Uber will use Northern Virginia as a testing ground for a new carpooling feature, described by the company as “digital slug lines.” And while the news is drawing applause in the high-tech corridor’s business community, the region’s sluggers — a dedicated group of commuters who pool together to use HOV lanes to save time and money — have been less enthusiastic, with reaction ranging from flattery to scorn.
There’s one clear consensus however: Uber’s program may be inspired by their grass-roots community, but it’s not real slugging. Traditional slugging is free; Uber will charge a fee for its service.
“I don’t think it actually fits the slugging community model,” said David LeBlanc, who wrote the book “Slugging: The Commuting Alternative for Washington, D.C.” and curates the website Slug-Lines.com.
“Slugs are a thrifty community. And they like the idea of getting to work faster and for free,” LeBlanc said.
The new Uber service, called Commute, will initially be available in Tysons, Fairfax City and Alexandria, targeting the Interstate 66 and Interstate 395 corridors along with the George Washington Parkway. Uber has not announced a launch date and says it’s gauging interest among employers. The company plans to roll out the feature in coming weeks, and it is eyeing an eventual expansion to the entire D.C. region, depending on the success of the pilot.
Drivers will net $5 to $10 per ride, and passengers will probably pay a fee within that range, with their costs skewing toward the lower end, the company says.
[Looking for an alternative to SafeTrack? Try the ‘original ridesharing’ system: Slugging]
Uber is advertising Commute as a lower-cost alternative to uberPool, the app’s cheapest option, where riders headed in the same direction split the cost of a trip.
An uberPool trip costing $15 to upward of $25 would cost $5 to $10 with Commute, the company says.
So why does Uber think commuters will pay for a service they now get free? Well, despite the established slugging culture on I-395, the company sees a potential market for paid carpooling on I-66, where there are HOV-2 restrictions during rush hours (compared with HOV-3 on I-395) and fewer places for would-be slugs to catch a ride.
In addition, Uber said the feature might appeal to a new group of customers who are used to ride-hailing apps but can’t afford to use them for daily long-
distance commutes — or who don’t want to wait in slug lines.
“Think of it as digital slug lines,” Uber said in a company blog post. “By sharing their daily commute, drivers heading to and from D.C. can help recoup the costs of their trip, like gas and parking. Commuters in need of a trip into or out of town will be able to get a low-cost, convenient ride with a neighbor or co-worker. And both will benefit from access to those speedy HOV lanes.”
Jim Corcoran, president and chief executive of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, lauded the announcement, pointing to the region’s slugging culture as a reason Uber would be drawn to pilot the program here.
Uber has tried its hand at carpooling before with a similar feature in Chicago that floundered. (Uber rival Lyft discontinued a carpooling pilot, Lyft Carpool, last year, saying that not enough drivers were interested.)
“Certainly when you look at the 95 corridor, [riding with a stranger] is a generally accepted practice in our marketplace — more so than I’ve seen in most other metropolitan areas,” Corcoran said. He welcomed Uber’s attempt to take cars off the region’s congested highways. “The chamber has always believed in an all-of-the-above solution to traffic congestion relief. Can’t be all roads, can’t be all mass transit, can’t be all the same old, same old. There needs to be innovation.”
But in addition to asking customers to pay for a service readily available for free, the feature raises legal and technical questions for the embattled ride-
hailing company. It’s unclear whether drivers would need to be screened under Virginia’s transportation network company law, which requires a criminal-
background check and rescreenings every two years.
Uber says that Commute drivers will not be subject to the same screening and that they shouldn’t be required to because they aren’t driving for profit. The company compared the exchange of money to neighbors who share fuel and parking costs to carpool to work together.
Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, issued a short statement saying the agency plans to explore the issue.
Uber has “approached us about this service and we will meet with them . . . to learn more about the business model,” she said.
In any case, Uber says it plans to warn riders through the app that drivers are not subject to its normal screening requirements. Customers will be required to confirm and consent to riding with someone who hasn’t been subject to traditional screening checks.
To use the service, riders will select “Commute” within the regular Uber app and begin scheduling rides between Northern Virginia and the District. Rides will be scheduled in advance, with morning trips set up the night before. The company says Commute will operate 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Drivers will be prompted to download a specialized version of Uber’s driver app.
So why did Uber choose the D.C. region? Uber says Commute began as an in-house pilot at its D.C. headquarters and became popular with employees.
Uber officials say the D.C. region, which has grappled with Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program for nearly a year, is uniquely suited for Commute.
Uber East Coast General Manager Meghan Joyce cited “the stress and strain that is already in this market.”
[Uber is finally releasing a data trove that officials say will make driving better for everyone]
“We have these heavily congested roadways. But particularly in light of the SafeTrack initiative, we knew that there was going to be additional congestion [and] strain,” she said.
In response to questions surrounding past Uber failures and Lyft’s inability to succeed with a carpooling feature, Joyce said Uber sees its pilot as a way to gauge interest.
“We’re curious to see if this works. And we’re launching it as a pilot. And we will pivot as needed and maybe we’ll find that the appetite’s not there,” Joyce said. “We’re hopeful based on the investment that this community has made, the long tradition of things like sluglining and buses and Metro and shared rides, and the opportunity to help those people who want to drive get reimbursed, help people who want to ride get really affordable rides, and we hope to help reduce congestion while we’re at it.”
[New slugline offers rides from the Franconia-Springfield Metro station to L’Enfant Plaza]
Other key players in the slugging community raised doubts about whether the program is a good-faith effort or an attempt to capitalize on a bustling market.
“This is not helping people. In no way is it going to help the traffic,” said Kalai Kandasamy, the developer behind the sluglines.com app, which arranges rides between commuters and drivers in Northern Virginia. “This is not slug lines. This is just trying to profit off something that is existing that is helping people.”
Uber says it initially does not plan to take a cut from its carpooled rides.
Another app developer, Andriy Klymchuk of slug app Sameride, which transports about 100 passengers per week between Woodbridge and Tysons, welcomed Uber’s arrival to the carpooling community. He said the company could use the region as a test lab to learn how to adopt carpooling in other cities.
Both sluglines.com and Sameride are free.
“I’m happy they’re coming because it proves our assumptions and rationale,” Klymchuk said. “It’s not that Uber will kill everybody else here. It’s still a problem to be solved, and not only at the local area here, but at the global level.”