Excellent Uber Ad Distills the Problem With Uber in Crowded Cities

There's just not enough space for everyone to get around in cars, Uber points out.
There's just not enough space for everyone to get around in cars, Uber points out.

In a brilliant new spot, Uber inadvertently lays out exactly why its for-hire vehicles won’t solve transportation headaches in crowded cities.

Produced by the Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors, “Boxes” shows people moving around Bangkok streets in clunky cardboard appendages meant to represent cars. By stripping away the gloss, anonymity, and cultural connotations of car exteriors and leaving only their bulk, the ad brilliantly highlights why moving around in single-occupancy vehicles is so absurd in an urban context. There’s just not enough space for everyone to get around this way.

It’s a great ad for transitways or bike lanes or any transportation mode more spatially efficient than cars. But Uber suggests that its service — which mostly ferries around single passengers in automobiles — is somehow the solution to the problem.

The more we learn about the effect of Uber and similar services, the clearer it becomes that these claims are misleading. Uber is exacerbating congestion in the most crowded parts of New York City, and recent research indicates that ride-hailing apps in other major American cities divert trips from transit and increase the number of cars on the road.

There’s certainly a place for these services in the transportation ecosystem, but they’re not a solution to moving large numbers of people in crowded cities. No app, no matter how user-friendly, can turn cars into a congestion fix.

  • If anything, those boxes are rather too small.

  • steely

    Uber owes a debt to Hermann Knoflacher, the originator of the walkmobile https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Knoflacher

  • Alex Clifford

    What would be a good idea is like an Uber for bus and minibus routes. Using their data on average journey originations and destinations they could set up new routes that collect all the journeys that municipal buses don’t service well.

  • Only Bananas

    Instead of cars on the road carrying 1 passenger for 100% of the trip, we’ll now have cars on a longer trip not carrying a passenger for a portion of it. And that reduces congestion how?

  • farazs

    Like Uber would pass up the opportunity to earn a buck. Their objective is to keep all of their drivers occupied all of the time. They already have data and it shows that their best chance of meeting the objective is in dense areas with lots of trips from every where to every where. People on routes that municipal buses don’t service well already relying on personal transport. People on routes that municipal buses serve have already given up on personal transport because it is obviously painful – they’re easy picking.

  • Joe R.

    If autonomous SOVs are Uber’s idea of the future then the only way it can work is with flying vehicles. I’m not sure I’d be too keen on that given the noise it would probably generate but at least that’s one way to potentially take back the streets.

    If not the fact that’s a Uber commercial essentially advocating more SOVs, it’s a perfect illustration of why SOVs don’t belong in cities (unless we’re talking bikes or e-bikes).

  • J Iley

    Then use a bus. They hold far more people

  • Vooch

    Suburban Train Station outside of Munich

  • This is true if Uber cars are driving around one person at a time, but I’m an Uber driver and it’s more common to driv around 2, 3 or 4 people at a time; plus, Uber XL drives 6 at a time. Plus, Uber and Lyft both have carpooling features in many large cities that make car trips more efficient.

  • AMH

    That and the massive increase in energy consumption that would be needed.

  • Michel S

    And a typical city bus can carry anywhere from 30 to well over 100 people if it is articulating, all in the same space as 2-3 private vehicles. So we’re talking at most 30 passengers vs at most 12 in the same space. The smallest city bus can carry more than double what Uber/Lyft can handle, and will often be carrying 3-4x as many. What is your point?

  • Don’t forget these vehicles are “deadheading” as much as 50% of the time they’re out on the roads, i.e. cruising without passengers at all.

  • Romain DiVuolo

    check this out: http://www.chariot.com

  • My point is that the author based her assertions on “single-occupancy vehicles,” which means one person per vehicle (or one passenger per vehicle in an Uber or Lyft)… while ridesharing does not necessarily mean single occupancy. As I mentioned, it means up to 4 or 6 passengers per vehicle, which is 4-6 times more efficient than the author insinuated. As there are advantages and disadvantages to all forms of transit, I just wanted the picture to be painted accurately when discussing all options.

  • And don’t forget that city buses are also “deadheading” when they are heading from the bus center to the beginning of their route, and once again after their route is over back to the transit center. And quite a few city buses “deadhead” even while actively on route with zero passengers, or just a handful at best. I would like to see rideshare drivers stay put after dropping off a passenger and not “deadhead around” searching for their next ride, because as you infer, that would increase congestion even more

  • Michel S

    This is an interesting idea (rideshare vehicles idling instead of circling for passengers), but it falls apart when you again consider the geometry involved.

    Let’s say it’s Friday night in a happening commercial strip. Hundreds of people are descending on a finite area all at the same time. As rideshare vehicles arrive and unload passengers, they take up parking spaces waiting for new passengers. But more people are coming than going, let’s say anywhere from 3:1 to 5:1. Even if some passengers travel together, coming and going, more cars will arrive than those that will leave. All available street space would quickly be consumed. This is one reason why buses don’t wait for passengers to board if there’s no one at the stop. That space is valuable; idling vehicles is a waste of space. Rideshare vehicles with a limited capacity would and do consume far more space, and waste it, than other forms of transit. In places where space is scarce, they are almost the last thing around which you would want to base your transportation decisions.

