-bound woman waiting for the bus, and a man with a severely cracked Motorola LG onto which he’d downloaded an Uber app that could not get past its undulating loading page. Like Harrold, they were all effectively left behind by the city’s new transit system, and would take the Lynx bus home that day.
Some transit advocates fear that such stories will become more common in a world of Uberized public transport. “Quality public transportation is just that — public — and it’s the fundamental reason transit agencies are required to make an effort to reach out to people with disabilities, people without bank accounts, and people without smartphones,” says Jacob Anbinder, a spokesperson for the TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility. “As Uber finds itself entering into contracts that require it to act as a provider of public transportation, the company will have to adapt to serve this same broad market of riders.”
For Altamonte’s pilot project, this has not yet been the case. The city’s contract with Uber includes nothing regarding the access of people with disabilities or those without smartphones.
Nor does the contract mention the local taxi company, which is required by federal law to serve disabled customers. “You’ve got the city deciding that they’re going to subsidize the easiest to serve, able-bodied young people going out for beer and wings,” said Roger Chapin, the vice president of public affairs at Mears Transportation, Orlando’s decades-old cab company, who says he learned about Altamonte’s Uber deal through the local newspaper.
Uber acknowledges its services aren’t as accessible as they could be, but says it is fast evolving. Andrew Salzberg, head of Transportation Policy and Research at Uber, pointed to experiments the company has launched to deploy fleets of wheelchair-accessible Ubers, and noted that in Pinellas County, Florida, Uber is testing a call-in dispatch service for low-income residents who will be able to access the system with or without smartphones. “We’re not at the final answer to these problems,” Salzberg told me, “but we’re getting to the right places through a bunch of initiatives.”
Martz acknowledged that some people would be denied access to Altamonte’s Uber system, but said that a “one-size-fits-all” mode of transit would be too inefficient, and that people without smartphones have alternatives, like the public bus system. He also pointed to a Lynx-run transit service that disabled Altamonte residents can call upon.
In discussing the accessibility gaps in his transit system, Martz described it as a matter of consumer choice. “A hunter using a bow and arrow will not feed his family as efficiently as a hunter with a gun,” Martz told me. “And there are still plenty of transportation choices, although not as good, for those people who don’t have smartphone access. Users have to make the choice, and I think that’s the beauty of our pilot. Instead of jamming tech or infrastructure down the throats of potential users, we’ve provided just one more of them. Users will make the choice that’s best for them. If they prefer to not have a smartphone that’s the life they choose to live.”
n January 27th, a partnership specialist at Uber sent Martz’s colleague a nondisclosure agreement and asked for an e-signature. The NDA was broad in scope, requiring Altamonte keep secret “any technical or business information” regarding Uber, or else face a potential lawsuit that could put the city on the hook for attorney fees and civil damages. It would also mean that a taxpayer-funded program could potentially violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s transparency laws.
Martz responded immediately, asking a different Uber official whether the company would reconsider. “[R]emember we are a government in the sunshine,” Martz told an Uber general manager for Florida. “So some of the codicils here are not lawful.”
Martz quickly prevailed in getting Uber to drop the NDA, but a few weeks later, something odd popped up in a draft of the public transit agreement Altamonte would sign with Uber. In a proviso toward the bottom of the agreement, Uber granted itself a privilege to field public records requests that the city receives regarding its partnership. “In the event City receives a Public Record Law request for documents that Uber considers trade secret or otherwise confidential,” the final contract reads, the city “agrees to promptly notify Uber of said request and shall not make an immediate disclosure.”
Uber’s penchant for secrecy can put it at odds with conventions of government transparency. In other cities, the company has convinced regulators to allow it to hide its ridership data — Uber’s agreement with Boston requires the city to keep Uber’s ridership data under wraps, even stipulating that the company will pay the city’s litigation costs in a fight to keep that data confidential. In San Francisco, data that Lyft or Uber gives the city is under seal and thus reportedly hidden — even from city transportation planners.
