Adam Blinick joined Uber in 2014, as the Director of Public Policy and Communications, after working for five years for the Canadian government in different Ministries (the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructures and Communities, and the Ministry of Public Safety). Invited at Movin'On 2018 in Montreal, he shared Uber's perspective on urban transportation for a sustainable future – "a lot of collaboration between actors coming from a lot of vantage points on the issue".

L'Atelier: What is Uber focused on regarding tomorrow's transportation?

50 years in the future, there is a very good chance people will never have their driving license, that they will never drive.

Adam Blinick, Uber Canada 


Adam Blinick: The biggest thing with Uber is that we are oftentimes focused either on yesterday's issues (the way we entered the market and what other industries may or may not have been disrupted) or the far future (like self-driving cars). What do we want our cities to actually look like? I am often invited to conversations about self-driving cars and you can approach it in two ways: this is a technology that is going to happen - how do we react to it; versus how does self-driving help us realize that future. We need to first discuss what we want for our cities, what are the problems we want to solve today (congestionpollutionparking, inequalities when it comes to access and opportunities), and what the current trends are, what the ongoing changes are. In public talks, I reset people's expectations. 50 years in the future, there is a very good chance people will never have their driving license, that they will never drive. Thinking about that changes the dynamics of the conversation we are having: it is a reframing. Older people talk about college students who do not have their driving license as a surprising thing; there is a generational shift: millennials and younger people's relationship with car ownership has changed. This trend is a result of a bunch of factors: mass organization (people now want to live in cities again, they want to live in denser environments), bike share, ... The number one problem in our cities is car ownership, single occupancy vehicles. The way you actually cure people's addiction towards cars is not by providing them one single alternative, it is by providing them a suite of transportation alternatives.

Is multimodality the solution?

MULTIMODALITY

Look at San Francisco today. If you are looking to go 3 miles or so, you can rent a JUMP bike on our platform. If you are looking for more expensive options, you can use cars: take an ExpressPOOL and walk to a location and wait; take a normal POOL if you want door-to-door service – it is less expensive than using your own car; or use a UberSelect service. You are offered a suite of options to fit your price sensitivity. I routinely marry different modes of transportation: my usual commute is a street car and then a walk, occasionally a street car to a subway to an Uber. We are doing this all the time organically. What would happen if we actually were more deliberate and we made it easier for people to jump from one mode of transportation to another? What if we leaned in before someone bought a car, saying "here is a value proposition: how about you do not make that investment and instead you do this other thing that involves public transit, ride-shares, car-shares, bikes"?

So why do people still buy cars?

90%

 OF US 

households own a car 

I think it is difficult to answer that question, because it probably differs depending on the people. Some of the reasons might be cultural: if you live in a sprawling city, let's say like Houston, the relationship to car ownership is probably different than in Austin or San Francisco. There is still a degree of freedom that comes with car ownership, the idea that you can pick up and go when you want and have your own space. There is an opportunity for the other modes of transportation to provide an equivalent or better value proposition that offers the reliability at a same or better price. [According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, peak car ownership in the United States will occur around 2020 and will drop quickly after that, editor's note.]

As a company, we understand that it is a privilege to operate in cities and that we need to keep earning that right constantly.

What kind of partnerships can help you reach your goals?

Our CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently made a bunch of announcements: we have purchased JUMP Bikes, the pedal-assist e-bikes; we are partnering with a San-Francisco based company called GetAround for car-sharing (kind of the Airbnb for car-sharing as it is peer-to-peer lending). And we are also partnering with Masabi, which is a transit payment system – they work with public transit & the authorities to provide the transit payment system. Our work with them will lead to the ability to buy transit tokens through the Uber app, and make it more seamless for someone to say "I want to go from point A to point B, sometimes I want to take a bike, sometimes I want to rent a car, sometimes I want to take a ride share". Rather than force people to hack their way through the world, why not make it easier and seamless? [Uber has since announced that it was acquiring the Californian bike and scooter-sharing startup Lime Bike too - editor's note.]

What we are going to see more and more is transit agencies understanding that these other modes of transportation are complementary. If they work together in a more deliberate way, people will use them more. The real goal is to have a longer-term view. When more and more people chose to use all of these alternative transportation modes, less and less people need to own a car. We want to help solve all the issues involved with moving from point A to point B. In this vision, it does not necessarily mean that Uber owns all the products on the platform. We want to offer a platform with a very compelling value proposition to the public. My guess is there are going to be many players in this space. We are an ambitious company, and as a company, we understand that it is a privilege to operate in cities and that we need to keep earning that right constantly. Initially our reputation was one of being fairly aggressive, but we are trying to articulate to cities that we are looking to work collaboratively with them. We have a new product called Uber movement, composed of 3 open data-sharing platforms. We aggregate and automate data in cities and allow for anyone (hopefully especially for city planners and transit planners) to dig in on the data and see what the historical travel pattern in their cities is.

