Friday, February 26, 2016

The Via experience

Here in New York when people talk about "microtransit," they usually mean Uberpool or Lyftline, and those are the services I've been focusing on. Some have mentioned a third service, Via, that works a bit differently. Via is all shared; there is no service where it's just you and the driver, like a traditional taxi. The prices are fixed: currently five dollars per trip on weekdays if you buy credit ahead of time, and up to just under ten dollars for a pay-per-ride weeknight.

I've tried Via several times over the past year. The only real complaint I have is that they don't go to Queens: the service is restricted to Manhattan. I have hope, though, because when I started it was only available from Fourteenth to Fifty-Ninth Streets, and it's now available from the Battery to 110th Street. The next expansion will probably be Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope, but I don't think they'll ignore western Queens for long.

The first couple of times I took Via I had to wait a while, and it was just me and the driver, but the service seems to have caught on quickly. Every time since then, there has been at least one other passenger and the wait time has been minimal. If I've had to wait more than five minutes it was because my "Via-cle" (har) was stuck in traffic less than two blocks away.

Via is much more like a bus than a taxi. Twice I've gotten sedans, but the Via-cles are usually SUVs. I've had at least one trip with three other people, meaning I had to sit in the third row of one of those Suburbans or Navigators or Explorers. Since those aren't really made for people getting in and out frequently, I'm wondering how soon Via is going to start running vans big enough to stand up in.

A number of people have objected to Uber and Lyft because of the “gig economy” arrangements they have with their drivers. Of course, they’re not much worse than the taxi medallion owners in that regard. But on one recent Via trip the driver was chatting with us, and he said that Via drivers are all paid by the hour, possibly even full time. If that is correct, it sounds like a much better deal for them than just about any other taxi arrangement.

As I’ve said before, Uber and Lyft are a huge improvement over the way we did taxis up to a few years ago, but in their current incarnations they won’t do much to help the transit capacity crunch we’re feeling in cities like New York. The Via model is much more promising, and the more Uber and Lyft act on those lines, like with Uberhop, the more helpful they will be in relieving our capacity constraints.

There was another fascinating aspect of my experience with Via, and to some degree with Lyftline and Uberpool, that deserves its own post. I'll write about it soon!

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