After 20 minutes of my Uber driver circling around an office complex at 6 a.m., I knew I had made a mistake.
I was on the way to LaGuardia airport to catch an early flight, and I had chosen to take a cheaper UberPool ride from my apartment in Brooklyn.
Unlike normal Uber rides, Pool matches you with other passengers travelling along your route. This time I had matched with someone who apparently had no idea what building he needed to be taken to for a work trip. He instructed the driver to meander around the block while he tried to find the right entrance, and I almost missed my flight.
The idea behind UberPool is that by sharing a ride with someone else going the same direction, you also share the cost of the ride and save money. In exchange for the savings, you face the uncertainty of not knowing exactly when you’re going to arrive at your destination. You also have to share a backseat with a stranger.
Uber is trying to get rid of some of that uncertainty by giving an arrival time guarantee for Pool rides. Starting Tuesday, UberPool users in Los Angeles will see an arrival time, which UberPool senior product manager Brian Tolkin told Tech Insider is “fairly conservative.”
Even if you match the maximum number of people who can fit in the car and make multiple stops along the way, Uber’s estimate is intended to be accurate.
If something unfortunate like my airport incident happens, and you get there later than the estimate, Uber will give you $2 off your next Pool ride. Uber plans to eventually make its “Arrive By” guarantee available in not just LA, but the 36 cities around the world where Pool currently works.
The future of carpooling
Uber has gone all-in on the idea that people want to carpool with strangers. Besides new features like “Arrive By,” the company is spending on Pool promotions in big cities like New York to get the word out, emphasising Pool as an option in the Uber app, and even partnering with local governments to subsidise public transit with discounts on rides.
Despite the complaints riders and drivers have with UberPool, the concept appears to be catching on. Uber touts that 100 million Pool trips have been taken since November 2014. 20% of all Uber rides around the world now use Pool, including 30 million trips per week in China alone.
100,000 people use Pool to carpool at least once a week in 18 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai. In Uber’s hometown of San Francisco, Pool accounts for a higher 40% of all trips.
During a recent TED talk, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick painted Pool as the “future of human-driven transportation” and a way to “turn every car into a shared car.”
But UberPool wasn’t created with such lofty ride sharing aspirations in mind. It started as an experiment to make Uber rides cheaper.
Driving down the price
It’s easy to forget that Uber started as an expensive black car service. SUVs were added after black cars. Then UberX, a more affordable alternative to taxis, was introduced.
Brian Tolkin leads the development of UberPool and has been with the company for 4 years. He remembers when “there was hardly the thought of UberPool or even UberX.”
UberPool started as an experiment by Tolkin’s team to see if Uber could bring down the price of rides below UberX.
“If you look back to Uber’s history, it’s about how can we build more and more products that engage an audience that wouldn’t have been able to engage with Uber before,” Tolkin told TI during a recent interview.
“We noticed that a lot of [rides] were starting and ending in very similar places and people were moving around in their cities in very similar ways,” Tolkin said. “Would it be possible to put two or three of those people in the same car and drive down the price even further?”
It turns out that it was possible, but the journey towards making Pool work on a mass scale hasn’t been easy.
Roadblocks to overcome
First, Uber had to figure out the logistics of shuttling people to different destinations in the same car.
For UberPool to work, the driver has to be able to quickly pick up and drop off passengers along a route. A pick-up taking place at a busy corner instead of the middle of a one-way street could mean the difference between you being on time or late to your next appointment.
There’s also a perception issue passengers have with a driver backtracking or seemingly going out of the way and pick someone else up.
“What we’ve learned is that all time is not treated equal,” said Tolkin.
He explained that if you’re a computer, you think that picking someone up and going backwards for 4 minutes to pick someone else up adds an additional 8 minutes of travel time.
“Humans don’t think 4 minutes is 4 minutes” in that situation, noted Tolkin. It’s easy to imagine why: If you’re trying to get somewhere and your driver takes you the opposite direction of where you’re headed to pick up another passenger, you’re not going to be happy.
Each city also presents its own navigational challenges. In New York City, the streets that run north and south are urban highways — they’re fast and wide and ideal for getting up and down Manhattan. Navigating is much different in China, where ring roads form concentric circles radiating out from a city’s dense center.
