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Monday, September 26, 2016

Uber makes itself part of the public transport route in Australia

In its quest to make itself indispensable, Uber is keen to slide itself into your daily commute.

On Monday, the company announced a partnership in Australia with the travel planning app TripGo, which lets users request an Uber ride to the closest ferry terminal or train, bus or tram station in time for the next departure.

The new service is available in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, Sunshine Coast and Sydney. While the company would like to partner with other Australian transport apps, an Uber spokesperson told Mashable there are no current negotiations underway.

The last mile gap

With this collaboration, Uber is targeting what's known in transport planning parlance as the "first or last mile gap." That's the inconvenient distance between someone's home and a transport hub, which often keeps them driving their own car.

In Sydney, data provided by Uber to Mashable indicates that 10 percent of Uber trips start or end within 200 metres (656 feet) of a "medium frequency public transport hub." In Brisbane, it's nine percent, in Melbourne, eight percent, and Perth, five percent.

Uber has undertaken similar collaborations with travel apps in other countries. In the U.S., it has teamed up with the transit tracking company TransLoc to let users create a journey combining Uber and public transport, as well as order a car in-app.

According to Geoffrey Clifton, lecturer in transport management at Sydney University, these integrations will be particularly useful for people who live in the outer suburbs, where there are longer distances to get home from the train station or bus stop.

Public transport works best when there is a density of population or activity, he suggested, which typically means there are better services closer to the city during peak times and during daylight hours. Those living in further flung areas can be left out, especially at night.

"There isn't really a fully integrated night network [in Sydney], whereas cities like London have that," he said. "Anything that helps fill that last mile gap is useful, and some of these new technologies will have a big benefit there."

Australian cities have by and large pushed poorer communities to the outer suburbs, while the wealthy have taken over urban centres. Is there a risk the government could forgo investment in public transport in these areas if they see private services like Uber stepping in?

It's unlikely, in Clifton's view. "Some people talk about Uber-like services replacing public transport all together, and I think we're very far away from that happening," he said. "I can't see people switching to Uber being enough to cancel a bus service.

"It might even go the other way — people being more confident to take public transport at night if they know they've got some way of going that last mile home."

Nevertheless, the technology gap — whether people in less-served areas always have the technology to order an Uber — or the extra cash to pay for it is another question.

What's in it for Uber?

Well, Uber wants you to know you can always use Uber, but there's more to it than that.

According to Matthew Burke, associate professor at the Cities Research Centre at Griffith University, the company is also trying to diversity its local offering. For Uber, introducing a suite of options that allow it to play an increasingly vital role in someone's commute is "a bit of a no-brainer."

"Uber recently failed in China. Many people have said that was protectionism on behalf of the Chinese state, but I actually think [Didi Chuxing], the competitor, was a better product," he said, pointing out that Didi already had a range of transport integrations, including a bus shuttle service.

"I think [Uber has] been slower than many others in this space ... and this is in part because of working out its legality as it entered the market [in Australia]," he added.

It's also a way for the ride hailing giant to get a head start on competitors. Although Uber does have some homegrown rivals such as GoCatch, it's not facing off a powerful, established product such as Didi in Australia, but that situation may not last forever.

"Those rivals will comes, and those rivals will come in niche areas. For instance, there's a group in Shanghai who only do airport runs," Burke explained. "We're going to see, I think, diversification in the market."

Ultimately, Burke sees Uber and public transport working together to evolve a transport situation that has remained largely static thanks to Australia's reliance on the privately owned car.

That's Uber's point, too: "Aligning ridesharing with public transport systems is one of the smartest ways to help people move around the city without the need for costly infrastructure developments or owning a personal vehicle," David Rohrsheim, general manager of Uber Australia, said in a statement.

It may soon be time to let go of owning a car, and in bad news for the labour market, maybe even the human driver.

"Uber is part of a set of transport that will see more and more of us changing our relationship with the car," Burke added. "I think we'll start to see more and more use of these services, more and more for the collectivised car, and less two car or three car households.

"Still, it's going to be difficult to untangle that."

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