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Uber launches car-pooling service during Pan Am Games

Uber Canada launches UberPool in Toronto on Monday, allowing riders to split cost of fares, if they are headed in the same direction.
July 13, 2015
By Vanessa Lu

Uber Canada is using near-empty HOV lanes to draw customers to use its new car-pooling service during the Pan Am Games.

The trial program, which runs until July 26, is designed to draw more riders into choosing UberX, where drivers use their own cars to ferry passengers for a fee, at rates that are cheaper than a traditional taxi.

“We have been looking at Toronto as an option for UberPool for quite some time,” said Uber Canada general manager Ian Black in a telephone interview, who noted the service operates in other cities including New York and San Francisco.

“Timing it to the Pan Am Games, and supporting the city when it’s so clogged up for the Pan Am Games - I think there is great potential for the city,” he added.

With UberPool, UberX drivers can now pick up two different ride requests - heading on a similar route. Each customer can only bring one other person along for the ride.

Company officials are promising savings of 20 to 50 per cent for riders, depending on how long the ride is shared. Drivers will make 10 per cent to 20 per cent more. The smartphone app will only match rides if there are significant savings to be had.

If there is no additional passenger, then users will pay the usual Uber X rate. The car-pooling service can be subject to surge pricing - where rates can jump during periods of high demand in a certain location.

Taxi companies and drivers see Uber’s latest salvo as a provocative move, especially since UberX drivers are operating outside the law.

Under the city’s bylaws and the Highway Traffic Act, any individual who provides transportation in exchange for compensation must be a licensed taxicab or limousine driver or owner.

“It’s such a good example of how this company doesn’t care about any rules, and has no interest in following any rules,” said Kristine Hubbard, operations manager for Beck Taxi. “This is not carpooling.”

Amarjeet Chhabra, executive director of iTaxiworkers Association, which represents taxi drivers, wants to see police officers and bylaw enforcement officers crack down on UberX drivers.

“This new service does not change the fact that UberX continues to operate illegally,” she said.

“Now, you will be getting into a car with two complete strangers,” Chhabra added. “Who ensures your safety? What about surge pricing? What about random strangers knowing where you live?”

A spokeswoman for Mayor John Tory, who is pushing for new regulations that will cover taxis as well as Uber, declined to comment.

City spokeswoman Valerie Cassels said the city encourages carpooling, but noted in Ontario it is considered a one-way or round-trip that is incidental to the driver’s purpose for the trip.

“The driver does not take passengers on more than one trip per day, and where no fee is charged or paid except to reimburse the expenses on a non-profit basis,” Cassels added in an email.

“Unfortunately, without knowing the specific manner in which UberPool is operating, it is difficult to comment on its operations,” she said.

Armed with a huge victory from the courts, where a judge denied the City of Toronto’s request to shut down all of Uber’s operations, Uber is pushing ahead, even though city council has called for more enforcement.

Toronto officials had expressed concerns about public safety when it went to court to seek a permanent injunction, noting questions about background checks of drivers and insurance coverage.

As part of the kickoff for the service, UberPool will offer free rides during the morning and evening commutes on Tuesday.

While governments have long tried to get commuters to car-pool, they have had little success. People cite inconvenience, waiting for colleagues to finish up work, or say the benefits are limited, especially since gas prices have fallen.

Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto, believes Uber could play a role in changing the attitude toward car-pooling

“In theory this could break down some of the traditional barriers that have made carpooling an unappealing prospect to most people,” Johal said, including safety concerns, how to find someone to carpool with, and flexibility in drop off or pick up.

“You swipe on your phone that you want to go from here to here ... they pick you up and you go on your way,” he said, adding everyone is on the system with credit card information and UberX drivers have gone through some screening.

But the question will be whether the small cost-savings is worth it, given there is someone else in the car or being delayed four or five minutes to let another passenger out.

“People do have set preferences and attitudes, but for cost savings or potentially time savings, might they be willing to put those preferences aside?” Johal wondered.

Right now, with the special HOV lanes, UberX cars cannot travel in them unless there are three people. “Licensed taxis can use the HOV lanes,” he said. “It’s a way of getting back into the ball game.”

Cheap rides

From the West
High Park to Downtown
Taxi: $22.89
UberX: $13.92
UberPool: $6.96 - $11.13

From the East
Scarborough’s Pan Am Aquatic Centre to Downtown
Taxi: $64.23
UberX: $35.77
UberPool: $17.89 - $28.61

Note: Savings depend on a successful match. You won't be matched with anyone unless there are significant savings.