It seems you can’t read an article about new mobility or the sharing economy without stumbling across Uber; the mobility service that sprung up in 2009 to only five years later become valued at more than Avis, Hertz, or Sony. Yes, Sony.
Two weeks ago, I found myself using the service for the first time, here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. The ride went silky smooth largely due to its app, which is so easy-to-use your grandmother could use it. Since using it, I quickly realizing why so many opt for the convenience and availability over other options (often unknown for tourists). The company just expanded its offering with “Uber Pool” – which now allows you to split a ride with strangers. It also announced a tie-up with music streaming service Spotify, to sync your two accounts so that the car will be playing your preferred playlist when the car arrives. However, Uber’s entry into the mobility market has been anything but smooth and its implications are still unclear.
Just recently, under pressure from taxi lobbies, India moved to make Uber harder to use in its second largest market after the US. Uber has been lambasted for flouting the law and undermining public transit, and even threatening to lower GDP for countries where it operates. Berlin has moved to ban it outright. Taxi companies around Europe held protests against Uber, but famously ended up boosting Uber ridership by 850% as riders without options [ironically] ended up using the much-maligned, but also much-mentioned service. And of course, there’s the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, who has come under repeated fire for controversial statements and practices regarding competitor Lyft and other incidents.
Leaving all that aside, from a transport and energy perspective, the question is: does Uber make cities more energy efficient? The question has been hotly debated for carsharing for some time, including for such services as Zipcar and Autolib’, but with Avis Budget Group buying Zipcar, it at least seems there is continued appetite in cities for these efforts as they continue to grapple with issues of pollution, congestion, and jobs and innovation.
One thing is certain: the world continues to urbanize, and congestion in cities is going nowhere but up. With this in mind, it seems that Uber or other similar services will play a role in our cities if for no other reason than that we want them to. Uber claims to be able to take one million vehicles off the roads, and Lyft believes that by increasing vehicle occupancy in major cities sucjh as Los Angeles and New York from 1.1 to 1.3 you would eliminate traffic in the city. Either prospect is tantalizing no matter your preferred mode of choice. This is akin to Autolib’s goal that for its 3,000 vehicles, you’d take 22,500 vehicles off the road; or about 7.5 cars off the road for each carsharing vehicle introduced.
What do you think? Is Uber really that different from taxis? And if so, is the overall energy benefit positive?
Zachary T. Brown