Uber is not here to compete with public transit — or so the company’s reps have continually stressed over the last few years. But for all its first/last mile partnerships, data offerings and leadership shake-ups, the company has also begun experimenting with fixed-route (and pooled) services that look a lot like, well, public transit.
This week, it rolled out one such service, Express Pool, in Philadelphia and five other cities — Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego and Denver. The company began piloting the service in San Francisco and Boston last November. Express Pool matches riders with drivers and additional riders (much like UberPool), but instead of dropping them off at their exact locations, it leaves them within “walking distance,” according to the Verge.
The service is up to 75 percent cheaper than UberPool and UberX to account for the inconvenience — and in Philadelphia, at least, that could be bad news for fixed-route transit, which is already seeing steep declines in ridership. Plan Philly reports that trips across Center City could go for less than $2.50, the cost of SEPTA fare. SEPTA says ride-hailing apps do impact its fares, but most ridership declines happen during off-peak hours, suggesting that Uber isn’t a part of most users daily commute.
Not so with Express Pool.
“In some areas, particularly areas underserved by transit today, people will see it as a viable option versus public transit,” Ethan Stock, Uber Express Pool’s product lead told reporters in a teleconference. “We would like to get into a state where people are confident in [Express Pool] for their daily commute to and from work.”
However, he clarified to the Verge that Express Pool wasn’t trying to compete with well-established lines.
“There are clearly corridors and routes where it makes sense to put a 60-passenger on that and drive it back and forth in a straight line,” he told the website. “And that is very much what we’re not trying to do here.”
Regardless of how the new service interacts with SEPTA, Uber (along with Lyft and taxi services) could face new fees in Philadelphia. The 50-cent surcharge proposed Tuesday by the Philadelphia Parking Agency (PPA) could raise up to $13.5 million a year, according to the agency’s executive director. That would be nearly $10 million more than what it collects now under a different tax structure, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
The fee would have to be approved by state lawmakers, but it could potentially make the extra-low fares of a service like Express Pool less sustainable for Uber.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.