There were no splashy announcements accompanying Uber’s initial public offering Friday morning. And the person chosen to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange wasn’t CEO Dara Khosrowshahi or exiled founder Travis Kalanick but the company’s first intern, Austin Geidt, who started her career by handing out flyers to potential riders on the streets of San Francisco almost a decade ago.
It was a calculated departure from the stock market debut of Uber’s arch-rival Lyft a few weeks earlier. Lyft’s founders rang the bell remotely at a hot-pink pop-up space in downtown Los Angeles, paired with an announcement that the company would spend $50 million per year funding local transportation initiatives. (Lyft’s stock price promptly plummeted.)
In its early days, Uber’s businesses model was deemed so disruptive that other startups began billing themselves as “Uber for...” Yet, over the last decade, tracing the #DeleteUber hashtag serves as a retrospective of the company’s many public missteps. The hashtag was deployed after Kalanick said Uber could track the movement of reporters who wrote negatively about the company; to protest the company’s questionable surge pricing practices; in response to a landmark workplace harassment case; and in memory of Elaine Herzberg, who was killed in 2018 by an Uber-operated autonomous vehicle.
And then there was the strike: On Wednesday, Uber and Lyft drivers in 10 cities staged a walkout to protest what they called exploitative pay policies at the two companies, whose shareholders are now poised to make millions.
But the strike also highlighted just how engrained Uber and Lyft have become in local transportation. As the strike’s hashtag #AppsOffMay8 began to circulate, riders who wanted to boycott Uber and Lyft’s cars in solidarity with drivers found themselves in a predicament. Uber and Lyft now own and operate so many urban transportation services it’s difficult to know how exactly to extricate from them. Uber owns Jump, the dockless electric bike share company. Lyft owns Motivate, the country’s biggest bike-share operator.
There’s no question that Uber has a tight hold on cities. Nearly a quarter of all Uber’s revenue comes from just five: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo, all places where studies have asserted that Uber and Lyft increase congestion and hurt transit ridership. In San Francisco, where 1 of every 11,600 people is a billionaire, mostly thanks to IPO offerings like Uber’s, Uber and Lyft are the largest contributors to traffic congestion.
But in many more smaller cities across the U.S., Uber and Lyft work directly with public transit agencies, providing on-demand transportation during off-peak hours, and even operating actual buses to fill service gaps. It’s worked so well in some places that cities, unable to subsidize the growing number of trips, have capped the number of rides allowed per passenger. What happens when these smaller cities—the ones without great bike and scooter infrastructure, the ones that are making cuts to public transit—go all in for Uber’s services?
In 2015, The Awl’s Matt Buchanan, now an editor at Eater, wrote “The Uber Endgame,” one of the first stories predicting how Uber would cannibalize public transit:
Let’s grant that Uber’s vision will come true. (It might!!!!!) While zero car ownership will undoubtedly and unremittingly be a net social good — can’t wait until driving is something one does for fun, ban cars! — and while perhaps nearly everybody will be able to afford Uber the Utility, what happens in the time between now and the Ubertopia? Capitalism may eventually provide everything for everyone (so we keep hearing!), but what about the people who can’t quite afford to Uber everywhere during the years when it costs more than public transit — which becomes broken and neglected as a large portion of the population effectively abandons it and no longer demands its maintenance, much less improvement?
Just a few weeks ago Uber was, perhaps for the first time, honest about these ambitions, as Jalopnik’s Aaron Gordon first spied in its IPO filing documents. “We believe we can continue to grow the number of trips taken with our Ridesharing products,” the document reads, “and replace personal vehicle ownership and usage and public transportation one use case at a time.”
Analysts seem to think that Uber’s labor and profitability issues could be solved by doubling down on self-driving vehicles, but the company’s autonomous ambitions have been greatly scaled back after the fatal Arizona crash. (These days, Uber seems to be putting far more resources behind its flying taxi vision, anyway.)
But co-opting public transit is much easier than autonomy. Somewhat quietly, in the week before Uber went public, transit agencies in Denver and London announced that riders can now book and buy fare passes through the Uber app. It’s literally Uber for trains—taking money from riders, without having to pay anyone (directly) to move them around. More “partnerships” like this are how Uber will demonstrate to shareholders that it’s making money.
But can Uber successfully nudge riders to take the most sustainable, responsible, ethical ride? And is this the right company, in all its many iterations, to deliver the urban transportation revolution?
Uber’s CEO Khosrowshahi laid it all out last year when he said Uber’s new goal was to become the “Amazon of transportation.” It’s not about the ride, anymore, really; it’s about getting anyone who wants to go anywhere to open up Uber’s app first—whatever it takes.