Uber’s carpool option may ratchet up competition with cabs, transit

Starting Aug. 13, Boston will be the fifth US city to offer UberPOOL.
AP/File

Uber is launching a service this month that could halve the price of a customer’s ride and attract even more customers, over the protests of cab drivers who continue to argue that the increasingly popular industry of on-demand transportation services should be as strictly regulated as taxis.

Starting Aug. 13, Boston will be the fifth US city to offer UberPOOL, an on-demand carpooling option that allows two customers going in the same direction to share a ride and split the cost.

Building on Uber’s appeal as a convenient alternative to taxis, the new service could make the ride-hailing service cheap enough to lure customers away from the public transit system.

Cathy Zhou, general manager of Uber Boston, said the company decided customers needed another option to get around the dense, congested region.

“Certainly, public transportation is part of the solution for transportation, but it’s not enough,” she said.

Zhou said Boston, with its reputation as a center of innovation, was an easy choice for the new service.

The city has already built ties with Uber: In January, Boston entered into an unprecedented data-sharing agreement that supplies the city with quarterly, anonymous data about Uber’s rides.

Ride-hailing companies have enjoyed some support from Governor Charlie Baker, who proposed legislation that would regulate — and ultimately legitimize — such businesses. In response, the taxi industry has rallied behind legislation proposed by two Boston lawmakers that pushes for stricter regulations than what’s in Baker’s bill. A legislative hearing on the ride-hailing regulations is scheduled for Sept. 15.

Meghan Joyce, Uber’s general manager for the East Coast, said UberPOOL further cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions and reduces the need for car ownership. UberPOOL, launched in San Francisco last year, accounts for half of all Uber rides in that city, Zhou said.

Other digital transportation companies have enjoyed success with carpooling options. Lyft, Uber’s main competitor, has a carpooling option called “LyftLine.” Boston-based Bridj, a data-driven private bus service, has also continued to expand and began operating in Brighton this week.

As the on-demand transportation app industry grows, Boston-area taxi drivers have become increasingly frustrated. Cabbies argue that Uber and Lyft provide the same services they do, yet aren’t subject to the same regulations.

The protests will only get fiercer later this year, as legislators debate regulation. In Cambridge, a group of taxi drivers on Monday lined up outside City Hall and protested Uber and Lyft.

On Tuesday, Uber drivers and riders are set to launch their own protest outside of Braintree Town Hall. The licensing board of the town, which once threatened to ban Uber and Lyft, is scheduled to discuss a proposal that would require drivers for ride-hailing companies to obtain a license from the town to operate there. Mayor Joseph Sullivan said he would prefer that Braintree tackle the regulatory efforts after the hearing on Sept. 15.

Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett dismissed such proposed regulations as an effort to force Uber out of the state. “Then you’re really taking away innovation,” he said.

Bennett said the legislation proposed by Representative Michael J. Moran and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, both Boston Democrats, would force Uber drivers to get stricter background checks and commercial insurance, among other things.

Dorcena Forry said the legislation is not meant to drive Uber out of the state. She said she’s looking forward to the debate on the issue, which she knows will become emotional.

“This will be a big issue and it has been around for a couple of years now,” she said. “There’s no doubt it’s going to be heated.”