- ViaVan is a cheap new rival to Uber in London.
- It lets passengers summon a shared ride through an app, but unlike Uber it doesn’t offer individual rides.
- The idea is to reduce congestion and give people an alternative to public transport and Uber.
- ViaVan launches around six months after its two rivals, Taxify and Uber, lost their licences to operate in London.
There’s another Uber rival in London.
ViaVan, a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and US ride-sharing startup Via, has launched in the capital to offer Londoners shared journeys on demand. Think of it as being a mix between UberPOOL (Uber’s carpooling service) and a bus.
The idea is that you open an app and summon a ride, just as you would for Uber. ViaVan calculates the demand for your route, matches you up with passengers travelling at a similar time, and directs you somewhere to wait for your ride. You’re then dropped off somewhere near your destination without, ViaVan promises, a lengthy detour.
ViaVan doesn’t offer individual rides, so you will always be sharing with others.
The service is only available in central London Zones 1 and 2 for now, with all rides in or out of Zone 1 costing £3. The company hasn’t said how much it will start charging once the discount period is over.
It’s a brave move given intense ridesharing competition in London – and the fact that two services, Uber and Taxify, have now lost their licences to operate in the city.
Chris Snyder, chief executive of ViaVan, told Business Insider that the service was properly licensed. He also said the service gave a higher commission to drivers and took their safety and wellbeing seriously.
“If you could look into the textbook on exactly how you should be licenced, that is how we are licensed,” he told Business Insider. “It’s just like Uber, Addison Lee, or any other private hire companies. We have been through a thorough process with [regulator] Transport for London. We are confident we will launch [on Wednesday], with the full blessing from the regulators.”
London is ViaVan’s first UK city, but it also operates in Amsterdam.
ViaVan wants to offer a sustainable alternative to Uber – and says it cares about drivers
Snyder believes that shared rides are more sustainable than the individual cab rides offered by the likes of Uber. The idea is to reduce congestion and offer an alternative to public transport, particularly in the suburbs where buses and trains are more sporadic.
Business Insider asked whether the Mercedes-Benz Vans partnership means all drivers who want to drive for the service need to go out and finance an extremely expensive new car. The answer, for now, is no.
Instead, ViaVan will make use of the thousands of Uber drivers who already cruise around London’s streets looking for passengers. Snyder said thousands have signed up for the service’s launch, and that ViaVan staff have met every driver personally. He wouldn’t specify an exact number, but said ViaVan would probably need a waiting list soon.
Snyder also said drivers and riders were offered 24/7 phone support, and that drivers were not allowed to spend more than 10 hours driving for ViaVan, in order to prevent driver fatigue. It isn’t clear whether ViaVan will offer further benefits to drivers.
The service will also pay drivers a higher percentage of the fare, taking a 15% cut. Uber takes around 20 – 25% commission from drivers for each ride, something that has prompted complaints.
The sell is that drivers should earn more with ViaVan – at least when it expands and puts fares up. It isn’t in ViaVan’s interest to flood the roads with lots of drivers, Snyder said, because its technology is about getting people from A to B more efficiently and in fewer vehicles. The combination of a limited number of drivers, and more passengers per ride, should mean bigger fares, said Snyder.
“Frankly the business model is different,” he said. “You are optimising for very different things. The value for the driver can be high in this case.”
This sounds an awful lot like reinventing the bus
A common complaint with UberPOOL and other carpooling innovations is that public buses work just as well. In London, there’s the added benefit of dedicated bus lanes, meaning it can be faster to get across the city in a bus than in a car.
Snyder said: “The public transport system, depending on where you are, can work really well but it doesn’t work well for everyone everywhere all the time. We see ourselves as providing a service when it makes sense. A savvy consumer knows when it is faster to take the Tube or bus, and knows when it doesn’t make sense because of transfers. We want an option that is efficient, and shared.”
Still, he said Via did originally start in the US to “reinvent the bus” – but outside of city centres. “Where they don’t work is less dense areas, where it doesn’t make sense to run a bus every five minutes. We have shown ViaVan is powerful in suburbs.”
To that end, Via is currently powering a pilot with the bus firm Arriva in Kent, called ArrivaClick. This operates on a similar principle to ViaVan, with passengers able to ride together in a minibus which they summon from an app.
This differentiates Via from Uber somewhat. Uber has made a similar pitch in the UK, but Via has actually made it happen.
UK transport startup CityMapper is similarly trialling a kind of smart bus. According to Snyder, that’s much closer to trying to reinvent the bus because it operates on a fixed route and fixed timetable, and you can’t summon the bus through the app.
ViaVan has a licence but London’s regulator is tough on innovative cab services
Business Insider understands that ViaVan submitted its application for licence in April 2017, meaning it took about a year to be approved.
A source told us that issues with Uber and Taxify, which both lost their licences in September last year, likely slowed the approval process down.
Transport for London has become a lot stricter over the last few months about safety checks, and new ridesharing entrants are under additional scrutiny, the person said.
That comes after Taxify had to can its operations in September just three days after launching, after Business Insider reported that the company had bought a separate minicab firm to “shortcut” its way to an operator’s licence. TfL said Taxify wasn’t a licensed operator and that it had to stop taking bookings.
A fortnight later, Uber lost its licence after TfL criticised the firm’s approach to safety and regulation. Both Taxify and Uber are trying to regain their licences.