Rideshare platforms like Uber have taken the world by storm, disrupting the transport market and forcing legislators to revise age-old laws. As the platform continues to expand, Uber is looking to diversify its services and go from simply being a mediative tech platform to a transport platform. Earlier last week, the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, announced plans to integrate Uber in public transport by expanding service to public buses; the move, however, hasn’t been welcomed with open arms by many.
The announcement was made by Khosrowshahi himself at an event sponsored by Goldman Sachs in New York last week, in which he said that he wants Uber to become fully integrated into cities’ transit networks. He explained that he doesn’t want “[Uber] to be seen as purely a car-for-hire company but one that would take any person on any transit system, ‘from point A to point B,’ whatever the best way.’” He went on to say that he wants people “to be able to take an Uber and get into the subway — if the trains are running on time, you’ve got real-time data — get in the subway, get out and have an Uber waiting for you…”
Uber received $9 billion in investment from SoftBank last December, making it one of, if not the single fastest growing tech startup in the world. This, however, comes after a year that has left the company reeling from a sexual harassment scandal and protests by cab drivers from around the world – not to mention recent regulations by the European Court of Justice. In the face of these blows, Uber has continued to grow, expanding its offerings to include food delivery through its UberEats service, UberHOP in Seattle and Manilla, and UberChopper in Dubai – not to mention its short-lived route between New York City and the Hamptons.
Critics are concerned with the integration of Uber in public transport networks since it runs the risk that public transport will be rendered obsolete and that, as a substitute, Uber might recreate the same challenges that currently exist in public transport in American cities. Rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft in the U.S. and other platforms elsewhere in the world are imagining a future where people own fewer cars and instead rely on a combination of ridesharing and trains. And as promising of a future as ridesharing has in resolving cities’ last mile issues, the privatization of public transport poses threats to transport infrastructure already in place.
Cities in the United Kingdom were forced to deregulate their bus systems in 1989 in order to allow competitive services to come into the market. With the exception of London, where buses weren’t deregulated, city authorities noted an increase in fares, a decrease in ridership, and inconsistent service across cities. Yonah Freemark, an expert on transit, shared with The Verge his fears of a similar scenario happening in cities which ceded their bus services to Uber.
By virtue of its nature as a private, for-profit company, Uber’s intentions to maximize ridership, improve accessibility, and minimize cost may diverge from how cities are looking to develop public transit networks. Freemark expressed to The Verge that he fears that Uber will capitalize on certain routes and areas of cities with high ridership, pushing other routes to the margin and recreating the same gaps that currently exist in public transport in U.S. cities.
Ideally, the integration of Uber in public transport would not attempt to replace existing services, but, rather to fill the gaps that exist in cities. If the company enters the market only to recreate the current challenges of public transport, it would only exacerbate these problems. As such, public transportation would cease to function as a network.
Since Uber is legally registered as a technology platform rather than a transportation service, which is the premise on which Uber was banned in Europe, the company has for the most part been able to evade regulation. In Florida, where the popularity of the ridesharing platform as a substitute for public transit has flourished, Uber is not required to accommodate people with disabilities. Should cities proceed with integrating Uber in public transport networks, questions like these suggest that the company may not necessarily work towards making public transportation accessible to all in the future.
On the other side of the world in China, where Uber failed to dominate the market, longtime rival Didi Chuxing offers a ridesharing platform alongside bus and other transport services. The company is currently the second most valuable tech startup in the world, following right behind Uber. What Didi Chuxing’s success in China suggests is that that ridesharing can effectively compliment public transportation. It also indicates that the integration of Uber in public transport can be done in a way that does not necessarily tap into opponents’ fears of its integration in American cities.