Can a ridehailing app be ethical? Via thinks so.

Can a ridehailing app be ethical? Via thinks so.

Via pays its drivers more than any other company, focuses on environmentally friendly practices, and wants to decrease traffic congestion. But is there a catch?

Roman K. tried a lot of car jobs. After immigrating to New York from Tbilisi, Georgia, he worked at an auto shop, but the dust and chemicals made him sick. Then he drove for Uber, but the inconsistent hours and pay weighed on him. Finally, a friend introduced him to Via, and he’s been a driver with the company for more than a year. “I set my own schedule. I get something like a salary,” Roman, who asked not to use his last name, said, as I joined him on his usual morning route in a Mercedes Metris. “I like it so much.”

Via drivers make more than any other ridehail or taxi drivers in the city, according to the Taxi Limousine Commission of New York, the agency overseeing for-hire cars. Unlike Uber and Lyft drivers, they can pick between getting paid per ride and by the hour. They choose shifts for the next day, and know exactly how much they will make every week.

Via is trying to stand out in the ridehailing market by positioning itself as a more ethical company than its competitors. When Uber and Lyft protested minimum wages for their drivers in New York, Via embraced them. Whereas Uber and Lyft have been blamed for increasing traffic congestion, Via is built on shared rides and wants single-occupancy vehicles off the road. And while cities have contentious relationships with the gig economy, Via has successfully partnered with Los Angeles to be part of the public transit system.

But despite projecting wokeness, Via is still limited by the boundaries of an on-demand model where workers aren’t full staff members and those that scale the fastest always lead the pack. If that doesn’t change, the question remains: can Via, or any of the ridesharing companies that have upended the way people get around cities in the past few years, overcome the inherent problems baked into the ridehailing model and make our roads better?

Sitting alongside Roman in the logo-clad Metris, I watch his Via app guide him through the day. When he’s in blue mode—being paid per hour—the screen sometimes shows him flash promotions, where his base pay goes up to $30 and then $45 an hour for three hours. (The base pay is within a range that Via wouldn’t disclose, but the average driver makes about $21 per hour).

Via’s ridehailing system in New York and DC is mostly made up of a fleet of SUVs and vans, with some black cars. The algorithm is different than Uber’s Pool feature or Lyft Line because it routes drivers to invisible “bus stops” to keep them on specific pathways instead of directing them door to door. In slow times, drivers are routed to “terminals,” street-side areas where they wait until the next set of rides.

Roman said he drives 10 hours a day, four to six days a week. He takes a break as needed—sometimes an hour to do groceries for his family in Brooklyn. Via gives him spontaneous bonuses—last month he got a gift card to spend on gas. He often picks up the same commuters, on the same routes, which he likes. “That’s what I love about this job. The connection, the relationship,” he said.

Via has made it clear that it wants to pay drivers more than its competitors and so far, it has delivered. Late last year Uber and Lyft lamented, and actively fought against, the city’s decision to establish a minimum wage of $17 for all ridehail drivers—which would give Uber drivers $10,000 more per year on average. Via supported the change, largely because all of its drivers were already making minimum wage. According to Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) data, in 2018, before the ruling, Via drivers were making an average of $20.99 per hour, compared to Uber drivers who make $14.17 and Lyft drivers making $13.85.

So why would you ever choose to drive an Uber if you could drive a Via? One reason is that Vias are limited in the national market: the cars are only available in New York, DC, and Chicago. And even in New York, Via has a smaller fleet of cars than its counterparts, with around 1,900 cars on the road compared 5,400 for Lyft and 111,100 for Uber, according to the TLC. These numbers aren’t exact because some drivers use both apps, so there’s probably some overlap.

Drivers like Roman say it’s the best option out there. As we cross through the gridlocked Manhattan streets, dodging delivery trucks and waving to other Via drivers, he tells me he is at peace with his job. Roman said he makes decent money, he’s comfortable. He does push-ups during his break to stay limber. He gets to make people laugh.

Via’s narrower scale and model could also limit the diversity of its customers. In DC, the company violated a city law that requires for-hire services to extend across the District and not just in certain areas. Via refuted this claim, however, and said that since they focus exclusively on shared rides, not private ones, they launch in the densest areas and had yet to expand.

Ramot said that the smaller scale of Via’s fleet is by design, in part to support its goal of taking excess cars off the road. “You can’t solve this problem by dumping cars on the road. We want to have enough drivers but we definitely don’t want to have too many drivers,” he said. “The reality is if you’re choosing to ride alone you are utilizing resources—generating greenhouse gases and emissions and increasing congestion—in ways that are pretty significant.”

Ramot and his Israeli co-founder, Oren Shoval, were inspired to create Via after watching how shared taxis, called service (“sherut,” in Hebrew) taxis, worked in Tel Aviv, Israel. Like many cities around the world, Tel Aviv has ad hoc transport systems; sherut taxis, private minibuses that run up and down certain routes, allow customers to hop on and off.

Ramot and Shoval headquartered Via in New York, away from the Silicon Valley disruption culture, and devised a business based on two main products: ridehailing and ridehailing technology. The goal of Via from the beginning was to strengthen public transit, not replace it, Ramot said. Via, which has raised funding from German automaker Daimler and Israeli venture capitalist firm Pitango Growth, wants to provide “last-mile” transit (that is, getting people from their homes to metro and bus stops) and shared ride options where they don’t exist.

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• Can a ridehailing app be ethical? Via thinks so.

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