After handing over license plate info, Uber re-opens its NYC bases

Uber has relented against New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) and handed over its data. As a result, it can now open the five Uber dispatch bases that the TLC shut down when Uber refused to comply.

New York City passengers won’t see much of a difference in service. The bases are locations for administrative work, so them being shut down inconvenienced drivers who needed to go for licensing tests and training, not riders. Furthermore, the TLC had decided to block Uber’s request to open a base in Brooklyn until it handed over trip information.

The ride-hailing company publicly announced its decision to offer more data to cities last month, starting with Boston. At the time, it said it would be anonymizing all the data and offering it in aggregate to cities so they can make policy decisions like planning public transit routes.

But the TLC required Uber to include vehicle license plate numbers if it wanted its bases reinstated. That means Uber will be giving that specific, non anonymized driver information at least to the New York City government. The company told the New York Business Journal it’s doing so “under protest.

Uber initially cited trade secrets for not wanting to give up its data. It may not have wanted local governments to being able to send their taxis to popular Uber areas at peak times, for example. But as evidenced by the blog post on giving data to Boston and other cities, the company had a change of heart, realizing that it could offer data to cities as an olive branch and potentially ease Uber’s local regulatory conflicts as a result.

Uber’s first test of crisis surge cap went unnoticed in October

All eyes are on New York, where along with a massive incoming storm, Uber is rolling out its emergency surge pricing cap. On Monday, there was a flurry of coverage by media outlets from Bloomberg to Time, with some saying this marks, “a chance for Uber Technologies Inc. to show it has learned from past mistakes.”

But this isn’t the first time Uber has capped surge pricing during a state of emergency — it’s the second.

According to a source familiar with the testing, Uber used its new surge price capping system in October during Hurricane Ana in Hawaii, which appears to have gone unreported by media. The company didn’t make a fuss of the development, choosing to introduce the system without scrutiny. Although Hawaii declared a state of emergency during that time, Hurricane Ana didn’t cause much damage.

Here’s how Uber calculates surge pricing in states of emergency: It chooses the fourth highest surge rate in the 60 days prior and makes that the capped rate for the storm. The top three highest surge rates from the prior two months will be ignored, in hopes of keeping the fare reasonable. It’s not clear why Uber won’t just cap surge at a designated amount, like 2x. The company will donate all of its revenue, which is 20 percent of each ride, to the American Red Cross during this time.

Uber announced the new emergency surge pricing policy in July, in light of tropical storm Arthur, which hit the East Coast. But according to an SF Examiner story, the pricing cap never went into effect because a state of emergency was never declared during the storm. Hawaii’s Hurricane Ana was its first test in October, but the New York blizzard will be its biggest.

The capped fare for New York’s upcoming blizzard Juno comes after the state’s attorney general penned a New York Times op-ed shaming Uber for what he called “price gouging” in the wake of surge pricing during Hurricane Sandy. The blowback for Uber surge pricing during times of crises stretch across the globe, with the recent outcry notably occurring after a hostage situation in Sydney. During instances like these, Uber has initially repeated the company line about how surge pricing gets more drivers on the road during times they might not otherwise drive.

This is true, but it doesn’t subvert the ethical quandary of leaving those who can’t afford the surge pricing in a potentially dangerous situation. The reoccurring outcry appears to have prompted Uber to have a change of heart.

Uber starts releasing transit data to cities

Following a conflict with New York City over its ride data, Uber has begun giving some of its transit information to Boston in a pilot program. It’s using ZIP codes as the basis for the place-based information, and it’s anonymizing some of the details to protect riders and passengers.

In a blog post, Uber suggested that Boston would serve as a trial for the program before the company expands it to other cities. Uber isn’t handing over any pricing details, but it is giving cities information on every ride’s drop off and pick up ZIP codes, the time of day each occurred, distance and time of each trip, and “technical support” for combing through the data.

As Gigaom’s Derrick Harris noted in a previous post on the company’s data strategy, “Uber certainly appears to see data as an important arrow in its quiver as it fights for legitimacy in cities around the world.” In the past it has hand-selected which data sets to release, publishing a blog post to prove it wasn’t discriminating against low-income riders in Chicago and months later publishing information to argue that Boston should extend its public transit hours.

However, this is the first time the company has agreed to give ongoing data information on key topics to a city government.

New York will be glad to hear it given that its Taxi & Limousine Tribunal recently suspended five out of six Uber bases for not handing over trip data. Uber is still in negotiations with NYC’s Taxi and Limousine Commission over it. Local governments want the information because it helps them plan everything from public transit routes to traffic patterns to emergency response protocols. It also allows regulators to ensure that transportation companies aren’t discriminating against people in certain neighborhoods.

Until now, Uber had resisted giving its data away, citing concerns about trade secrets. Trade secrets could mean a lot of things, but as some have pointed out, Uber was probably worried, in part, about local governments using Uber data to help taxis work more efficiently.

New York City has temporarily banned some Uber bases

New York’s Taxi & Limousine Tribunal has suspended a big chunk of Uber’s operations, specifically five out of its six car bases, for not submitting transit records. The news comes from the New York Business Journal, which linked to the city’s guilty verdict.

Uber’s New York City service won’t stop entirely. One hub was left out of the decision, and Uber intends to route all its independent fleet partners through it. When I asked Uber whether shrinking from six bases down to one would slow its New York City operations, the company vehemently denied that would be the case. A spokesperson said:

Uber continues to operate legally in New York City, with tens of thousands of partner drivers and hundreds of thousands of riders relying on the Uber platform for economic opportunity and safe, reliable rides. We are continuing a dialogue with the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission on these issues.