For public transit partnerships that allot tax dollars to private companies, a wide degree of openness about ridership data is standard, says Anbinder of TransitCenter. “We like to say you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Ridership data can also shed light on whether a transit system is benefiting an entire community or just a part of it. “Where and when are trips ending?” asks Mariah Montgomery, a campaign strategist at the Partnership for Working Families, which has pressed Uber for ridership data. “That data… allows you to see where there is a need, and also gives you a sense of whether they are serving all neighborhoods equitably.”
An Uber spokesperson told The Verge that asking public agencies to sign NDAs is not a standard company practice. And Uber’s Salzberg acknowledged that his company has been less forthcoming with ridership data than some of its older competitors, but said that times have changed — and competition has intensified. “Yellow cabs have been great about this in the past,” Salzberg said, adding that such companies often held monopolies over their markets, making the release of data of little competitive concern. “There’s a different competitive situation for data that makes it different for us to be as transparent as things were before.”
When I asked Martz for Altamonte’s ridership data, he politely declined, citing Uber’s preference for confidentiality as well as a Florida state court ruling on Uber’s ridership data. “Sometimes the thing that matters most is moving people, not being able to find every piece of paper,” he said. Martz says that he, a few members of his senior staff, and city commissioners are allowed to review the Altamonte ridership data, but not the general public.
Uber’s desire for confidentiality in its dealings with public agencies extends beyond ridership data. Last month, a transit official in Pinellas County named Chris Cochran told me about an initiative in which Uber would experiment with a call-in dispatch system for riders who lack smartphones. Cochran’s openness came off as routine: he was a public official simply talking about a partnership his agency was negotiating.
But shortly after I asked Uber about the program, I received an email from Cochran. Uber had contacted him, urging him not to release the name of the initiative even though it was technically a matter of the public record. Cochran feared that the very act of releasing the Uber product name — UberCentral — before the official launch could have killed the entire partnership. “We just don’t want to jeopardize our partnership by not at least trying to prevent that from going out,” Cochran said, later adding that, “they just want to keep it under wraps.”
(Like Martz, Cochran came to Uber after facing a setback in a major push to widen Pinellas County’s existing mass transit options. In 2014, his agency failed to pass a 1 cent sales tax that would have expanded bus service and created a light rail system, and instead was forced to cut back the existing bus system.)
I also asked for ridership data from the local transit authority in Pinellas County regarding its deal with Uber to subsidize trips to local bus stations. Citing a state statute governing trade secret exemptions to government records, a spokesperson denied the request.
fter several days in Altamonte, I went to Pinellas County to see how one of Uber’s first partnerships with a public transit agency was faring. Like many of the company’s early efforts, Uber had attempted to bridge gaps in the existing transit infrastructure, offering discounted rides to and from bus stations.
Parking on a street in a tucked-away, working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, I summoned an Uber to take me to a bus station just under a mile away. A few minutes later, a driver appeared in an immaculate Kia Soul and whisked me to the Walmart bus stop. Largely subsidized by the county, the trip cost only $2.77.
My experience was smooth, but in June Cochran of the PSTA told me that the program’s ridership had been modest. “It has not been a huge success in terms of ridership numbers,” said Cochran. “I can be upfront about that.”
In the case of Altamonte, the city’s first-last mile initiative, which offers a discount of 25 percent when traveling to train stations, has lagged far behind the city’s main Uber program. “The monstrous majority” of subsidized Uber rides in Altamonte, Martz says “are intra community trips.”
The experiences of Pinellas County and Altamonte Springs comport with the observations of Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at the Transit Center. “The whole idea of First Mile Last Mile is really overblown,” says Orcutt. “It misses the point that most people that use transit most often live and work near it.”
Uber tells a different story, saying that its rides to and from transit stations bridge a key gap. Salzberg, Uber’s transportation policy official, says this role fits perfectly with the company’s mission of getting more people into fewer cars, and with transit agencies’ need to maintain ridership. And Salzberg says, Uber may not need public transit dollars to influence the sector. Even in cities without partnerships with public transit agencies, customers have begun relying on Uber to shuttle them to and from commuter rail stations, Salzberg says. “And that’s happening without us promoting it — it just made sense.”
