Commuters who have grown so used to the split, lower-cost fares on UberPool may soon find an even cheaper ride in the D.C. region — and several other metro areas around the United States — if they don’t mind a little walking.
Beginning Wednesday, Uber is launching a new service, Express Pool, that aims to cut out the hassle of detours and backtracking on UberPool. Riders will be directed to pickup points within two blocks of their origin and dropped off within two blocks of their destinations, according to Uber. Riders will endure a slightly longer wait for a driver match — up to two minutes — while Uber works to place them along the optimal route. They then will be instructed where to catch their ride.
The perk for riders? Discounted trips. Express Pool is up to 50 percent cheaper than ride-splitting option UberPool and 75 percent cheaper than UberX, the door-to-door ride-hailing service, Uber says. It’s a model that D.C. commuters first saw with services like the now-defunct Split, and one that has been continued with the advent of Via, a true ride-hailing service that launched in the District in summer 2016.
D.C.-area users can expect to see the Express Pool option in their Uber apps beginning Thursday.
For a company that says it is not actively competing with public transit, Express Pool represents perhaps Uber’s most ambitious effort yet to lure daily commuters to the app, which has nearly 50,000 active drivers in the region.
“We would love to get into a state where people are confident in trusting us for their daily commute to and from work, whether those people are old and young, within the city or suburbs,” Ethan Stock, Uber’s director of product for shared rides, said in a call with reporters this week. “What we see is that public transit works really well on core high-volume routes. In the diversity of moving all over a city it becomes harder and harder for public transit to do well … Uber is really phenomenal at it.”
Express Pool will launch Wednesday in Los Angeles, San Diego and Denver; Miami and Philadelphia will join the D.C. region in receiving it Thursday. Uber has already piloted Express Pool in Boston and San Francisco, and the service is expected to continue operating in those metro areas and the six new cities before an eventual nationwide launch, which has yet to be announced.
Riders will see Express Pool in their app menu to the left of UberPool and UberX.
For now, Uber says, Express Pool riders will be mixed in with regular Pool riders and the algorithm will decide whom to drop off when, and where to make stops.
Ideally, it will work kind of like a bus. A vehicle will make pickups and drop-offs along a largely turn-free route, scooping up passengers and making pit stops along the way. Of course, with the mix of Pool and Express Pool riders, one might plan for some detours and route-retracing that have become common to the UberPool experience.
(Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos is an Uber investor.)
“In our attempts to get multiple riders into that car at the same time, we’re kind of making loops, we’re doing backtracking, it’s a very unpredictable and not very sensible route,” Stock said of some UberPool trips. “We want minimal stops and we want minimal detours because we’ve done our homework and we’ve matched you, the rider, with extremely compatible other riders who are going similar directions with minimal diversion.”
Despite the obvious parallels, Uber says its new service is not analogous to a bus (lest it violate any local regulations on fixed-route bus service).
“We don’t think that this is at all like a bus,” Stock said. “Three of the fundamental things about how buses work is they have fixed pickup and drop-off spots, a fixed route and a fixed time schedule that they’re operating on. Everything about the Express Pool product is dynamic.”
One other key difference, according to planning experts and ride-hailing companies themselves: No matter how cheap Uber gets, it’s not a feasible replacement for mass transit. Five-seat vehicles cannot possibly transport as many people in so little time as buses or a functioning Metro system, for example. In the D.C. region, a single Metro train can carry more than 1,000 people from the downtown core across state lines within minutes. Shifting those riders to private cars is a recipe for congestion.
The cheaper Uber fares also are likely to bring renewed concerns about driver compensation. Last summer, amid complaints the company was shortchanging drivers and otherwise failed to heed complaints about frenetic routing, Uber added the option to tip drivers, shortened cancellation windows for riders and opted to offer compensation for driver waits exceeding two minutes. Uber also instituted a $1 flat fare for every new pickup on UberPool in an effort to ease driver stress.
The company suffered dramatic losses of $4.5 billion in 2017, amid a scandal-tarnished year that culminated in the ouster of co-founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick. Asked how it could further lower prices in the District, where $3 rides became common during SafeTrack, the company said it is working toward a sustainable financial model, and doesn’t expect commuters will see dramatic price shifts anytime soon. Drivers’ pay formulas, Uber said, are not expected to change.
“Fundamentally we pay on time and distance to drivers, and it’s Uber’s responsibility to get the riders into that car and pay for what the driver is making,” Stock said.
Given today’s highly subsidized fares, will Uber eventually need to jack up prices to make ends meet?
“While it’s certainly possible that we might need to adjust prices in the future, it is very much our goal to launch this on a sustainable basis and be able to maintain these prices going forward,” Stock said.
A possible hint at how low fares could dive with Express Pool: In one screenshot provided by Uber, the cost of commuting in San Francisco around 8 a.m. was listed at $2.95.
By comparison, Metro costs anywhere from $2.25 to $6 during rush hour, and a Metrobus ride costs $2.
“In some cases, particularly in areas underserved by public transit today … people are going to see this as a viable option versus public transit,” Stock said.
Uber’s chief rival, Lyft, launched an experiment called Lyft Shuttle in Chicago and San Francisco last year, with fixed routes and predetermined stops, that was much less subtle in its imitation of bus systems.
And Uber itself hinted this week at how it could further cut costs in the future: with the introduction of a higher-capacity vehicle service … that sounds a lot more like a bus.
“If the lowest price that we can offer Express Pool at today is about one-third of what an UberX is, you can offer it at one-sixth the price with a six-seater vehicle,” Stock said, though he added that Uber has no current plans to introduce such a service.