This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Via, a ride-hailing carpool-like service that has recently launched in Washington D.C. (Part 2 is here.)
Buses cheaply transport masses of people but are slow and inconvenient. They make numerous stops, yet are still difficult for some to access.
Uber and Lyft solve these problems, but create some new ones. They are relatively expensive and, because they often take only a single passenger, they increase congestion on crowded streets and generate pollution.
What if an alternative existed to solve these problems?
Enter Via, a service that is much more like carpooling than Uber and Lyft. It moves around New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., picking up multiple passengers in a more-economical, less-circuitous way. It launched last summer in D.C. with a major goal of helping out Metrorail during its year-long SafeTrack repairs.
Public transit, in general, evolved on a large fixed scale that helps make it economical. Beginning early in the 20th century, “the government made transportation almost universally affordable,” says Zack Wasserman, head of Business Global Development at Via.
Transit would, Wasserman adds, “aggregate people at fixed nodes in rigid systems, and then load them into high-capacity vehicles, buses, trams, and subways at fixed times.” Therefore, “economy of scale was large enough to” keep costs low. In the 21st century, however, “new technology is now making it possible to combine this with flexibility.”
Striving to integrate the best of the old and the new, Via’s technology seems to fill the niche between public transit, ride-hailing, and carpooling. But I wanted to see for myself.
Giving Via a spin
So I had a chance to try out Via, along with Malcolm Kenton, a passenger rail and transit consultant in D.C. and Via user (and part of my Scrabble group).
Our driver praised the company and sounded happy with his eight-hour daily schedule and flat pay rate. I asked if he had ever driven for Uber or Lyft and he said he had not, explaining that Uber cut its drivers too easily with just a few complaints. He also criticized both companies for underpaying, especially considering that their drivers cover gas, insurance, and repairs, not to mention the cost of the car itself.
The Via drive, in an attractive gold Toyota Camry, was pleasant but got delayed by traffic. Our trip, from near Union Station to Dupont Circle, would have been faster by Metrorail at virtually the same price: $4 for two people, compared to $3.95 for Via ($2.95 for one person). Getting to Via was, however, a bit more convenient than it would have been to access the Metro station.
Via would therefore seem to make sense only when it doesn’t replicate a Metrorail route, when it is available outside of transit hours, or when there are repairs occurring on transit lines (frequent in both New York City and Washington, D.C.). For the mobility-impaired or in bad weather, however, it would more often make sense to take Via.
In addition, the service seems to make sense in solving the first-mile/last-mile problem of getting to and from Metro. Indeed, our driver reported that his passengers often use Via this way.
One thing our driver mentioned, also, was that many of his passengers so far have ended up traveling solo. That said, the service is still in its infancy in D.C., and Via is planning on scaling up its currently limited service area and hours.
Part 2 of this series examines how Via compares to other services, how it will impact communities, and how it fits in with the future of transportation.
Photo from #ridewithvia Twitter page.