A private driver, on demand. They showed up in like, 2 minutes. They were friendly and took you right to where you needed to go. Ahhh...the good old days. Life sure was better way back in... 2015.
Uber started as something very luxurious and quickly morphed into something truly world-changing. Black cars, then regular cars on demand. The entire experience was a premium one. The cars were cleaner, the drivers friendlier. The cost? Equal or less to what you were paying a traditional cab driver. "Where has this been all my life?!" you might have found yourself saying. Even in instances where the cost was 4x that of a public transportation alternative, Uber felt like a deal. Book a car, get in, go, get out, have a nice day. Oh, and payment was automated.
And yes, that much hasn't gone away completely. You can still get a regular Uber.
But UberPOOL is brutal.
If you have to get somewhere in a hurry, you can forget about it. If you enjoyed going directly to your destination and having confidence that the expected arrival time was accurate, you can forget about that too.
You actually sit physically closer to people on public transportation, but there is something strangely invasive about sitting next to someone else in the UberPOOL. I used to enjoy the privacy of solitary passengerdom. I didn't mind and would participate in light conversation with drivers, but never initiated it.
So what is this strangely invasive feeling coming from? It is smell. And I'm not even talking about bad body odor. I recently shared a ride with a women of the same age, who was dressed professionally and had on some perfume. Now, perfume is something most women wear, and maybe the mixture of many smells on the bus is just part of the public transportation experience. But when this woman got into the Uber, the smell just felt over-consuming and uncomfortable. I might as well have been sniffing her hair.
In terms of smell exchange, we might as well have been these two people, from this obscure Patrick Swayze movie you've probably never heard of or seen:
Believe me, I'm as surprised to be writing this as you probably are to be reading this. But the bottom line is, UberPOOL is a different experience and it's now part of a less premium, less valuable Uber experience.
What are the other negative experiences that now come with UberPOOL?
Let's do a list:
Double the wait times.
Maybe I'm spoiled because Chicago is one of Uber's top markets. But there's rarely more than a 4-5 minute wait for a private car, even in more remote downtown areas. But with UberPOOL I'm waiting 8-9 minutes. And at that point, I'd rather just take the bus or train for $2.50. Waiting that long is just not what Uber's brand had come to be about. They used to be the only thing that arrived faster than Jimmy Johns. Now it's just not as convenient as it used to be.
How long will these other pickups take?
I see the estimated time until arrival to my destination on the app, but I don't have much faith in it. How can they tell if the next passenger is ready to jump in? What if passenger 2 is dilly-dallying in the lobby of their building? Where are we we even going to pickup up the next passenger from?!?! The uncertainty gives me anxiety. When they finally get in I'm like, "Where are they going?" I really don't want to ride along on someone else's errand or trip, even if it's right on the way. It's going to take a few more trips to get used to this.
WHO will be joining me?
If UberPOOL is going to succeed it's going to need passenger ratings to be made public. I haven't had a negative POOL passenger experience yet, but I've only taken it during the day. What about at night when the partiers come out? What about today during St. Patrick's Day Saturday in Chicago? The last place I want to be is with a drunk person I've never met, who is about to vomit in the back of a car I'm riding in. Maybe a breathalyzer becomes a new iPhone feature and becomes a required part of getting an Uber? You can't tell me it's totally impossible.
Also, I'm a 6'4" 210 lb male. I generally don't fear for my physical safety. Certainly not when sharing a cab. But what about a female who has these concerns on daily basis? My biggest fear amounts to a minor annoyance when you consider the larger spectrum of personal safety issues Uber is already fielding from solo-customer ridership.
Will I be relegated to a middle seat?
I really hope not, but sadly, if it costs a $1.75 for me to sit in the middle seat when a cab would cost me $12, I think I'm taking it but having a miserable time. I don't think I want to me squished into a cab with complete strangers. When you're sitting in the middle seat on an Uber, I think that's when people start to think, "WTF is going on here? Why am I doing this? I don't need this. There has to be a better way."
WHEN will I get to my destination?
I see that there's an arrival time estimate on the app during the ride, but is that including time needed to pick up someone else? But I've lost trust in the estimation.
UberPOOL is basically Kid's Cab minus the bench seating. (Or maybe that's coming.) But I'm not a kid anymore, and I'm not just headed home to watch a little TV and then do my homework. Being a leader in the on-demand travel business means picking me up promptly and taking the quickest route possible to my destination. UberPOOL is destroying this part of the Uber experience.
Loss-Leader Pricing Tells Us What's Next
I write all this with full acknowledgement that I could have opted for a solo car. But, I couldn't help but notice the pricing strategy, namely the disparity in price between POOL and regular Uber X. Uber POOL was crazy cheap. Regular Uber X? crazy expensive for what I would have expected.
Uber is using the same pricing strategy as they did with Uber X when that service debuted: Run it as a loss leader so the price is so low that they can't resist. Once usage becomes habitual, continue to increase prices until the point usage declines. While I'm begrudgingly taking the UberPOOL at the discounted rate, I'm not going to be happy when the $4.50 POOL ride costs me $11.75 in 18 months. With Uber's market share dominance, they'll probably have that luxury.
Uber was in a good place when the first launched Uber X, but now seems to be devolving into a privatized, small-batch public transportation. It's a big shift in my personal taste for transportation, but maybe that's what gives the idea so much potential. A lot of big world-changing ideas hear the, "that will never work" commentary. Just ask AirBnB.
But Is this Lyft's Big Opportunity?
I used to think I'd have no use for Lyft or other competitors, but now I'm actively searching. The Lyft experience has always placed value on human interaction, which may give them a leg up in the UberPOOL space. Maybe Lyft's partnership with GM gives Lyft drivers discounted leasing options for more economical small batch transit vehicles. A driver in this van could take 8-10 people, and it it wouldn't be nearly as uncomfortable. It might even be fun to ride with strangers if it was part of the expected brand experience. Lyft could evolve into micro-meetups on wheels where light conversation within the vehicle was something you almost looked forward to. Maybe GM comes out with a custom vehicle that's more economical, but also more fuel efficient to manage the rigors of small batch mass transit in an urban environment.
With the right transport vehicle, UberPOOL can work. But a large portion of Uber's independent contract driver network just isn't equipped with a vehicle that can facilitate a positive shared-ride experience. In an upcoming post, I'm going to examine the evolution of personal transport, which I see evolving into four unique markets: 1) Traditional mass-transit managed by the CTA, BART, etc. 2) Traditional Uber, 3) Small batch mass transit, UberPOOL or Lyft Van and 4) Self-managed car ownership.