L train shutdown alternatives: Uber carpool pilot program looks to ease commuting concerns

Uber has pitched a new pilot program that would pay everyday New York car owners to provide carpool service through its app during the L train shutdown.

The feature, called “Commuting Together,” would match drivers in New York with commuters heading in the same direction. In theory, car owners driving into Manhattan would enter their destination in the Uber app and be shown commuters that need a lift nearby.

“Over 11,000 vehicles cross the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan during the morning rush hour, mainly coming from Long Island and the outskirts of Queens and Brooklyn. What if Uber’s technology could eliminate the need for many of those cars?” asked Josh Mohrer, Uber’s New York City general manager, in a Newsweek opinion editorial published Thursday.

Mohrer pitched the carpooling idea in the weekly as a way to free up road space to create dedicated bus lanes for shuttles during the MTA’s planned 18-month closure of the L train, which carries an average of 225,000 straphangers across the East River each weekday.

“Right now, nearly all of the cars cross the bridge with empty seats,” Mohrer said. “If we can get a majority of these commuters to share a ride — instead of taking their own car — we can reduce traffic across the Williamsburg Bridge and give [Bus Rapid Transit] the dedicated lane it needs to run.”

Uber said it would need to get approval from the state to open the pilot to the city. Details like driver payments and passenger fares would still need to be hashed out, but the company said the main goal would be finding out a way to incentivize carpooling over the Williamsburg Bridge during the morning rush hour.

The e-hail giant has attempted to position itself as a mass transit mitigator in other cities during service interruptions. When Boston cut back its late-night weekend subway service in March, Uber and Lyft offered flat and discount fares, respectively. A month later in Seattle, Uber announced a partnership with the city to offer preplanned routes around a temporary closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

A free-form carpooling feature would essentially call for the eschewing of Taxi & Limousine Commission driver licensing regulations. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the deregulations would exacerbate the industry’s issues at the expense of drivers.

“This would be devastating and such a slap in the face of an entire workforce struggling to make ends meet,” she said in an email. “There are many licensed vehicles on the street and most of them are just cruising around empty.”

As the TLC works with other city and state agencies to craft transit alternatives ahead of the L outage coming in 2019, a variety of transit groups have pitched solutions — most proposals call for the bolstering of surface level transit, like dedicated bus and bike infrastructure, and added subway service at nearby train lines.

“We are fortunate today that there are more fully-licensed for-hire options than ever before, over 90,000 licensed vehicles and over 150,000 licensed drivers who have been fingerprinted and drug tested,” said TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi said in a statement.

The MTA didn’t want to dive into a proposal not codified through law.

“Such a pilot service would require changes to law that haven’t happened so it’s premature for us to comment now,” said Beth DeFalco, an MTA spokeswoman, in an email.

A standard 40-foot MTA bus can carry 65 passengers, including standees. The MTA’s longer, 60-foot buses can carry 115. Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for TransitCenter, said giving these buses dedicated lanes has already proven reliable during other service interruptions during superstorm Sandy and 9/11.

“The rapid growth of ride-hailing markets in New York City suggests that services like Uber will be able to serve demand created by the L train situation without repealing safeguards for consumers and passengers,” Orcutt said in an email.