Uber — the ridesharing service everyone loves to hate, but also loves to use — is taking on New York City’s subway system.
Users of Gilt City, the popular flash sales site, can score a two-week unlimited UberPool commuting fare card for just $49. Compare that rate to that of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) seven-day unlimited commute card, which sets you back $31. Commuters using UberPool can get to and from the office in Manhattan for just $2.45 a ride, a cost that is over 25 percent cheaper than commuting by subway. True, the cost-per-ride of an unlimited subway pass decreases if the user rides on the weekends, has meetings all over town or runs errands during the day. But for many commuters, this UberPool offer is more than tempting.
Of course, the offer only applies to Manhattan south of 125th street, not to the neighborhoods north of Morningside Heights and central Harlem, nor to any of the four surrounding boroughs. And to be clear: The offer is only valid during a three-hour window in the morning and between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. at the end of the workday. If you happen to work long hours or arrive at the office super early, normal Uber rates apply. Riders cannot change their final destination at the last minute, and they need to be at the agreed pick-up spot within two minutes of arranging that lift.
But this campaign shows that Uber could grab a huge stake in New York’s transport system, whether the city wants it around or not. This new offer comes on the heels of Uber’s announcement earlier this year that UberPool would offer rides in the same area for a flat $5 fare.
Nevertheless, Uber’s price war against the nation’s largest transportation system reveals the company’s might, despite constant criticism over its tactics. The offer also sheds light on the shortcomings of public transportation in New York and across the country.
Indeed, New York’s subway system, which launched in October 1904, is impressive and has largely withstood the test of time. Its builders and designers were visionary enough to see the need for occasional double tracks, allowing for express trains to run during peak commuting hours. Contrast that approach with systems such as the Bay Area’s BART, which years ago made the penny-wise, pound-foolish decision not to have a wider Transbay Tunnel, adding to the ongoing woes and strain on the system.
But the fact is that despite its modernization and improvement, New York’s subway is still old. Many of the subway stations are quite uncomfortable during the city’s hot and humid summer months, as well as during winter. And for those who struggle to live in Manhattan, the subway is still relatively expensive.
True, one can point to other systems in the U.S. or abroad that are even more pricey. But compare rides elsewhere to New York’s single fare of $2.75: The fare in Tokyo is about $1.60 for a local ride; Seoul fares start at $1.20; and Paris metro fares are approximately $2. New York’s subway is a great deal if you are moving from the Bronx to Queens, and even from an outlying borough to the Financial District or Midtown. But within the confines of Manhattan, commuters are always searching for better options.
Those pricier transit systems, moreover, are in cities with a high cost of living, expensive real estate and substantial labor costs. So while organizations such as the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) are quick to tout studies citing public transport’s benefits, no one is exploring the reason why public transportation projects, and infrastructure projects in general, are so expensive in the U.S. Whether they are new rail systems or updates and extensions of current ones, transportation systems are becoming too pricey to build, so cities are too spooked to invest in them. Once such projects are finished, there is little appetite– much less any room in the budget — for municipal governments to fund updates to these transportation systems, even though they go far in reducing congestion. And less congestion reduces commuters’ stress while improving worker productivity, and in the long term, can improve public health.
Not that Uber is offering a long-term solution to America’s transport woes, or will have a leading role in the transformation of our urban centers to smart cities. This low-priced offer presents plenty of questions. Can Uber, which still has not made its investors money, profit off upending New York’s commuting system? Then there are the company’s drivers. Many of them have long chafed at Uber’s terms of employment. But other workers desperate to rake up some cash will surely be tempted by the company’s car leasing program, despite its onerous terms. An influx of pick-ups and drop-offs will also irritate local municipal officials, as Uber has a history of balking at safety regulations to the point that Austin, Texas, slammed the door on the company’s operations in that city.
Uber’s attempt to shake up New York’s public transportation system, however, is a signal that America’s cities and federal government have a lot of ground to cover, and answers to give, as more needs to be done to ensure better transport to keep our cities working.
Image credit: Collin Mutchler