How car rationing in Beijing could help Uber’s new nonprofit ride-sharing service take off


Beijing's car restrictions may help Uber's new service gain a foothold in the city. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Uber has evolved a lot over the years — going from exclusively offering black car service to also hailing taxis, as well as allowing non-commercial drivers to use their own cars through its UberX service. In all of those situations, Uber gets a cut of the fare — it's a for-profit enterprise, after all. But not so in its latest endeavor: "People's Uber," which is launching for a trial period in Beijing.

People's Uber will allow prospective riders to share a car through the regular app, just as one would book a normal Uber ride. "Drivers are fellow Beijingers vetted by Uber and rated by users after every trip," according to a blog post announcing the trial — just like with a typical trip. Route details will also be logged in Uber's system, "and cars are insured and licensed according to Beijing standards."

But the rider will be charged only for what the driver is spending on gas, fees or other maintenance. Uber won't get a cut, but it presumably will get more users downloading the app who may occasionally splurge on a pricier ride. And since Uber just launched in Beijing last month, getting more people familiar with using the app is probably a pretty decent strategy for building brand awareness.

Beijing's regulatory setup also may make it particularly amenable to ride-sharing. Car sales in China have grown at huge rates along with the country's middle class — causing major congestion and pollution problems in its capital. To combat these issues, the city uses a lottery system for new license plates that was established in 2011 — making the odds of getting a plate even higher.

The system is so notoriously stingy that residents sometimes try to find ways to work around it, like getting a plate from a neighboring province or renting on the black market.  Road space in the city is also rationed during certain times.

Uber seems to be fully aware of how these systems might combine to make "People's Uber" all the more attractive to consumers: It even compliments the Beijing government for being "forward-thinking in supporting over 20 million residents and 5 million cars on the rings and hutongs [alleyways], through investments to reduce carbon emissions and progressive initiatives like encouraging ridesharing to reduce emissions and road congestion."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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