Uber Tests Bus-Style Discounted “Smart Routes”

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Uber lets us trade money for time. But the cheaper the rides, the more people who will use Uber. That’s why it’s testing a way to let you pay less money for a little less convenience and a little less time saved. I recently spotted a new option in UberPool in San Francisco, and Uber now confirms it’s testing what it calls “Smart Routes.”

Ubet Smart RouteRather than hailing an Uber directly to your door, UberPool’s map shows a green line overlaid on a major artery street nearby. If you’re willing to set your pickup location anywhere along these Smart Routes, Uber will compensate you with a discount of $1 or more off the normal UberPool price. In some cases that means walking a few blocks to your pickup spot. A little less convenient, a little cheaper.

Uber tells me:

“We have begun testing a new feature to streamline the uberPOOL experience for both riders and drivers. This experimental feature, called ‘Smart Routes’, aims to simplify pick-ups by encouraging riders to request a ride along specific routes in San Francisco. Smart Routes is part of our ongoing efforts to increase the efficiency of driver-partners’ time spent on the road while helping riders save time and money.”

For drivers, Smart Routes allow for fewer time-wasting and gas-wasting detours. That means they can finish a set of UberPool rides quicker and pick up more fares, which earns them and Uber more money. In theory, getting riders to walk to Smart Routes would eventually let Uber profit, even after handing out discounts.

Smart Routes is similar to ride sharing service Loup, which pays people to drive their cars and pick people up on bus-like routes through a city, and Chariot which does the same but with big vans. It’s also reminiscent of Lyft’s HotSpots feature, where passengers can walk to a specific corner to get a discounted fair. Uber Smart Routes essentially elongates those hotspots so they span the course of popular trips rather than just being a single point along the way.

uber Smart Route PickupSmart Routes aren’t the only alternative pick-up option Uber is testing. Uber’s “Perpetual Rides” and Lyft’s “Triple Match” are both experiments in allowing drivers to continuously pick up passengers whenever they have an open seat, rather than completing a set of UberPool or Lyft Line rides before starting the next. Lyft’s also tried giving discounts if you’ll wait 10 minutes for a Lyft Line first.

Uber also recently started testing “Suggested Pickup Points,” which I wrote could recommend pickup spots where your driver could get to faster. Instead of a discount, the idea was that walking around the corner or across the street would save you, the driver, and Uber time.

For now, Uber is testing Smart Routes on at least two corridors in San Francisco: one through the Mission district on Valencia St. between 15th and 26th, and one up Fillmore St. from Haight St. to Bay St. in the Marina, which the Bay Area’s BART service doesn’t cover.

If Smart Routes are popular with riders and efficient for drivers, Uber could expand the feature to more locations. And the cheaper Uber gets, the more riders on a budget it can recruit. At $4.19, my recent Smart Route UberPool cost less than twice the public bus fare.