Is Anyone Actually Using Uber Pool In London?
The Debrief: UberPool launched in London on Friday but are we ready for a car share our way home from a night out? Possibly not, as Issy Sampson discovers...
UberPool launched in the UK on 4 December – just in time for Christmas party season. What? You had no idea? Don’t worry – it seems like no-one else in London did either. Maybe because the new service – where you can save money on your taxi by sharing with strangers going roughly the same route – is only available in central(ish) London and Heathrow Airport.
It’s been available in the US since August 2014 – rolling out across San Francisco, New York and LA in stages. Actress and voice-of-Gossip-Girl Kristen Bell had a surprise experience in April this year, which she live-tweeted. Highlights include, ‘No-one is talking. This silence is the only thing more awkward than if all of us were talking.’ Are us uptight Brits really ready for this level of social awkwardness?
How Does UberPool Work?
The system is simple – it’s just like normal Uber, only if up to two other people close to you – yes, complete strangers – are heading in the same direction, you share the car. In terms of UberPool's pricing in London, you get up to 25% off the total fare, while in the US, it’s 50% cheaper than an UberX. (The company didn’t exactly answer my question as to why, telling me by email, ‘The pricing in London is a 25% discount vs UberX regardless of whether or not your trip is matched with another rider or how much of your journey is shared with someone else.’)
‘We could materially reduce the cost for riders, help cut mileage and emissions and – as the cost of convenient, reliable, on-demand transport comes down – ultimately take cars off the road by making the need to own your own car a thing of the past. Not only that but uberPOOL means drivers have more fares, more of the time – so everyone benefits,’ the company said when it announced the London launch on 30 November. That’s right: they think that they can not only break the gridlock of London’s traffic, but that people won’t need to own cars in London because of the service.
For me, Uber isn’t an alternative to a black cab, because I simply can’t afford a taxi. While I used to get cabs all the time when I lived in Stoke-on-Trent, I can actually remember the exact three times I’ve been in a black cab in London: two of them were paid for by other people, and one ended up being so expensive I had to get out and use a cashpoint then walk the rest of the way home. When I use Uber, it’s a safer version of the night bus. It’s reassuring that you know what you’re paying (even if you hit traffic, as anyone who’s watched a black cab’s meter slowly but surely go up in confusingly uneven amounts will know) and it goes straight to your door. Which is great, right? When I lived in La Paz, in Bolivia, taxi-sharing is the norm. Your driver will just stop, ask whoever’s hailed it where they’re going, grunt, and pack up to four people in the taxi. It doesn’t get cheaper, and it wasn’t that unusual for your co-rider to get out and ten minutes later, you realise he’s taken your phone with him.
As I see it, UberPool can go one of three ways: you either luck out and get someone hot in your UberPool (you can’t pick your co-rider, sadly) and it’s like a blind date – last September, Slutever blogger Karley Sciortino wrote in US Vogue that UberPool hooks ups were now ‘a thing’ in LA, basically like an IRL Tinder with the added bonus that you probably live near each other, so if it works out, it’s a conveniently short walk home.
Or, you’re putting yourself in a small, confined space with up to three strange men, two of whom could be drunk, high, or abusive and you’re literally showing them where you live.
Or finally, it’s a socially anxious, awkward situation where everyone stares at their phones in silence.
Taking UberPool for the first time in London
So, I decided to try it out. Signs aren’t good on Saturday – a Twitter search turns up exactly one person who’s used the service since it launched the day before. I can’t access UberPool from my house in South London (I’m just outside the invisible circle where you can use it – stretching from Brixton to Hammersmith to Camden to Dalston). And when I do get access to it – in central London, near Leicester Square – my driver doesn’t seem to know much about it. ‘I think if someone else is going to get in, you get a text with their first name in it,’ he says (you don’t, it just comes up on the app). ‘You’re my first time doing this. It’s good, because if someone else gets in, I make more money! However, if no-one else gets in, I don’t know if I make any money on this trip.’ No-one else gets in, I pay £5 for my trip to Kings Cross and I feel very guilty. ‘Don’t worry,’ my driver says with a smile. ‘It’s my choice to accept the UberPool rides! Have a good day!’ A subsequent email tells me I saved a whole 62p.
That night, I try again, coming home from a night out in Clapham. Anyone who’s tried to get the night bus south from Clapham Common knows it’s a nightmare: it’s often so busy you have to wait for three buses to go past before you can get on, post-Infernos it’s more vomit and aggro filled than most routes and once, some bloke went totally mental and smashed a Desperados bottle on the pole, and I didn’t realise I had glass in my shoe (and tights soaked with blood) until I got off the other end. Walking isn’t an option (a friend has been mugged twice walking down the road next to Clapham Common) so: UberPool it is.
This time, the app tells me I’m paying £8.23 – it doesn’t give you a range, just tells you what the amount is – and that someone’s already in the car, a effervescent Australian called James. When I get in, I’m sure he introduces himself as Matt (we never really clear up this confusion), and it’s fair to say he’s been drinking. We establish that he’s been ‘out’ with ‘friends’, ‘somewhere’ and that he’s never used UberPool before tonight. ‘I’m an UberPool VIRGIN!’ he foghorns in my face. ‘You’re taking my UberPool virginity! This is SO EXCITING!’ We ride for a whole four minutes together, and hug as he gets out. It’s not exactly the sexy (or scary) experience I thought it might be, but I save £2.74 and, because I get out last, Matt/James/whoever he was doesn’t find out where I live.
‘In terms of other UK cities, at the moment we're concentrating on making UberPool a success in London,’ Uber told me in an email, adding that they were ‘very pleased about how it’s gone over the first weekend’. On the Sunday night, I try UberPool with an extremely reluctant friend (you can select a maximum of two seats) who keeps telling me that it’d be weird to share a cab with a stranger and, ‘I’m not talking to them, that’s on you.’ But, yet again, no-one joins us, but I save £1.12 on the fare.
Maybe the UK just isn’t ready for UberPool, yet…
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