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Can a Ridehailing App Be Ethical?

Via pays its drivers more than any other company, focuses on environmentally friendly practices, and wants to decrease traffic congestion. But is there a catch?

by Ankita Rao
09 March 2019, 6:40am

Roman K. tried a lot of car jobs. After immigrating to New York from Tbilisi, Georgia, he worked at an auto shop, but the dust and chemicals made him sick. Then he drove for Uber, but the inconsistent hours and pay weighed on him. Finally, a friend introduced him to Via, and he’s been a driver with the company for more than a year.

“I set my own schedule. I get something like a salary,” Roman, who asked not to use his last name, said, as I joined him on his usual morning route in a Mercedes Metris. “I like it so much.”

Via drivers make more than any other ridehail or taxi drivers in the city, according to the Taxi Limousine Commission of New York, the agency overseeing for-hire cars. Unlike Uber and Lyft drivers, they can pick between getting paid per ride and by the hour. They choose shifts for the next day, and know exactly how much they will make every week.

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Roman in front of his Via vehicle. Image: Ankita Rao

Via is trying to stand out in the ridehailing market by positioning itself as a more ethical company than its competitors. When Uber and Lyft protested minimum wages for their drivers in New York, Via embraced them. Whereas Uber and Lyft have been blamed for increasing traffic congestion, Via is built on shared rides and wants single-occupancy vehicles off the road. And while cities have contentious relationships with the gig economy, Via has successfully partnered with Los Angeles to be part of the public transit system.

But despite projecting wokeness, Via is still limited by the boundaries of an on-demand model where workers aren’t full staff members and those that scale the fastest always lead the pack. If that doesn’t change, the question remains: can Via, or any of the ridesharing companies that have upended the way people get around cities in the past few years, overcome the inherent problems baked into the ridehailing model and make our roads better?

*

Sitting alongside Roman in the logo-clad Metris, I watch his Via app guide him through the day. When he’s in blue mode—being paid per hour—the screen sometimes shows him flash promotions, where his base pay goes up to $30 and then $45 an hour for three hours. (The base pay is within a range that Via wouldn’t disclose, but the average driver makes about $21 per hour).

Via’s ridehailing system in New York and DC is mostly made up of a fleet of SUVs and vans, with some black cars. The algorithm is different than Uber’s Pool feature or Lyft Line because it routes drivers to invisible “bus stops” to keep them on specific pathways instead of directing them door to door. In slow times, drivers are routed to “terminals,” street-side areas where they wait until the next set of rides.

Roman said he drives 10 hours a day, four to six days a week. He takes a break as needed—sometimes an hour to do groceries for his family in Brooklyn. Via gives him spontaneous bonuses—last month he got a gift card to spend on gas. He often picks up the same commuters, on the same routes, which he likes. “That’s what I love about this job. The connection, the relationship,” he said.

Via has made it clear that it wants to pay drivers more than its competitors and so far, it has delivered. Late last year Uber and Lyft lamented, and actively fought against, the city’s decision to establish a minimum wage of $17 for all ridehail drivers—which would give Uber drivers $10,000 more per year on average. Via supported the change, largely because all of its drivers were already making minimum wage. According to Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) data, in 2018, before the ruling, Via drivers were making an average of $20.99 per hour, compared to Uber drivers who make $14.17 and Lyft drivers making $13.85.

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Image: Cathryn Virginia

So why would you ever choose to drive an Uber if you could drive a Via? One reason is that Vias are limited in the national market: the cars are only available in New York, DC, and Chicago. And even in New York, Via has a smaller fleet of cars than its counterparts, with around 1,900 cars on the road compared 5,400 for Lyft and 111,100 for Uber, according to the TLC. These numbers aren’t exact because some drivers use both apps, so there’s probably some overlap.

Drivers like Roman say it’s the best option out there. As we cross through the gridlocked Manhattan streets, dodging delivery trucks and waving to other Via drivers, he tells me he is at peace with his job. Roman said he makes decent money, he’s comfortable. He does push-ups during his break to stay limber. He gets to make people laugh.

