By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer
An on-demand ride-sharing service in Manhattan is giving commuters yet another way of getting around. Launched in beta in August 2013, Viatransports passengers in vans with other riders for just $5 per ride.
Think of Via as a cross between BoltBus and Uber. The mobile app-based service allows users to request drivers on demand and will send a driver in five minutes or less, as Uber does. Like BoltBus, the cost for Via passengers per ride compared with regular cabs is incredibly cheap; for a few bucks, a driver will take you anywhere from Central Park North, near 110th Street, to Midtown, near 32nd Street.
Via’s algorithms identify other riders headed in the same direction, and drivers aim to pick up four other people in SUVs such as Escalades and Suburbans. This helps keep the cost low for consumers and extra vehicles off the road.
“Why have five cars taking five people to the same place, when you can have one car with five people in it?” Gabrielle McCaig, Via’s community manager, said.
Jitneys, which are what Via vehicles are essentially, have been around for decades and are popular across the globe. Via’s co-founders, Daniel Ramot and Oren Shoval, grew up in Israel, where shared minibuses called sheruts are used frequently. The two decided to bring the idea to the United States.
“Traffic is the enemy of every New Yorker, and they thought, how can we bring this eco-friendly alternative to a crowded urban city?” McCaig said.
Manhattanites can travel with Via from 6:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays. As the young startup grows, they are aiming to expand those hours and their reach across the borough.
“Why have five cars taking five people to the same place.”
Via launched in beta in Yorkville and the Upper East Side, and the service now transports thousands of riders each week around the rest of Manhattan.
“By the end of the year, we’d like to be everywhere in Manhattan,” McCaig said.
The startup faces plenty of competition from a number of disruptive ride-sharing services, including Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. However, Via serves a niche market that is different from the market these other startups serve, McCaig said.
Many Via riders are people commuting to work who can’t afford Uber every day, especially when there’s surge pricing during peak hours (which can range from $20 to $50 per ride) or mothers picking up and dropping off their children at school.
“The vast majority of our riders are repeat riders who ride with us once and twice a day, and some have done as many as 500 rides since we launched,” McCaig said.
Still, Via’s team knows that they must stand out and market themselves. After all, Uber is no small fish to fry with its ingenious marketing tactics — it has been known to steal rides from competitors such as Lyft.
In its early days, Via resorted to guerrilla marketing.
McCaig said, “We were accosting people on the street as they were waiting for the bus, and yelling at them, ‘Why are you waiting?! Get in!’” and a Via employee would pull the commuter into their car. “These kind of tactics are still a big part of what we do.”
Will Via last?
When riders prepay for rides with Via credit, rides are $5 each, with no surcharges or tip. For riders that don’t pay with credit, a single ride goes for $7. While the app aims to fill drivers’ SUVs with five people, drivers have taken one passenger in the past when no other riders were around. McCaig said the startup is focused on convenience for the consumer.
“We won’t make you wait to fill a car,” she said.
As long as Via drivers are able to get multiple riders the majority of the time and the company pays its drivers in a financially sustainable way, the startup stands to be very profitable.
“Jitneys have been financially viable for years,” Lisa Schweitzer, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in urban and sustainable transportation, said. “The question is how much are they paying their drivers?”
McCaig declined to say how much Via’s drivers are being compensated, but she said it’s competitive with similar services.
Additionally, with customer satisfaction in mind, Via encourages lots of feedback from users.
“The blessing and the curse of New Yorkers is if they think you’re not taking the right route, they will let you know,” McCaig said with a laugh. “Users have been super helpful telling us this route works or this doesn’t because there’s construction.”
Via’s algorithms also factor in traffic trends. If there’s a particular road that is heavily congested at rush hour, the app will divert the driver.
Whether Via overtakes its ride-sharing competitors remains to be seen, but Schweitzer said it’s positive that consumer have another transit option.
“The more options we have for people without cars, the better,” Schweitzer said. “With the ride-sharing market flourishing like this, it’s better for mobility in general.”