    That’s the problem with rideshare, or at least the messaging in these ads; they are disingenuous to the point of being dangerous. Uber claims to be helping dense cities solve their problems when, in fact, these problems were solved decades ago, and Uber is making things worse. In the face of this kind of propaganda, forgive me if I’m not as concerned with the picture being “painted accurately.” Uber is in an active campaign of deception with the riding public for profit and does not deserve that kind of fairness.

  • thomas040

    Re-mashed ad to work as a Citibike ad.

  • Greg Tingey

    But you are not painting it accurately, are you?

  • Greg Tingey

    Ohh special pleading.
    The bus garahges are well outside the centre< 7 journeys there, in any direction, will have plenty of passengers.

  • Don Anderson

    Taxi services such as Uber have a role to play, but certainly only as an adjunct to more efficient transit modes like buses and trains. The current problems with Uber stem from their unlimited numbers, and their venture-capital-subsidized low price point, which competes with public transit, and even induces people to ride where they could have walked or biked.

  • I’d like to understand better what you mean — could you say which part you see me painting inaccurately? What I was trying to say is that ridesharing vehicles are not necessarily single passenger vehicles, but in fact, can transport 4 or 6 people at a time. Is that the part you see as inaccurate?

  • Don Anderson

    Unless you get a new fare right where you drop, you still have to drive empty to the next pickup.

  • I’m not sure that I understand. Yes, the bus garages tend to be well outside the center of the city, which underscores my point that before and after their active routes, they will be deadheading to/from the bus garage.

  • Michel, I really appreciate your point here. Yes, in the scenario you describe, if ride share drivers dropped passengers in a busy area and stayed put, they would definitely increase congestion. So we’d need to figure something else out, for example a waiting lot a few blocks away akin to a taxi stand that’s close enough to the busy area to be easily accessible, but far enough away to not increase congestion. Uber and Lyft already do something similar by having waiting lots at airports, which are usually a mile or two away from passenger pickup. This way, drivers are relatively close to the airport but not close enough to congest the dropoff / pickup lanes at the terminal. What do you think about this idea?

  • NoeValleyJim

    They forgot to include the part where each Uber blocks a bicycle or bus lane to pick up and discharge a passenger.

  • Jaime

    “congestion” = density of people moved over a distance per given land-area / amount of land dedicated

    old school thinking: increase the denominator (add lanes, build highways)

    the problem with 1 person per car (whether self-driven, robot, or uber driver) is that the numerator is small. Solution, increase the numerator by increasing density. Illustrated nicely over the years:
    https://transportist.org/2016/02/12/cars-people-buses-bikes/

  • Greg Tingey

    No… The bus leaves the garage, empty, runs a SHORT distance, then starts in service, as a passenger-carrying vehicle, all the way in to the centre, or round the periphery, or whatever.
    The deadheading or empty mileage is v small in proportion

  • Greg Tingey

    Yes, simply based on the surveyed numbers …
    Most Uber-type vehicles are actually carrying one or two passengers only.- even if they could carry more.

  • John Lindstrom

    If there are strictly two people in an Uber vehicle, it is still basically an SOV, because you can’t count the driver, really!

    Transit über Alles! Uber unter Transit!

  • Jeff Brown

    I completely agree, which is why I differentiated between Ubers with one passengers versus Ubers with 4 or 6 passengers.

  • That doesn’t reduce congestion; it increases it. Once again, although you and the author are talking about one person per vehicle, Uber and Lyft can transport either 4 or 6 passengers at a time, which is 4-6X more efficient than a single occupancy vehicle. It’s obviously not nearly what a bus can do, but the only thing I’m asking is that people acknowledge that both buses and cars can either be mostly empty or full. A full bus carries 30-60 people and a full ride share car carries 4-6 people, not 1 person.

  • Uber and Lyft are already experimenting with this in San Francisco with fixed routes

  • John Lindstrom

    Thanks! To me (age 79) it’s a real irony that Uber brings to mind “Deutschland Uber Alles,” the Nazis slogan! All conquering!

  • Ben Schumacher

    I’m an Uber/Lyft driver and a single rider is the largest share of my ridership; I would guess it is around 40% or more. I would guess another 30% are multi-person rides of people in the same group, which isn’t really pulling traffic off the roads if they were going to drive together anyway. The Lyft Line and Uber Pool trips can save miles when passengers are going the same way, but you also have to factor in that I have to deviate from the route to pick up and drop off each individual passenger, unlike a bus that picks up and drops off at predetermined locations and the passengers walk a good distance. Deadheading usually doesn’t reach 50%, but it is significant. Even if I stop after each ride, I usually have to drive somewhere to get the next ride.

    In short, I don’t believe that I’m helping traffic much, if any, and I’m definitely not helping compared to what a bus can do.

  • neroden

    Because Uber drivers are untrained and don’t follow traffic laws. 🙁 Not that cabbies are usually any better either. 🙁

  • neroden

    You just can’t fix this sort of problem with small cars.

    The only thing which helps is *high capacity transportation*. This means first buses, and when they start filling up, trains. Trains can expand to any capacity whatsoever.

  • neroden

    In practice, however, Uber and Lyft typically carry 1 person at a time. Just like private vehicles. I mean, I can carry 5 people in my private car, but usually I’m not doing so.

    The typical number of people per vehicle is what matters, not the maximum number. (Which is why bus routes are pointless on empty rural routes there are very few riders, and when there are lots and lots of riders they’re overcrowded and you need trains.)

  • They removed the Umlaut to make you think it wasn’t that.

  • In San Francisco, cabbies are much better at this than Uber and Lyft.

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