Yet this month the Bay Area suburb of Dublin will launch an Altamonte-style program with Uber and Lyft, offering subsidized fares capped at $5 rides throughout the project area, rather than a first-last mile incentive. In fact, thanks to the program, the local transit agency reportedly cut a low-ridership bus route.
Subsidies or not, if Uber can drive its price low enough, at a certain point it could start to look more like a replacement for mass transit than a supplement to it. Recently the company has struck out on its own, experimenting with big-picture alternatives to public transit even in cities that have yet to fund its services. In February Uber reportedly offered its fixed-route “UberHOP” rides for just $1 in Seattle, a significant savings over buses. In May, as Washington, DC was preparing for more subway shutdowns due to maintenance, Uber announced it would expand its UberPool program throughout the agency’s service area, pitching itself as a congestion-reducing alternative to the city’s faltering transit system. Uber’s popularity in the city apparently got the attention of a DC transit official, who said that “the need for late-night service is lower since people are using [ride-hailing] services.”
In New York, where Uber has skirmished with Mayor Bill de Blasio and where the Metropolitan Transit Authority has blamed it and Lyft for $10 million in lost revenue, Uber rolled out a summertime monthly pass granting commuters unlimited Uber rides during morning and evening rush hours. At $79 per month, the price significantly undercuts the MTA’s prices for someone riding the subway twice daily, though its hours and coverage area are more limited. That cost may be further driven down through a partnership with WageWorks that was announced this week, which will let New York riders pay for UberPool using pretax dollars.
Of course, all these cost cuts will pale in comparison to what Uber will be able to do once it replaces human drivers with autonomous vehicles, which the company recently began testing in Pittsburgh.
With or without the cooperation of public agencies, Uber is becoming a new transit provider for at least a segment of the population. For cities like New York with extensive transit systems, this could mean a new front in the Uber wars — or a new era of private-public collaboration in transit. Either way, the rise of ride-sharing will spell major changes in how the country’s largest transit systems move people.
Yet, as officials from both Uber and Lyft emphasized in speaking with me, America’s largest cities could be mere sideshows compared to smaller towns and suburbs. And some experts say that the highest-density subway and bus lines could not be replaced by Uber anyway, arguing that it would cause too much roadway congestion. But the vast majority of Americans live in places more like car-dominated Altamonte than hyperdense Manhattan. “That is an emerging area where you can expect to see more activity,” said Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft. Castor says Lyft is “very interested” in propagating the Altamonte model across the country and sees it as “an opportunity to grow Lyft in suburban areas rather than just the urban core.” Uber’s Saltzberg noted that only 2 or 3 percent of total trips in the US are done via public transit and asserts that Uber wants to be “a tool in the toolkit for cities that are trying to make better transportation choices.”
Despite lingering concerns over transparency and accessibility, the earliest results of Uber’s Altamonte experiment show a considerable demand for Uber in government. As soon as next year, Martz said, the five neighboring cities that have signed copycat deals could create a seamless network of Uber subsidies that will allow riders to traverse the region on the tax-funded Ubers. And Edward L. Johnson, the head of the greater Orlando regional transit system, Lynx — which services more than 1.8 million residents in an area roughly the size of Delaware — says his agency is hoping to soon begin incorporating ride-share companies into its offerings, possibly with an across-the-board subsidy similar to Altamonte’s.
With FlexBus, Martz says he had failed to make the regional transit authority budge. Now, thanks to Uber, projects are racing ahead, and Martz doesn’t seem surprised.
“Uber had brought to the market a very workable solution,” Martz told me. “The choice was obvious to us.”
PINELLAS PARK — The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will cover half of a passenger’s Uber bill — if they’re going to or from a bus stop in designated zones in East Lake and Pinellas Park.
