Uber Expands Electric and Transit-Friendly Offerings

With Uber Green, the company is adding all-electric vehicles to its list of ride options.

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Back when Uber and Lyft first started being a thing, there was much talk about the promise of the sharing economy — and how it might help dematerialize and decarbonize our lives. And yet it never did quite work out that way. Despite some terrific ads about the silliness of personally-owned cars, Uber and other apps like it actually reduced transit use and added to the number of vehicle-miles being driven on our roads.

In happier news, though, Uber is expanding its Uber Green program, taking it live in London this week. The effort – which will cost no more per-mile to riders and sets a lower service fee charged to drivers – allows a user to select electric-only vehicle options just as you might select a luxury or oversized ride.

Crucially, however, the initiative doesn’t stop there. As Treehugger likes to point out, an electric car is still a car – it’s heavy, it’s shedding rubber and other microplastics, it’s clogging up public space, and it’s wearing down our roads. (That’s doubly true if it’s circling the block trying to figure out which one of 15 people clutching a cell phone it’s supposed to pick up.)

That’s why it’s exciting to see that the app now offers multimodal trip planning in many cities — meaning you can see real-time train and bus schedules, walking times etc., all within the Uber app. In addition to London, this feature is currently available in 40 cities worldwide, including Chicago, Sydney, Atlanta, Auckland, Brisbane, Buenos Aires, Guadalajara, Philadelphia, Rome, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Mexico City. In some cities, you can even purchase tickets in-app. (More information on which cities offer which services can be found on Uber’s city-specific pages.)

Back in September of last year, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stated the company’s green ambitions in no uncertain terms:

“The world is at a critical juncture, and we all have a role to play. Uber is aiming high. We’ll seek to build the most efficient, decarbonized, and multimodal platform in the world for on-demand mobility. While we’re not the first to set ambitious goals in transitioning to EVs, we intend to be the first to make it happen. Competing on sustainability is a win for the world, and today we challenge other mobility platforms to transparency, accountability, and more action.”

The real trick is not whether Uber is able to integrate mass transit or shared rides into its app – it’s whether it can actually enhance its use to the point where neither private car ownership nor one-person-one-driver-four-journeys are the default options. After all, adding transit planning to my Uber app may make me more likely to grab a bus or a train for the majority of the journey. Or it might just encourage me to check Uber first, and then get lazy and hail a ride.

If we want to avoid this eventuality, we might not want to rely on tech companies or "sharing economy" apps to dictate the future of our cities. Instead, we need robust policy and planning that makes livable, accessible, just and equitable cityscapes the norm. And we also need governments to invest in infrastructure and innovation for both urban and rural transit networks, as the UK is trying to do with its Bus Back Better effort. It will then be up to Uber and their competitors to figure out if and how they can add value to that new normal.

Still, there is potential for Uber Green to move us in the right direction. Between direct incentives for drivers to switch to electric, opportunities for riders to choose greener options, and more opportunities to make transit accessible and attractive in our always-online world, there’s a lot here that looks good on paper.

Now let’s see where this ride really takes us.