Uber Pool Is a Zombie

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Uber Pool Is a Zombie

In the end, Uber Pool had to go. By mid-March 2020, chunks of America were already in lockdown, AMC had boarded up its movie theaters, and the country’s toilet-paper reserves were getting wiped out. The novel coronavirus was here, and sharing rides with strangers in a different stranger’s car had become yet another part of life upended by the pandemic. “If you must travel” using any of Uber’s other options, the company made sure to note on March 17, the day it officially disabled the pooling feature on its app, “please keep your driver’s well-being in mind by washing your hands before and after entering the vehicle.”

Before the pandemic, shared rides (both from Uber Pool and its biggest competitor, Lyft Line) were an inescapable part of urban life for the professional class. They were the dive bar of ride hailing: always cheap, mostly chaotic. But while just about every other mode of transportation has long since returned—goodbye masks on planes, hello cruise ships—Uber Pool has been nowhere to be found. Yes, people can still order Ubers for themselves, but the drama (and the very occasional joy) of schlepping across town while avoiding eye contact with two other Poolers has vanished.

Until now … kind of. I guess? A couple weeks ago, the ride-hailing juggernaut debuted its new take on pooled rides, “UberX Share,” in nine American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. The name is different and worse, and so are the deals. Uber Pool would give you a flat-rate discount before booking, up to 50 percent cheaper than just riding solo. With UberX Share, there’s lots of fine print: Riders get a tiny deal up front and then up to 20 percent off if you match with another rider along the way (and that match can only be with a single rider).

It’s different because it has to be. Uber Pool showed us just how cheap ride-hailing could get, but its return is not a time machine so much as a reminder of how much less wallet-friendly the gig economy is these days. Chalk it up to high gas prices, weird market forces, Uber being Uber, or a little bit of everything, but the ride that cost $20 in early 2019 now runs $30. The service has been warped into something else entirely, and it’s not clear at all that people want to take the plunge.

On Sunday, June 26, I embarked upon a grand ride-hailing voyage, spending my afternoon and evening taking five separate trips around New York City. Not only did my rides fail to involve other passengers, but my drivers all told me they had yet to take any rider in a shared Uber that actually was, well, shared. I was stumped: If any day would have been paradise for Uber Pool as we once knew it, it would look a lot like the day of New York City’s Pride march, which fell this year on the day of my expedition. Pride draws in millions of mostly young revelers, surely some of whom, I figured, would just find it easier to hop into the nearest Uber pool instead of braving clogged subway cars.

At first, when I fired up the Uber app, it seemed like I was onto something: On the map showing all the Ubers around me, each car was lit up in a rainbow flag, and Fares are slightly higher due to increased demand flashed across my screen. For the first leg of my journey, I set off for Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood about a mile north of my home. After a seven-minute wait (and a $14 charge), Fazal Khan and his black Prius rolled up to my doorstep. It had all the funkiness of the Uber Pool of yore, updated for pandemic times: A “Black Ice”–scented tree freshener swung from his rearview mirror, and Khan was wearing a red bandanna over his face with a surgical mask he had pulled on top. The backseat was empty before I climbed in, but Khan seemed like exactly the type of driver who would have already done lots of UberX Shares: He drives 10-hour shifts seven days a week, he told me, taking breaks only to grab pushcart burgers and down cups of coffee. “Not Starbucks,” he said, “always street coffee.” I was quickly disappointed. As we zoomed up Seventh Avenue, all I got was this: “People aren’t taking shared rides,” he said.

Well, okay then. Alas, the same thing kept happening. I crossed over to Lower Manhattan, made my way up to Murray Hill, then bounced down to the Lower East Side, forlornly staring at the empty passenger seats beside me and waiting for my Uber app to announce I’d been rerouted somewhere out of the way. Striking out wasn’t cheap—some of my rides came out to $20 for a couple of miles, virtually the same cost as just taking a traditional Uber. But at least I did get more time to chat with drivers, who seemed decidedly blas​​é about the return of Uber Pool. The only thing worse than one drunk passenger, it turns out, is two. One Uber driver who didn’t speak much English called his wife on speakerphone so she could let me know that I was his first-ever UberX Share. When I pestered another driver about UberX Share, he insisted that he’d never even heard of the service before.