The partnership started Monday and includes United Cab. It is the first of its kind in the country, according to PSTA spokeswoman Ashlie Handy. Hillsborough’s transit authority hopes to roll out its own first-mile, last-mile program next month.
Figuring out how to solve the first-mile, last-mile problem — how to get riders from where the bus ends to their ultimate destination, like a job or home — is one of the foremost problems for transit agencies. PSTA is hoping this program will go a long way toward solving that problem and increasing ridership.
The PSTA program, known as Direct Connect, is currently only available in Pinellas Park (for Uber and United Taxi) and East Lake (United Taxi only). PSTA will pay half the cost of a ride, covering up to $3, that is destined for or originating from a PSTA bus stop in those zones.
That means if the ride from the bus stop to work cost $4, PSTA would subsidize $2 of that fare. Anything greater than $6 only yields a $3 subsidy.
If the six-month pilot project goes well, PSTA CEO Brad Miller said the program will likely expand to other parts of the county.
“Once we make it easy for someone to get to the bus stop, riding the bus becomes a real transportation alternative,” Miller said.
Direct Connect replaces the East Lake Connector, an underperforming route that ran along Keystone and East Lake roads between Tarpon Mall and the Shoppes at Boot Ranch. Previously, riders who live within ¾ of mile of the route could make a reservation and the bus would come to them. It was the agency’s second-lowest performing route, with an average weekday ridership of 26.
PSTA has allocated $40,000 for the first six months of Direct Connect. It cost $160,000 to run the East Lake Connector for one year.
Under the new system, riders will open their Uber app and toggle over to the PSTA option. They can then page a nearby driver, and the credit will be automatically applied.
“It looks super legit to see PSTA on the Uber app,” Handy said.
Those who prefer to take a taxi can call United Cab or download their app. Unlike Uber, United Cab allows riders to pay with cash and a smart phone isn’t required to page a ride.
Those who go the cab route also don’t have to worry about incurring Uber’s dreaded surge pricing, in which prices spike based on supply and demand.
Surge pricing typically doubles or triples the cost of the ride, but has risen to as much as 10 times a fare on busy days such as Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
Drive Connect is not immune from surge pricing — which means that three-dollar subsidy might not go that far.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is looking to approve a similar first-mile, last-mile partnership next month. This one, however, won’t include Uber.
“We did bid on their process,” Uber spokeswoman Christine Mitchell. “However, we were not awarded the contract.”
The details have not been finalized, but HART is crafting a program that aims to subsidize $3 of a fare for passengers in a 3-mile radius of any bus stop.
Altamonte Springs, an Orlando suburb, on March 21 will become the nation’s first city to pay a portion of the fare for all trips with Uber within its limits, according to Christine Mitchell, Uber’s general manager in Central Florida.
Altamonte Springs has budgeted $500,000, partly from local businesses, for a year-long study during which it will pick up 20% of all Uber rides in city limits, and 25% for those to or from its SunRail station.
“It is infinitely cheaper than the alternatives,” said Martz, whose city has a population of about 43,000 and median income of $50,000. “A mile of road costs tens of millions of dollars. You can operate this for decades on $10 million.”
“I see this plan as blowing (the city’s) budget out of the water,” said Joann Weiner, director of the master’s program in applied economics at George Washington University.
Subsidies usually cause costs to increase because someone else is picking up part of the tab, she said. The city’s budget also may not account for rider demand.
The other big question is public acceptance.
Martz said suburban sprawl in Florida has made transportation solutions like bus routes inefficient and unaffordable. He believes cheaper Uber rides also will help those who need public transportation to reach available bus and rail services.
However, advocates for the homeless and poor who rely on buses say this will not help them.
y, chief executive for the Central Florida Commission on Homeless, argued that the homeless and poor who rely on city buses typically don’t benefit from technological solutions because they don’t have easy internet access.”
Lyft, Uber’s largest ride-hailing competitor in the United States, is also in negotiations with transit agencies about subsidies for Lyft rides, said Emily Castor, Lyft director of transportation policy. She did not provide the names.
