The ride-hail company Uber announced last week that it will be adding a public transportation option to its app in New York City, which may be an attempt to repair its tense and lawsuit ridden relationship with City Hall. The Uber app’s new tab will display nearby subway and commuter-rail lines, as well as, prices.
The introduction of this new feature comes shortly after a Manhattan Supreme Court judge dismissed Uber’s lawsuit over the city’s for-hire vehicle license cap in early November. Additionally, Uber – and the other ride-hail giant Lyft – both have ongoing lawsuits over the city’s cap on how long drivers can cruise without passengers below 96th Street in Manhattan.
While Uber desperately needs to make moves like offering an in-app public transit option to repair its relationship with city officials, the company is already being outmaneuvered by Via – its far more government friendly competitor. Via has built its image on the idea that it’s a cross between a private car service and a public transit option, which is why it’s made partnerships with municipalities a central part of its business strategy.
“Via has always approached the rideshare business a bit differently from Uber and Lyft,” said Harry Campbell – who founded and runs The Rideshare Guy blog – in an emailed statement. “They’ve established positive relationships with cities across the country, while Uber and Lyft are in the crosshairs of many major cities as we’ve seen with regulators in NYC.”
Via has a track record of entering into partnerships with municipalities around the country. According to Campbell, these include partnerships with public transit systems in Columbus Ohio and Los Angeles.
In August, Via announced a partnership with the New York City Department of Education to modernize the city’s school bus routing system with its trip-planning technology – a program it’s calling Via for Schools.
The DOE currently uses a database of student’s home and school addresses that feed into an old software program to determine school bus routes. This outdated routing system led to 130,000 individual complaints this September alone around issues of bus punctuality and capacity.
At the Future of NYC Summit, hosted by Crain’s New York Business and Tech:NYC in late October, Via’s CEO and co-founder Daniel Ramot said this is the kind of problem that his company’s technology can address.
“The city has a very hard time responding,” said Ramot. “It’s a complex dynamic system that I think would benefit from tech.”
Ramot said Via’s algorithm will help the city plan the most efficient school bus routes, which includes avoiding traffic and bad road conditions. Additionally, the platform will allow parents and students to track their buses’ location in real time and ask questions.
Former TLC commissioner Meera Joshi said in an emailed statement that Via’s partnership with the DOE tracks with its very public strategy of selling cities on its trip-planning services.
“The partnership with DOE is logical and it makes very good sense, not just for Via, but also for the DOE, students and their parents,” said Joshi.
Unlike Uber and Lyft, Via only offers shared rides and not individual ones, which means the city’s license and cursing caps don’t really affect Via’s business model. Thus, Via has a better relationship with City Hall than its two larger competitors.
“Via has always been positively received by transportation officials and regulators,” said Matthew Daus – president of the International Association of Transportation regulators – in an emailed statement. “Unlike Uber and Lyft, they have a track record of compliance, and their business model benefits government policymakers in many ways.”
Uber, on the other hand, has been at odds with City Hall over the past couple of years and is in desperate need of some good PR that can improve its relationship with regulators, which could very likely be the reason why it added the public transit tab to its app.
This was indirectly confirmed by David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, who said in an interview that the company added the public transit option to win the trust of its customers.
“I think it’s definitely a PR move since there have been some that say they are trying to compete with public transportation,” said Campbell.