This hub ban will impact locations that both UberX and Uber Black fleet partners used. The locations are suspended until Uber complies with the city’s demands, namely by paying $200 in fines per location and “provid[ing] electronic trip record information for all trips dispatched through Respondents’ bases.” Uber has argued that doing so would be tantamount to giving up trade secrets.

It’s not clear from the Tribunal’s decision how it will enforce this Uber suspension. The company has a history of ignoring government orders.

Uber adds $2 surcharge to each yellow taxi ride it hails in NYC

On Christmas Eve, Uber announced a significant change to its Uber Taxi pricing in New York City. The fare increase is simple: Any UberT hailed will come with a $2 “booking fee,” charged to the credit card on file. The new policy goes into effect today.

UberT is different from other Uber cars. Uber Taxi cars are fully medallioned yellow (or, in Manhattan’s far reaches and outer boroughs, green) cabs. Riders who hail one through the app pay a traditional metered fare to the driver, no different from any other yellow taxi in the five boroughs. Essentially, Uber could hail a taxi for free — especially handy for hailing cabs for friends or family if you don’t want to cover their ride on your credit card — and now it costs $2.

The pricing change is likely to push customers to Uber’s other car services, like UberX, which charge directly through the app. In fact, the second half of the announcement takes the opportunity to “introduce UberX, the low-cost Uber.”

In an email sent to customers, Uber says the new fee is “on behalf of yellow and boro taxi drivers who utilize the Uber platform,” although the fee is collected by Uber and the driver does not get a portion of the fee. I’ve reached out to Uber and will update the post if I hear back.

(Side note: When asking about tipping policies last month, Uber disingenuously pointed me to its Uber Taxi policy, because it’s the only Uber service in which the driver can collect a tip from a credit card, because Uber doesn’t handle the transaction.)

The text of the email is below:

Thanks for riding UberT. Starting today, December 25, all completed UberT trips will be subject to a $2 booking fee. This fee is a small charge added to uberT trips on behalf of yellow and boro taxi drivers who utilize the Uber platform. The fee will be collected through the app and billed to the card on file at the end of your ride. You will continue to pay the metered fare directly to your driver.

We want to take this opportunity to introduce uberX, the low-cost Uber. Cars on uberX are hybrids or mid-range vehicles in a variety of colors, and with rates cheaper than an NYC taxi, there’s no better way to get around! For more information, visit our city page here.

Feel free to contact us with any questions at [email protected]

Uber on,

Team Uber NYC

Here’s how Sidecar took the lead in the carpool race

It’s been four months since Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar officially launched their carpool features. And although all three rideshare companies have marketed their new carpool feature to the masses, one of them is pulling ahead: Sidecar.

It has expanded its carpool option to the most cities and seen record-breaking use in the process. The company trotted out a host of statistics and facts during a recent interview with me. The overall picture was clear: Sidecar’s carpooling feature is now its main source of growth, and a welcome injection.

Sidecar’s Shared Rides feature is now available in five cities, compared to three for both Lyft and Uber. In the cities where it launched the feature, 40 percent of the rides Sidecar offers are carpool. Uber wouldn’t disclose its percentage of UberPool rides. Lyft told me that as of a few months ago, 30 percent of its rides in San Francisco were Lyft Line, but it declined to share more up-to-date figures or the percentages of other cities.

It’s worth noting that since Lyft does a higher volume of rides than Sidecar, 30 percent of its total is likely far greater in absolute number of rides than 40 percent of Sidecar’s total.

For those who don’t track every change in the transportation industry: This carpooling option is different from these companies’ original “ridesharing” services. Instead of traveling alone with a driver (as with original ridesharing), in carpooling you get matched with another passenger going the same direction, making it cheaper to get across town than if you were traveling solo.

You might be surprised to hear that Sidecar has expanded its carpooling feature more quickly than Uber or Lyft. After all, it’s the company which I have previously referred to as the forgotten stepsister of ridesharing. It’s the smallest, with far less passengers and far less venture capital funding ($35 million) than Uber ($3.3 billion) and Lyft ($332.5 million).

But the company’s smaller size may actually be the reason for its fast carpool expansion. It has been able to focus its resources on the carpooling part of the business, making it a priority above all else. The company raised its latest round, a comparably paltry $15 million, solely on the premise of expanding Shared Rides.

Since introducing Shared Rides, Sidecar’s business has grown in multiples. It had a record week last week, with rides up 60 percent from the average prior weeks, despite the fact that there wasn’t a holiday like New Years or Halloween to propel the growth. The number of rides it offered in Chicago increased 10 times since it launched Shared Rides there in early November.

Contrary to outward appearances, Sidecar was first to market with the carpool feature, giving it a head start on Uber and Lyft. The media narrative around carpooling originally went: Lyft was the creatorUber upstaged Lyft’s big launch with a preemptive release, and Sidecar belatedly chased the pack.

But as this June article shows, Sidecar had actually been doing shared rides months before its competitors — it just hadn’t made much fanfare announcing it. The company claims it started testing Shared Rides in May. It had months of time to hone its operations, and as Uber and Lyft were just launching their SF markets, Sidecar had already tried out its feature with 13,000 passengers.

It has by no means won that war though. Sidecar may have gotten a head start, but its rivals are still far better funded. All it takes is Lyft or Uber placing a priority on carpooling — making it their main raison d’être — for them to take over.