There’s only so much a driver can do to make efficient pick-ups. Uber realised it needed to aggregate riders at pick-up points to minimise the number of times the door opens and closes and keep drivers from backtracking. So late last year the company started testing something called UberHop in Toronto, Seattle, and Manila.
With UberHop, when a rider makes a Pool request, the Uber app prompts them to walk to a nearby corner to be picked up. Instead of being dropped off at an exact address, the driver could be told to drop someone off at the nearest corner along a main route.
That UberHop experience is what currently powers UberPool in New York City, one of the company’s biggest markets.
Not well received by drivers
The biggest roadblock to UberPool catching on isn’t passengers; it’s drivers.
“Drivers are actually paid about the same on UberPool rides as they are on UberX yet UberPool requires a lot more work on the driver’s part,” Harry Campbell, an Uber driver who runs the popular Rideshare Guy Blog, told TI via email. “Most people don’t realise that picking up and dropping off passengers is often the most stressful part of the job. Passengers may not be ready to go, in the wrong location, try to exit the vehicle in an illegal drop-off zone, etc.”
Contrary to what you may expect, drivers aren’t paid more per person for Pool rides. Uber calculates what they earn based on their time and miles spent driving passengers. Uber’s argument is that by combining more passengers into one car, a driver spends more time on paid trips. But many drivers see it as more work for less money.
The timing of UberPool’s rise doesn’t help either. Drivers have been protesting Uber’s fare cuts in big cities like New York. Many have sued Uber for employing them as contractors instead of full-time employees.
“All of us should just decline all UberPool requests,” one driver wrote on a forum for Uber drivers in a thread titled
UberPool Boycott. “Sooner or later Uber will get the message and they will do something about it.”
“I don’t really feel that UberPool is worth my time as a driver since it’s more work for about the same amount of pay,” said Campbell. “Some drivers have started to flat out refuse UberPool requests or not pick-up a second passenger but you run the chance of getting deactivated by Uber if you do this too often.”
An Uber spokeswoman confirmed that drivers can’t be permanently deactivated, but they can be logged off for a period of time for “consistently not accepting trip requests.” A recent change to Uber’s app made it so that drivers can pause incoming requests without it affecting their scores or putting them at risk of being penalised.
“For us having a two-sided marketplace, both riders and drivers are extremely important,” said Tolkin when asked about driver complaints. “So we’re constantly thinking about how we can innovate on the experience and the technology for both.”
Getting the word out
Regardless of the issues that persist with drivers, Uber is aggressively marketing Pool with deals, government partnerships, and other creative promotions.
In Chicago and Chengdu, China, Uber is piloting a commuter program that pairs people commuting in from the suburbs every day to work. The program is similar to a commuter program from Lyft in the San Francisco area. You can purchase an UberPool pass in the Boston area for $40 that gets you 20 rides at a flat rate of $2. (So Pool rides are a max of $4 even while surge pricing is in effect.)
A recent report by the
American Public Transportation Association said that those who use services like Uber and Lyft are more likely to also use public transportation. So Uber is starting to work with local governments to get people using Pool alongside public transit options.
The company has pledged $10 million to expand UberPool’s coverage map and offer discounted rides in Washington DC while the city’s Metro is under construction. A partnership with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in Florida offers discounted Pool rides to and from public transit stops. A
San Francisco housing development is subsidizing UberPool rides to and from nearby public transit stops if residents agree to ditch their cars.
When the L train in New York City underwent construction last summer, Uber discounted Pool rides between Williamsburg and Manhattan.
Tolkin doesn’t see people selling their cars overnight to use UberPool every day. He predicts the revolution will start slowly with people in urban areas selling their second vehicle and replacing it with Uber rides. His parents who live just outside of Seattle recently sold their second car and are filling in the gaps with Uber.
Ronak Trivedi, another Uber employee, spends his days trying to bring UberPool to as many cities as possible. He acknowledged that it’s going to take “creative” pushes to get people using Pool, especially in smaller to mid-sized cities. But Uber has enough money and incentive to make Pool accessible.
“As everyone buys in the system collectively gets better,” he said. “And the experience gets better for everyone.”
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