The Uber effect and our changing cities

24 Mar, 17 by Phil Higgins

Fred Jones, Head of Cities for Uber, visited Bristol last night as part of UWE’s excellent Bristol Distinguished Address series.

He talked about Uber’s remarkable growth and impact on cities.  Starting as an idea in Paris due to the difficulties of getting a taxi, Uber is now a global phenomenal with a highly disruptive market impact.

Fred’s starting point was that there is nothing wrong with the private car in cities, it’s just there are too many of them and we are not using them efficiently enough.  Uber’s belief is that their approach offers the ability to reduce the harmful impact of excessive car ownership, like city space being taken up by car parks and air pollution, and make our cities more liveable places.  This is achieved through greater utilisation of existing vehicles and minimisation of ‘dead mileage’ between rides.

Fred quoted some Uber data which gave great food for thought for the audience.

  • 10% of millennials riders (Uber for passengers) have given up a car or have decided not to get one.
  • Uber believes a combination of self driving cars and ride sharing could cut urban traffic by 90%.
  • A reduction in alcohol related traffic deaths following Uber becoming well established in a city.

What’s clear is that the social, economic and  environmental effects of Uber are profound, due to the success of the platform fueled by a young population who instinctively reach for their smart phones to access services.

Ride sharing

Uber Pool is one of the newer developments on the platform.  Pool enables passengers to ride share with other people in return for a cheaper journey (approximately 25% cheaper than Uber private) Trialled first in American cities, Uber Pool is now available in London and Paris and will be extended to other UK cities in the near future. In San Francisco, Fred reports that 50% of Uber journeys use ride sharing. Pool deepens the Uber concept of making greater and more efficient use of existing resources through its mass market platform and technology.  Again, this holds the prospect of a major shift in how people travel in cities and many implications for existing means of transport and city infrastructure.

Uber is investing heavily in self-driving cars and encouraging more electric vehicles.  They’d like to see a constructive dialogue with city authorities about how their platform can work with existing infrastructure and public transport.  Uber wants to see much more investment in rapid charge infrastructure for electric vehicles, saying that there are around 10 in the whole of London at the moment.  Uber are also planning to extend their data platform – Uber Movement – and improve their mobility options for disabled people.

The speech was not without some tough questions from the audience about Uber’s use of ‘surge pricing’.  This increases the availability of Uber drivers in an area by increasing the cost to riders and thus the return to the driver.  Fred reminded the audience that dynamic pricing is inherent in market mechanisms and that the company tries to apply surge pricing ethically.  Strangely, the issue of the gig economy and the employment status of Uber drivers was not raised, but this remains a major bone of contention for many people.

City authorities face a big challenge with wildly successful disruptive business models like Uber.  They pose a challenge to established ways of organising transport, but also seem to offer benefits which align well with liveable city agendas and sustainable development.  Much more research is needed on the Uber impact, but there’s no doubt it is profound and growing.

Find out more about forthcoming events in UWE’s Bristol Distinguished Address Series