If the city decides to continue the service, Martz said the contract will be open to other bidders.
Innisfill, Canada near Toronto
The town reached out to several ridesharing companies and chose Uber because it could adapt its smartphone application to the town’s needs.
The company would also collect a wealth of data on ridership patterns with its platform, which the town plans to use to further study its transit needs.
Once the $100,000 set aside for the program is spent, town planners hope to have enough data on how many people are going where and when to make better decisions about developing public transit, said Mr. Cane, the town’s land-use manager. They might extend the program or make adjustments, or they might try to design a fixed bus route to serve a heavily trafficked corridor at an affordable cost.
The data could also allow the town to efficiently deliver transportation subsidies to people in need, he said, and ensure that the money is being spent correctly.
Anyone in town with a mobile phone, and a credit or debit card, can summon a car, which they might share with another passenger going the same way.
“It’s also a way of building community and helping people to get to know each other,” Mr. Reynar said.
The cost to passengers is 3 to 5 Canadian dollars ($2.20 to $3.66) from anywhere in town to four local hubs. Those include the town’s recreation center and an industrial area, as well as a string of provincial bus stops and a car pool lot. For rides anywhere else in town, passengers get a discount of 5 Canadian dollars off the standard UberX fare, understanding that the ride may be shared.
“To look and feel like a public transit model, there had to be a flat rate structure comparable to typical transit fares,” Mr. Cane said.
He said that 3 to 5 Canadian dollars was the range for bus fares in Toronto, and that while Innisfil fares may be more expensive on some route-to-route comparisons, they provide the added benefit of door-to-door service.
One of Innisfil’s taxi companies has signed a similar partnership with the town to provide service for passengers with special transit needs, such as disabled people. They can use the taxi company’s 24-hour call center instead and get the same subsidized service.
One crucial aspect to the program’s success is that enough Uber drivers be available to meet demand. The company ran a local recruitment campaign and, on Monday, the wait for a car was running seven to eight minutes.
“That’s pretty good compared to having no transit, or even the 30-minute wait for a bus in a traditional transit system,” Mr. Cane said.
Correction: May 16, 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated the cost to operate a two-line bus service in Innisfil, Ontario, after the intial year. The cost would be 300,000 Canadian dollars for the entire service, not for each line.
Andrew Salzberg, Head of Transportation Policy and Research @Uber May 2017
We’re ready to support this type of broad-based road pricing because a marketplace for efficiency is an exciting prospect for ridesharing companies. At Uber, our goal is to turn every journey into a shared journey, getting more people into fewer cars. Since 2014, we’ve been building and expanding our uberPOOL product to do just that. It dynamically matches multiple passengers, making sharing a ride more convenient than it’s ever been. And just last week we announced that we’re piloting our casual carpooling product that works just like a digital slug line.
When all car users pay a price for their travel, we believe even more people will be incentivized to share. Indeed, we’re already seeing this in Singapore where every car pays a fee (called the Electronic Road Price or ERP) to drive at congested times and locations. With uberPOOL, riders split that fee when they share a ride, providing an additional incentive to share space more effectively.
In the end, effectively managing congestion will take many people working together, and we’re only one part of the solution. The most efficient way to move large numbers of people in dense cities will always be mass transit. That’s why we’re excited to be working with public transport providers across the world. We’re also helping share data that can help cities diagnose the times and locations where congestion is occurring. We believe that a better understanding of our congestion challenges can help generate more targeted solutions. We’re excited to work with cities around the world to get more people in fewer cars, keep cities moving, and help build the future of urban mobility.
Like many Southern Californians, my commute is no walk in the park. If I leave my house even two minutes later than usual, a cool 30 minutes could be tacked onto my drive.
Unless you live and work in downtown San Diego or are connected to CalTrans’ trolley line, public transportation isn’t an option either. According to Google Maps, my 26-mile commute home from work on public transit—via a train, two buses, and a walk—would take well over two hours.
