Uber offers slugging and fixed-route service

By Eric Sundquist

The distinction between transit and transportation network companies (TNCs) got smaller in early December, as Uber rolled out a version of “slugging” and fixed-route services.

Uber’s slugging service is called UberCOMMUTE. Previously piloted in China, it launched this week in the Chicago area.

It echoes the long-standing practice of Washington-area commuters, who walk or drive to “sluglines,” where drivers pick them up to go to work. Drivers benefit by being able to use HOV lanes, and riders get free rides.

Uber’s version is an extension of its existing UberPOOL service, which gives riders discounts for sharing rides with other passengers heading the same general direction. Chicago riders using UberCommute will simply use UberPOOL but at an increased discount. UberPOOL’s more novel element is on the driver side; instead of employing dedicated Uber drivers, it relies on commuters simply opening their car to other riders on the trip they would take anyway.

“We chose the Chicago area because we believe this pilot can help alleviate a huge problem: congestion. I-90 recently earned the title of the ‘nation’s worst bottleneck,’” Uber said in its announcement.

At the same time, Uber is rolling out service based on fixed routes. Called UberHOP, it is piloting in Seattle and Toronto. For a fixed fee of $5, riders can travel between designated origin and destination neighborhoods. In Seattle, the initial offering takes riders between Ballard and South Lake Union, and between Fremont and Capitol Hill and downtown – routes that are already served at a lower fare by transit.

One blogger gave the service a test ride:

“Riding on uberHOP felt very much like a private bus. Unlike a public bus, it was nice to know exactly when the ride is departing and arriving — apps like OneBusAway offer something similar, but Uber’s technology seems more precise. Other perks include the fact that you get to sit in a nice SUV and pay directly in the app.

“One downside for some folks is that you ride with strangers, which can be good or bad, depending on how social you are and if you like meeting new people. But those comfortable with public transit shouldn’t find this to be much trouble.”

The new services, if they succeed, are the most recent developments in a rapidly evolving relationship between transit and TNCs. TNCs cite evidence that they support transit by providing first- and last-mile connections, and are in some cases even formalizing that service in cooperation with transit agencies. It’s possible to use Uber’s new service to get to transit too, but that’s not what they are designed for.

If history is prelude, TNCs’ slugging service will be most popular as a connection between low-density areas where transit is sparse and central business districts or other employment centers. In that case it likely would put “more people in fewer cars,” as Uber claims.

In contrast, Uber’s foray into fixed routes in transit-dense areas would seem to put it in direct competition with transit, though it’s possible that the higher fare and cushier ride would convert drivers rather than transit riders to Uber users.

Uber has a robust data shop, and the transportation community will be eager to learn how both services succeed or don’t, who uses them, and what effect they have on transit.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.