Uber - the taxi app used by 3.9 million Australians - has just launched uberPOOL in Sydney, allowing some Aussies to save on their journeys by sharing their taxi journeys. But would you carpool with a total stranger? I have, and I would again.
Taxis are a necessary evil in Australia's harbour city - the transport infrastructure can be unreliable and slow-moving, and it’s not uncommon to spend a good chunk of your day trying to get from A to B on Sydney's public transport.
With many of us priced out of the city's taxi service and finding too few available vehicles when we need them, Uber and newcomers Taxify and Ola give consumers a fast, smart and cost-effective alternative to buses and trains.
I've used my Uber account in countries all around the world - during the years I spent living in London, back in Australia and on holidays around Europe and Asia. I’ve rarely experienced problems, and if I have, it took the touch of a button to dispute a fare or make a complaint, and the issue was resolved by Uber by the time I woke up the next morning.
While Uber’s safety record is less than perfect and reports of sexism at Uber HQ need to be addressed, I’ve never had a reason to feel hesitant or nervous while stepping into an Uber.
The fact that journeys are tracked, time-stamped and recorded gives me a lot of confidence, as does seeing the driver’s name, numberplate and photo before I get inside. But does the concept of carpooling with a stranger test my faith in Uber?
uberPOOL works by giving riders the option to carpool with others heading in the same direction and sharing the cost. When you open up the Uber app, you’ll see the uberPOOL option next to uberX and uberXL. Simply select uberPOOL, confirm your journey and you could end up meeting a new friend on your way home.
I was a little hesitant to try it out when it first launched in London, but late one evening after a night out with my boyfriend, we decided to give it a go. We’d blown most of our weekly budget on the night's dinner, so it made sense to save a little bit of money on our journey home - uberPOOL can save you up to 50% compared to uberX.
We hopped into the car and expectantly awaited the moment our driver would make a slight detour to pick up our carpooling companion - but he never did, meaning we'd had the experience of an uberX at nearly half the cost.
The same thing happened a couple more times I used POOL until one day, while travelling solo, I finally found myself sharing a car with a total stranger I’d met via an app. I wish I could say it was the start of a new friendship, but the experience was - for better or worse - quite uneventful, with his journey ending about 60 seconds after mine had begun.
As a young woman travelling alone in a big, bad city, it was inevitable that friends and family would be concerned about my safety when using uberPOOL and I’m sure many others will share the same reservations.
I put the question of passenger safety to Uber: are any features in place to protect the safety of passengers from fellow carpoolers?
"Uber has strong policies and community guidelines in place to protect the safety of all Uber riders and driver partners," an Uber spokesperson told me. "Uber's community guidelines encourage all users of Uber (both riders and driver partners) to treat others with respect. If a rider taking an uberPOOL has an unpleasant experience while sharing their ride, we strongly encourage them to report it in the app through our 24/7 support service."
"Riders or drivers who disobey our community guidelines will be taken off the platform immediately, and we make no apologies for that," Uber says.
Drivers and passengers are accountable while using Uber, with both parties given a star rating that reflects their rider or driver behaviour and history, with credit card and verified contact details held on file for all users of the app.
If you're concerned about safety, my advice for your first uberPOOL is to book the trip when travelling with a companion, preferably during daytime hours when other POOLers are less likely to be rowdy and intoxicated. Uber also states that there'll be a maximum of three passengers per POOL trip, so don't worry about being crammed in a car full of unfamiliar faces.
Aside from the obvious cost savings, uberPOOL and carpooling more generally can help reduce traffic congestion on the roads and your city’s CO2 emissions.
One billion POOL rides have been taken since its US launch in 2014, and the company estimates that if Uber riders had driven alone instead of sharing their rides, nearly 500 million more kilometres would have been travelled globally, consuming nearly 24 million litres of fuel and emitting 56,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
The company also says that uberPOOL is better for drivers, as it gives them less idle time between trips and makes the time they spend working more efficient. While it's impossible to speak for all drivers, I put this to my Uber driver last night and he did agree that uberPOOL seemed like it was a good deal for drivers as well as passengers.
The most annoying thing I found about uberPOOL was the walk I had to make to meet my drivers - they don't pick you up from the location you choose. It’s usually only a few minutes, but if it’s raining or you’re wearing uncomfortable shoes, it’s better to opt for the uberX, which will take you door-to-door.
UberPOOL is currently being tested for the Australian market in Sydney, and a country-wide rollout will be assessed in due course. In the meantime, I hope to meet some friendly Sydneysiders on my next POOL journey through the city.