There are plenty of populous cities in the U.S. that have more functional public transit options and better city planning. Over 55 percent of the population of New York City uses its public transport, with nearly 60 percent of people on the subway and buses commuting to and from work.
But at the end of the day, over 80 percent of travelers in the U.S. drive their cars to end destinations. Carpooling, too, is down 10 percent since the 1980s. And public transportation is usually only feasible in highly populated and urbanized areas. What about everyone else?
Uber helped my husband get to work after he locked his keys in the house. The ride sharing service helped my colleague get home with the five bags of groceries she purchased but could not carry on the long walk home from the store.
It enables the elderly and disabled to remain independent. Ride sharing companies, in general, assist countless people leaving the bar after last call to make smarter decisions to get home safe and sound. Ride sharing has proven there is an alternative way to get from point A to point B and back.
But companies like Uber don’t want to just provide another option to some of your driving routines: the company wants to supply you with real and beneficial alternatives to owning and using a personal vehicle, and even provide input on city planning for the future.
There is a litany of supportive options that enable people to walk away from car ownership: think car-sharing through Zipcar or CityCarShare. The benefits of doing so—as you’ll see later—are vast.
So how does Uber fit into this vision of a reliable and revolutionary transportation future? The company is providing input at the city planning level to help regions build the best public transportation possible, leading to companies like Uber filling the gaps.
“Once you break the link to bringing your car with you everywhere you go, people open up to better decision making and more transportation options.”
Behind this vision is Andrew Salzberg, the Head of Transportation Policy and Research at Uber since January of 2016. A graduate of the urban planning master’s program at Harvard, Salzberg worked at the World Bank as an urban transport specialist before joining Uber in 2013. “I worked on urban transportation projects in emerging markets,” he said. “I got to experience firsthand how investments in transportation can have a long-term impact on cities.
“I’ve been interested in how cities worked since I was a kid,” he continued. “My family never had a car: my father is Dutch, and the Netherlands is known for having bikes everywhere.”
Salzberg and Uber are committed to helping cities get cars off the road through improved transportation infrastructure and city planning expertise.
“If you’re in a city that’s congested and you need your car to pick up your kids after school or make a grocery store run, that means you have to drive in the morning and commute home,” he said. “You’re tied into making your entire day’s worth of transport based on one trip you may need your car for.
“But once you have a backdrop like Uber, everything changes. You can take public transit in the morning, and then you can get a ride home at night, or get the kids after school. Once you break the link to bringing your car with you everywhere you go, people open up to better decision making and more transportation options.”
Considering the AlternativeRoad congestion and long commutes are standard for so many in the U.S. that it’s hard to believe anything could change it. But if city planning could shift overnight, and public transit was suddenly that much easier to access for the majority of Americans, why should they break the link with their personal cars?
There are obvious reasons to having fewer cars on the road: less time spent in traffic and a healthier environment due to fewer emissions are just the tip of the iceberg. Factor in a world without parking lots and just imagine the beneficial use of those spaces.
Convenience plays into this too: wouldn’t you rather read the newspaper or a good book, get caught up on your emails instead of sitting in traffic watching the clock count down to when you were supposed to be at work? This is how I would travel if I had a reliable—and quick—public transit option.
With fewer vehicles on the road, federal investment into infrastructure shifts as well.
“Most cars only have one person in them. But if a city like Toronto, for example, could increase the average number of people in cars from its current 1.1 to 1.2, the city could see a $9 billion saving in infrastructure costs,” Salzberg shared.
“That means $9 billion could be reallocated to another cause like education or healthcare.”
Building a Foundation
The “why” is easy to understand. The “how” is far more complex.
The United States has been car obsessed since Ford introduced the Model T. It’s not going to be easy to convince the population to step away from their vehicles willingly. It’s not going to happen overnight, but Uber is setting the foundation now for cities to reach peak public transportation availability through city planning now.
The key to helping cities transform is partnerships with the right people and organizations. Uber’s operational alliances connect the ride sharing company with transportation agencies.
