Coinciding with the start of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, Uber announced yesterday that customers in the city will be able to buy tickets for the city bus within Uber’s app. While Uber displays public-transit information in many regions where it is available, Vegas is the second city to offer the option to actually buy a ticket within the app using Uber’s payment system.
Bloomberg quotes David Reich, the company’s head of transit, as acknowledging that customers might take the bus instead. “Sometimes they’ll take something other than Uber, and that’s okay,” he said. It wouldn’t be the first time a ride-hailing service has copped to the fact that maybe one vehicle per person is not the most efficient approach to transportation. A couple of years ago, Lyft introduced an option where users would meet a high-capacity vehicle at predetermined locations along a predetermined route, with users sacrificing slight convenience for collective efficacy. It was, you know, a bus.
Uber selling bus tickets seems a bit odd, given that, for a long time, the company was dead set on completely replacing public transit, offering unsustainably low cab rides (subsidized with investor money) in order to grab market share. That strategy has shifted a bit in recent years, largely under the leadership of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, to one in which Uber is less trying to dominate the market than it is trying to become an essential component of it. Bus tickets via Uber cost as much as they would through the standard purchasing method, and Uber does not take a cut of the transaction. (Uber’s payment system is an integration of Masabi, another start-up that works on transit-payment infrastructure.)
Uber then becomes less of a ride-share logistics company and more of a payment platform like PayPal. The logical endgame of something like this is that Uber becomes the Western equivalent of WeChat, the Chinese app through which many standard transactions now run through. Restaurants can farm out their delivery infrastructure to Uber Eats, and the company is testing electric-scooter rentals to combat rivals like Bird and Lime.
The other upside of Uber as a transactional layer and government ally, rather than as adversary and public-transit competitor, is that it creates an incentive for Uber to play nice with the governments that might otherwise regulate it out of existence. Also yesterday, the Washington Post reported on an internal initiative at Uber called “Project Luigi,” which sought to change the app for drivers in California in order to give them more autonomy. California passed Assembly Bill 5 last year, instating stronger regulations for companies relying on gig-economy labor. Last week, Uber and Postmates sued to invalidate the law.