“One time,” he said, “I picked up a woman. You know when you can tell somebody was just crying. There were tears still in her eyes from crying. I had this feeling she liked Abba and so I put some Abba on to cheer her up. She broke out into the biggest smile. It turned out to be her favorite song.”

But while Via pays its drivers more than its competitors, it still doesn’t offer the benefits of a full-time job. Drivers pay their own car insurance, health insurance, gas, and other car fees. “We are very aligned with the drivers and what they’re trying to achieve,” said Daniel Ramot, the CEO and co-founder of Via when I asked him about health insurance coverage. But he said Via, like other ridehailing companies, doesn’t offer those benefits yet. Yellow cabs drivers, meanwhile, have been covered in the past through the Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy fund, but are also often without health insurance.

"You can’t solve this problem by dumping cars on the road."

Via’s narrower scale and model could also limit the diversity of its customers. In DC, the company violated a city law that requires for-hire services to extend across the District and not just in certain areas. Via refuted this claim, however, and said that since they focus exclusively on shared rides, not private ones, they launch in the densest areas and had yet to expand.

Ramot said that the smaller scale of Via’s fleet is by design, in part to support its goal of taking excess cars off the road. “You can’t solve this problem by dumping cars on the road. We want to have enough drivers but we definitely don’t want to have too many drivers,” he said. “The reality is if you’re choosing to ride alone you are utilizing resources—generating greenhouse gases and emissions and increasing congestion—in ways that are pretty significant.”

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Ramot and his Israeli co-founder, Oren Shoval, were inspired to create Via after watching how shared taxis, called service ("sherut," in Hebrew) taxis, worked in Tel Aviv, Israel. Like many cities around the world, Tel Aviv has ad hoc transport systems; sherut taxis, private minibuses that run up and down certain routes, allow customers to hop on and off.

Ramot and Shoval headquartered Via in New York, away from the Silicon Valley disruption culture, and devised a business based on two main products: ridehailing and ridehailing technology.

The goal of Via from the beginning was to strengthen public transit, not replace it, Ramot said. Via, which has raised funding from German automaker Daimler and Israeli venture capitalist firm Pitango Growth, wants to provide “last-mile” transit (that is, getting people from their homes to metro and bus stops) and shared ride options where they don’t exist.

For example, it has teamed up with the state Department of Transportation. When the subway had one of its many hiccups last year, the subway system directed stranded passengers to use Via. In January, Via announced an “L-Train Pass,” a $19 weekly pass for commuters affected by closures on the L train, which connects north Brooklyn to Manhattan, during construction.

The goal of Via from the beginning was to strengthen public transit, not replace it

In Los Angeles, the city partnered with Via to create a subsidized, on-demand ride to and from metro stations in Compton, North Hollywood, and El Monte, with an option to use the LA transit card to pay for the rides.

Via also works with local governments by selling its software to cities so that they can set up their own microtransit systems that use buses and vans. For example, Arlington, Texas, a Via client, implemented the software to create a fleet of on-demand minibuses at $3 per ride—the service is subsidized by the city and federal government.

“When we first approached cities and transit they didn’t want to talk to us,” Ramot said. “We had to launch our own service to demonstrate what it meant to have a dynamic bus system. Then two years later we started saying we have some tech; let’s go back.”

Diversifying could especially help in Via’s attempt to expand globally. While it’s smaller in scale (both financially and in number of vehicles) than its global competitors such as Uber, Lyft, and the Chinese company Didi, Via has managed to enter more countries than every other ridehailing company besides Uber with its technology platform. Via operates a consumer service (like it has in New York) under a European partnership called ViaVan in London, Amsterdam, and Milton Keynes, UK. It also operates in Berlin as ViaVan in partnership with the city's transit authority. Via’s technology powers minibus services in Arlington, Texas, and in UK cities like Liverpool and Sittingbourne.*

Via operates a consumer service (like it has in New York) under a European partnership called ViaVan in London, Amsterdam, and Milton Keynes, UK. It also operates in Berlin as ViaVan in partnership with the city's transit authority. Via’s technology powers minibus services in Arlington, Texas, and in UK cities like Liverpool and Sittingbourne.