By the time the gray Hyundai that would take me back home to Brooklyn circled past a solid three times, I had lost $87 and any hope of finding another pool-er. Opting for UberX Share had saved me a grand total of $12.45, which obviously isn’t nothing, but also isn’t even in the same stratosphere of deals that made Uber Pool so popular. Taking the same five Uber Pools in February 2020 would have shaved down my total fares by about $32, according to my own calculations of data from the research firm YipitData. If I had gotten even a few truly shared rides, the difference presumably wouldn’t be so stark, but then again, I hadn’t gotten any truly shared rides.

My rides were just a tiny experiment, on their own no grand evidence that UberX Share is a flop. But so far, I haven’t been able to find much else that suggests otherwise. Sergio Avedian, an Uber driver based in L.A. who is a senior contributor to the blog The Rideshare Guy (which has no affiliation with Uber), told me that about 40 percent of his rides used to be Uber Pool. Last week, he went hunting for UberX Share passengers, working 20 rides in total, so he could write about it. He got just one UberX Share request (which, naturally, was not shared). Passengers could be thinking that “the initial discount [on UberX Share] is so small, I might as well just be by myself,” Avedian said. The prices appear to have the service stuck in ride-hailing purgatory: not cheap enough to draw back Uber Pool’s core constituency of college students and underemployed 20-somethings, and too much of a pain for those who can afford the luxury of a solo trip.

Perhaps with some algorithm tweaks and a bit of marketing jiu-jitsu, we’ll all soon be UberX Sharing everywhere. That’s certainly Uber’s vision: A spokesperson told me in an email, “While it’s early and customers are just becoming familiar with the new rides offering, we’re happy with the levels of driver and rider engagement we’re seeing throughout the country.” The spokesperson declined to share specific ridership data, and said that Uber plans on expanding the service to other cities in the coming weeks and months.

But relative to the cultural impact Uber Pool left behind—it became the subject of memes and late-night skits—this relaunch feels like a dud. It’s not Uber’s fault, exactly. If Pool felt too good to be true back in the 2010s, that’s because it was. Uber has the scale and visibility that any start-up would die for, but it does not have the most basic thing that matters: profitability. A big part of the problem is that ride-hailing broke the rules of Econ 101. Every time you called a car, Uber lost money on that ride—the company has reportedly lost hundreds of millions on pooled rides alone each year, and $30 billion in total over the past five years. A torrent of venture-capital money filled in the gap, fueling what my colleague Derek Thompson has called the “Millennial lifestyle subsidy.”

Now the spigot has dried up, and the shared rides we used to have are gone. (Lyft recently relaunched its own pooled-rides service, and like Uber, the company is in a rough place economically.) “If you ask me how optimistic I am about the viability of Uber Pool, I would say that it was really hard to be viable before COVID,” Gad Allon, a Wharton professor who studies the gig economy, told me. This version of Uber Pool might be a little more sustainable—giving riders a sliver of a discount while also not eating so much into Uber’s bottom line. That still might not be enough. “I’m not confident that it can be viable at all even after that,” Allon said.

At first, my long and lonely journey got me all wistful about the Uber Pool we lost. That, I realized, is wrong: UberX Share reveals the whole house of cards that held up those cheap rides all along. The company has brought back shared rides, but it can’t bring back everything that made them so appealing in the first place. When I asked my string of Uber drivers what they thought about the old Uber Pool, everyone who was driving then had the same take: It was a hellscape. Drivers got stuck with circuitous routes cooked up by the Uber algorithm, protracted waiting times, and unhappy customers inclined to give bad ratings. “This one is going to be much better for the driver than Uber Pool,” Alkely Keita, the driver of an enormous black SUV, told me—and thus, much worse for the rider. Not necessarily a bad trade-off, but only if it lasts.

Go to Publisher: Technology | The Atlantic
Author: Saahil Desai