Uber wants to prove it’s about redefining transportation, not just cars on demand. San Francisco’s BART metro workers almost went on strike Monday, so Uber partnered with Boatbound to offer commuters a “Boat To Work” option. This morning I’m testing out what could be a preview of Uber’s logistic network ambitions — an Uber boat ride from Oakland to San Francisco.
Uber is reportedly in talks to raise a huge financing round of over $150 million at a valuation of more than $3 billion. To make good on that, it may need to be more than just a taxi alternative. At its heart, Uber is about getting things where they need to go. Today that’s people via car. But there’s a massive opportunity in other transportation mediums for inanimate objects as well as humans.
Uber has flirted with a wider scope through a series of marketing campaigns and experiments. It’s offered on-demand ice cream and mariachi bands, water taxis in Sydney, bar-b-q delivery and rickshaws in Austin, and even helicopter rides for New Yorkers looking to escape to the Hamptons.
Those were mostly for fun, though. They showed Uber’s prowess, but less of its potential to make the world seriously more efficient likes its car services have. Boat-To-Work has a firmer base in reality.
BART management and its employee unions still haven’t resolved disagreements about wages, safety, and healthcare. Both sides have legitimate concerns, and the disputes ended up leading to an 4.5 day BART employee strike in early July that complicated commutes for hundreds of thousands of people in the region. A strike looked imminent for today, but Governor Jerry Brown stepped in to block it at the last minute. While the BART trains were still rolling this morning, a massive truck fire on the Bay Bridge brought traffic to a halt, so Boat To Work ended up being solid help anyways.
When Aaron Hall, founder and CEO of new peer-to-peer “Airbnb for boats” rental service Boatbound, heard the strike was looming he had an idea. What if Uber let you book a commuter seat across the San Francisco Bay on one of the boats that Boatbound helps owners rent out? So he called up Uber investor Shervin Pishevar last week. “He set us up with the Uber guys”, Hall tells me. One meeting later, “Boat To Work” was a go.
Hall’s company lets boat owners offset the huge cost of owning a vessel by helping them rent boats to other citizens. Boatbound is looking to increase awareness of the “pier-to-pier” service. Halls says “Boat To Work” is “part of the community building side of Boatbound. We’re trying to make boating more accessible, and we though this would be a cool opportunity to make people’s commutes really memorable.”
For Uber, the program demonstrates its ability to adapt to the needs of anyone or anything that needs to get from here to there. It’s easy to imagine the company one day using its supply and on-demand-balancing apps to smooth out transportation via anything that moves. Hall says “Uber’s becoming a powerhouse. There’s so much they can do.”
So let’s see how they do as I ride along on the first ever Uber commuter boat.
Anchors Up, Let’s Boat To Work
6:30am: When I open my Uber app there’s a new option: ‘Boat’. For $30, Uber sends a fuel-efficient UberX to pick me up and bring me to the Oakland docks where I’ll get my boat to San Francisco and another UberX to the TechCrunch office. There on the docks I meet Captain Scott, a friendly first-time Boatbound renter looking to lend a hand and make a little money while getting more time out on the water.
7:00am: We’re preparing to set sail on “Rollercoaster”, a 44-foot racing sailer. Uber and Boatbound have coffee, orange juice, Danishes, and adorable sailor hats for us. I’m literally hanging my feet over the water as I write this.
7:20am: Captain Scott is the real deal. A lifelong salty. When I asked why he wanted to be a sailor, he tells me “the sense of freedom, the power of the sea, being in harmony with the sea. You’re not stronger than the ocean. if you ever think you are, you’re done.”
7:40am: Erica is one of the real commuters on the boat with us, a UX designer from mobile merchant marketplace startup Zaarly. Sailing to work is certainly a slower ride than her typical BART trip, she says the tried it because “I thought it would be a cool experience.”
7:50am: Cold might have been a better adjective, but luckily Uber brought blankets for us. The wind is whipping under fogged-out skies. But as we glide under the Bay Bridge we can see the cars at a standstill because of the truck fire, and the water doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be.
8am: Success! One hour after lifting anchor in Oakland we arrive at the San Francisco ferry building. No one got seasick despite caching some turbulence from bigger boat. The commuters de-board with a smile and scurry to their UberX cars so they can head to work. The next boat, a big powered vessel seems to be a bit late reaching the dock, so hopefully its passengers make it to work on time.
Overall the trip was pricier than your typical metro commute, and a fair amount longer, but surely memorable. Boat To Work probably won’t become a huge business, but it was the speed with which it was set up that’s so impressive. Uber could use this style of “pop-up transportation” for big events and commuter crises to help its core car services gain mindshare around the world.
On the dock I asked Uber community manager Matt Herns what the point was. “We do this every once in a while to test out the framework and see what’s possible. The added benefit is we get to do something really interesting for riders” he tells me.
Perhaps that’s where Uber’s future leads. While there’s plenty to be done in transportation efficiency, getting around is traditionally seen as just another rigamarole in day to day life. Where Uber shines is making you feel special. In an Uber town car, it’s about being treated like you’re important — a little bit of VIP on-demand. Boat To Work was designed to de-stress Bart-stricken commuters, but ended up being about starting your day with the sea spray in your face and the whole city in front of you.
If Uber wins, it might be by focusing on the journey, not just the destination.
In San Francisco and want to “Boat From Work” back to Oakland this evening? Look out for the ‘Boat’ option in Uber’s apps starting at 4pm PST today.