Google Maps - Credits: Google Maps
Uber - Credits: Uber

Do you have any examples of urban projects?

I will give you the example of Innisfil, in Ontario, a town of 35,000 people, about an hour and a half north of Toronto. They are an up and coming community, and they were thinking that maybe it was time to have public transit. The problem is, they are in a very big geographic area, and they are not dense. They did a feasibility study, and it turned out it was going to cost them about a million dollar to run a bus service on a fixed route, from 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. They looked at that and decided it was not good value for their community, so they came to us and asked if we could help. We worked with them to develop a solution whereby we are effectively their public transport provider: we offer riders flat fares when they are going from home to a particular landmark – like a transit station, or a recreation center or the library – and the city covers the difference. The city is basically subsidizing their community to have this route. They are now moving more people for less money than a traditional bus service.

But that is not the solution for a bigger urban environment: that is not what you would do in Paris or San Francisco: it is non-effective, because you already have really great mass transit. If you take the example of San Francisco, there is a residential community run by a company called Parkmerced. They wanted to encourage car-free living, so they are offering their tenants a $100 stipend per month that they can use towards ride-sharing or transit. It is an older partnership; it goes back to 2015 or 2016. What we have done is offer a flat $5 POOL rate to the BART station from the residential complex. This company has figured out that it was better for them to offer car-free living and more effective for them to offer the stipend. That is a really good use case for a city, which is figuring out your first & last-mile solution to get you from Oakland to the BART station, so you can get into San Francisco without driving. 

UberParkMerced
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It will look different from city to city, it might even look different from community to community. Some communities might have trouble getting people to transit. Some employers might struggle getting people to their work site. You might have to add different layers in order to make people take more efficient, sustainable modes of transportation. 

How do you deal with local urban dynamics?

We are in over 400 cities now. We are a global company but we are hyperlocal, and it is very important to have these local relationships to understand local dynamics.

We are getting more creative about what we are calling the future of work. In France for example, we are now offering certain social protections to our driver partners, on the injury side and on the maternity/paternity leave side. People want more freedom: they want the ability to work with companies like Uber and not have all the limitations that come with being an employee, but they also want certain protections. We have also announced with President Macron that we are going to be opening an advanced technology center for what we call VTALs – vertical take-off and landing vehicles, so basically our flying cars.

When I look at it from our vantage point, we can actually help solve a lot of people's problems that have always gone a bit unnoticed, because there wasn't another way. You either have transit, and expanding the reach of transit is very expensive & very difficult; you have car ownership, which is expensive & inconvenient; and you have all the social issues, like people having trouble getting to and from work, sitting in congestion, ... And there wasn't another way to think about it. When you go back in time, if you talked to someone about Uber a few years ago, s/he would have said: "Oh, is it that app where you push a button and some guy comes in their car? Well I will never take that because it is weird to get in a stranger's car". Turns out a lot of people were hungry for other transportation modes. We have learned a lot of lessons over the years, and some of them have been painful, but they really put us in a really good position going forward. We are part of communities, and communities have problems they need to solve. Coming from a policy perspective, it is a dream scenario to be in a position where what is good for our communities is also good for the company. We are constantly impressed: people want to have these conversations. We are at the beginning of what is going to be a very exciting phase.


What is Uber idea of the city of tomorrow?

Uber's  city of the future

The vision is one where people are sharing journeys, using either active or shared modes of transportation to get around their cities, reducing people's reliance on single occupancy vehicles that clog up our roads. As a result cities are ideally less congested; greener. More real-estate opens up for better uses than parking, such as bike lanes and affordable housing or parks, that brings more equitable access to opportunities. 

We have already started to see the changes. It is premature to say who are going to be the leaders, but it also is not a winner-take-it-all situation. Anyone can be part of the experiment if they want to be engaged in it. We are going to see different experiments run at different locations, and as we see successes they will eventually scale up and spread. It is going to be the cities and communities that see the opportunity and welcome it with a holistic and deliberate approach to technology. It is going to be about who has the right attitude. It is happening – slowly, as it should. We have the pieces of solution, but we can not say it is a one-size-fits-all solution.

With the contribution of Raphaëlle de Marliave.

By Marie-Eléonore Noiré
Journalist