The governor of Massachusetts recently announced an expansion of a pilot program where Uber is an alternative to the city’s paratransit service.
“The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority [MBTA] has a paratransit service designed for people with a disability or who can’t use or get to fixed route transit,” said Salzberg. “The city is required to provide door-to-door service, but it’s not convenient. It’s costly, and the rider has to book 24 hours ahead of time.
“Over the last few months, MBTA has offered Uber as an extension of this service. It’s a win-win for transit service and the city.”
Part of Uber’s focus is working with the best and most brilliant minds in the world, forging relationships with academics to partner on research covering city planning, long-term future car ownership, and transit use.
Salzberg argues that Uber has provided an alternative to driving your car that looks competitive and can save lives.
“We offer service 24/7/365. We’ve seen DUI reductions in some cities because late night services are offered at a time when traditional public transit and taxi cabs have trouble meeting the demand. We’re always on and always available.”
Ride sharing companies also serve a much wider geographical array—into suburbs and even small towns.
Price point, too, is imperative to providing commuters and travelers with a different option from their personal vehicles. Uber’s prices have dropped significantly since it launched, and the company is aiming to get to a point where it’s cost-competitive to giving up your car altogether.
Uber shares its API to allow other developers to integrate Uber into their applications. From Transit Appto Citymapper to Moovit, apps all over the world are integrating Uber to provide ways for people to book public transport.
Citymapper, in particular, has created a multi-modal option that can provide directions and solutions for an entire journey, even if public transportation can’t get you the entire way.
“Citymapper offers Uber-to-transit as a unified mode. The only reason the app company can do this is because we have an API.”
While this helps developers integrate Uber services, the company’s free tool, Movement, shares insights about traffic and mobility in cities where Uber operates, ultimately helping decision makers for city planning to understand their cities better.
“We asked ourselves what are some of those clear needs on the public side for information and insight that we can build for, that we can build a product to? It’s difficult to do long-range transportation planning and forecasting models of what a city will look like in the next 20 or 30 years. We think that Movement can help.”
Shared Driving Experiences
UberPOOL launched in 2014, allowing passengers to share a ride that was going close to their end destination. Not only does this bring down the cost of a trip, but it could also bring down the number of cars on the road.
“It matches riders in real time and makes ride sharing more compelling. It’s an obvious way to help reduce congestion,” Salzberg said.
Uber’s driverless fleet is also critical to the company’s future of fewer cars on the road. The current assumption is that we take the system of today where everyone owns their car, and replace it with everyone owning their driverless car. The same level of car use is counterproductive to taking cars off the road.
The vision people are excited about, however, is the shift to shared driverless vehicles.
“With a higher utilization for vehicles and a lower number of cars owned by the population, you start to get a lot of beneficial impacts,” he said.
“Part of being in this role means I get to focus on the long-term time horizon, and I’m excited about that. We’re having real conversations with cities about city planning five to 15 years in the future, and we’re starting to engage on some of these issues.”
Uber is also making a difference now.
We all know New York City’s infamous and iconic yellow taxi service, but it turns out it’s not very convenient for people outside of Manhattan or North of 96th street.
Salzberg shared that five percent or fewer pickups by the taxi cabs were happening in the outer boroughs, which is where 80 percent of the population of the city lived.
“Since we launched in the city, more than 40 percent of our trips are starting in the outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. We’re bringing similar service to the enormous LA metro area, with a five to 10-minute response time and affordability even in far flung suburban areas.”
Just one more way the company is helping people break the link with their personal cars. Examples like this continue to pop up across the country and the world. It’s still not clear exactly what part Uber will play in developing better city and transportation infrastructure, but there is no doubt that the company’s involvement will be impactful.
I’m not ready to break the link between me and my car—yet—but I’m excited to see the options that could come to pass.
“Uber has proven you don’t have to take a personal car everywhere you go,” Salzberg said. “If you can break that link, all kinds of exciting things can happen.”