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Uber is spending $10 million to bolster its new image as a transportation company

As cities think harder about curbing car use, Uber is launching a new fund and partnerships to make sure it plays a role in everything from curb design to public transit.

Uber is spending $10 million to bolster its new image as a transportation company
[Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images]

Lately, Uber’s been making no secret of the fact that it wants to be seen as a transportation system player, not a ride-sharing startup. This summer, the company–which has weathered a good deal of controversy in recent years–threw $1 million behind a campaign to pass congestion pricing in New York City, a measure that would add a $2.75 surcharge to taxi and ride-sharing trips in Manhattan. In April, Uber acquired Jump, a dockless electric bike-sharing startup, and added a transit option to its platform so you can see if taking a bus or train is faster than an Uber. According to Andrew Salzburg, Uber’s head of transportation policy, the company is considering adding public transit pass purchasing to its app, too.

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On September 26, the company announced a new $10 million fund to campaign for issues like congestion pricing and other measures to boost mobility. It’s also giving $250,000 to SharedStreets, a nonprofit that collects data from public and private entities around how streets are used. Having already launched an initiative to pay drivers to switch to electric cars, it’s also planning to expand that effort. And it’s rolling out new charging stations for dockless e-bikes that will be installed close to public transit stations, starting in Sacramento, California, and eventually scaling.

“As we’ve grown as a company, we’ve realized we have a responsibility to think more broadly about how transportation is evolving in cities,” Salzburg says.

[Photo: Flickr user Elvert Barnes]

For a company that launched in 2009 with the slogan “everyone’s private driver,” the attempt at transformation is extreme (though in line with its broad campaign to change its not-so-shiny image), but not altruistic. It’s just keeping up with the times. Uber’s announcement of its new commitments comes right in the middle of NYC Climate Week, and two weeks after the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, where one of the prevailing messages was that cars–especially of the private, gas-fueled variety–are not what our cities need to most effectively fight climate change.

At GCAS in San Francisco, C40 Cities, an organization that tracks cities’ commitments to climate action, announced new data showing that 27 cities reached peak carbon emissions in 2012, and have since reduced their emissions by 10%. They did so by leaning more heavily on green energy, but also by attempting to drive down private car usage. In the U.S., the transportation sector is the largest contributor to overall carbon emissions, and the rise of Uber (and Lyft) have been found to specifically be making traffic worse in cities.

Amid all of this–and revelations about the company’s toxic internal culture over the past couple years that led to the appointment of a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, last August–Uber has had to adapt. Whereas in the early days, Uber thrived by positioning itself as a luxurious counterpoint to public transit, and a more convenient alternative to car travel in a city by doing away with the need to search for parking, it’s now trying to position itself as one node in a city’s transportation fabric, and potentially one that can use its reach and revenue to create broader change.

One way it’s doing so, Salzburg says, is by working with organization to better understand how curb space is used in cities. Uber commissioned a study with Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants that, using a new metric, rates patches of urban curb space by their relative productivity. A bus stop where 100 passengers board and disembark over the course of four hours, they found, is around 12 times more productive than an on-street parking space. But in analyzing curbs in San Francisco, they found that most space is allocated to parking. “As a result,” according to an Uber blog post on the report, “other users of the road–from commercial delivery to passenger loading–can spill over into traffic and bike lanes, causing delays and unsafe vehicle interactions.” With Fehr & Peers, Uber recommends solutions for reallocating curb space for more flexible vehicle usage–which of course, benefits Uber, but could also create momentum for cities to move away from offering drivers free curbside parking, which contributes little to cities’ vitality and in fact, encourages private car usage.

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Uber’s push for cities to reimagine curb space would also benefit its other new business area: bikeshare. The acquisition of Jump has already proven to be a fairly significant business win for Uber: Even as car trips booked through its platform have declined by 10%, trips by Jump have increased by 15%. For Salzburg, this is a step in the right direction, and it falls in line with the company’s aim to reduce emissions per passenger mile traveled. So it makes sense that Uber will also be using some of its new $10 million fund to donate to PeopleForBikes, a national nonprofit that pushes for bike project and pro-bike policy in cities. Historically, the gulf between the bike and car lobbies has remained wide, and bike organizations have sometimes fought Uber and other ride-hailing companies’ ability to pick passengers up in ways that block bike traffic. But Jenn Dice, VP of PeopleForBikes’ business network, says that the investment from Uber will allow the nonprofit to scale the work it already does in analyzing cities’ bike networks and advising them on ways to dramatically improve mode share. “Uber wants to get a better feel what we do, and add some lighter fluid to our work in cities,” Dice says. Over the next couple month, Uber, Jump, and PeopleForBikes will discuss what cities to focus on and work to expand the presence of Jump, supported by better bike infrastructure.

With the exception of lobbying for congestion pricing, which Uber will direct, it’s leaning heavily on partnerships with nonprofits like the National Association of City Transportation Officials, SharedStreets, and the group of NGOs behind the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, a working group that advises city leaders on sustainable transportation and, notably, prioritizes cycling, walking, and public transit over cars. Of course, you can easily imagine a vision of a smoother-moving city that is moving smoother in a way that is most financially beneficial for Uber: Advocating for a move away from private cars and parking, after all, clears the way for ride-hailing to scale. Congestion pricing will keep streets clearer, allowing Ubers to move more freely and efficiently. Bike lanes and e-bike charging stations will support Jump. These are all moves that, widely implemented, will create broad benefits for cities and the people living in them. But Uber, seeing the change coming, wants to make sure it stays on top.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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