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Image: Cathryn Virginia

“What these new partnerships show is that these are now tech firms selling software,” Shauna Brail, a University of Toronto urban studies professor who studies ridehailing companies, told me. “These are not strictly transportation companies.” In that way, Brail said, Via is able to set itself up competitively in a niche market.

Ramot said Via has no desire to compete with local ridehail companies such as Didi and Jarkata-based GoJek. “They have real local expertise,” he said. “If we can work with transit systems, run a dynamic bus service, and [have them] use our technology, that’s how we partner with cities.”

But Via is no longer the only company to partner with metropolitan hubs. “From the ridehailing space, they pioneered working with cities,” said Gabe Klein, a transportation consultant who worked previously with DC and Chicago’s departments of transportation. “But it’s not that other companies don’t have good relationships with cities.”

Lyft, for example, offers publicly subsidized rides in Monrovia, California. Innisfil, Ontario in Canada replaced its public transit system with subsidized Uber rides and saved $8 million. “We saw a lot of experimentation in small cities initially,” Brail said about ridehailing companies partnering with municipalities. “In terms of reducing congestion, it’s a great opportunity. But not all of them have saved money.”

Even so, Via is still one of the few companies that started with the partnership model, and continues to keep it at the core of their company.

Its smaller scale could prove beneficial, Brail told me. The company can be more nimble and focus on both parts of its business model, software and rides. “Given that the firm has been around a few years it’s still serving a smaller set of cities,” she said. “But that also allows Via to position itself as a different point on the spectrum. Every firm wants and needs to position itself at a unique place.”

*

When you look at the reasons that some ridehailing users have become uneasy with ridehailing companies, such as the 2017 #DeleteUber campaign, it has come down to poor management, poor treatment of drivers (and passengers), and the ways that Uber and Lyft have wielded their power to get state and local governments to bend to their will. Via, thus far, has stayed away from the controversy and the ire of municipalities, which is one of the benefits of having smaller fleets.

From a conscious consumer standpoint, Via comes out on top: drivers make more money, the model focuses on shared rides, which results in less carbon emissions than Uber or Lyft, and it’s publicly pro-public transport.

But what becomes impossible to ignore is that Via still operates within the constraints of the gig economy. Even with its measured, seemingly pro-human approach, Via falls short when it comes to fair labor practices: some drivers drive up to 70 hours a week and don’t receive employer health benefits, according to the company. And while there haven’t been publicly reported incidents of safety issues for passengers, Via follows a similar, limited process of vetting its drivers as other companies.

In their quest to make cities less congested, ridehailing companies have yet to collectively bring down the number of cars on the road. While the majority of Via’s rides are shared rides, unlike its competitors, its private ride option still accounts for five percent of its trips.

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Image: Cathryn Virginia

Which begs the question: if the only thing proven to actually take private cars off the road, limit cost burden, and make cities less polluted is public transport, why would cities spend time working with private firms in the first place?

Brail said private ridehailing companies like Via, if operated correctly, could be part of the solution. But she also pointed out that any sustainable change in our transportation system “requires public policy interventions”—not just products. That could include a spectrum of regulations and structural changes—be it more train stops, controversial congestion pricing taxes, or, as Bogota, Colombia, boldly decided: weekly no car days.

Meanwhile, Klein, who has operated city transport agencies before, said that even though companies like Via are private, they are helping tackle the larger goal shared by public transport: “The enemy is car ownership,” he said. “There’s a significant amount of business to take we’ve barely just scratched the surface.” Within that frame, he said, if Via wants to work with the subway system to replace more expensive public shuttles, it’s still a step in the right direction.

In that sense Via could be seen as both a company that is succeeding, or a public infrastructure system that is failing. The fact that we are relying on a private ridehailing company to replace the cars that are clogging our roads means we have already accepted a future where a more comprehensive public transportation solution will not be able to accomplish the same goal. Meanwhile, we’re all just toggling between apps to figure out the best ride.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify Via's European partnerships.

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

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