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Criticism Compels Uber to Pull Ad About Giving Up on the Subway

This Uber ad makes it clear the company is trying to lure people off high-capacity transit. That would be a disaster. Via Human Transit
Uber yanked this ad after Jarrett Walker called the company out for undermining essential city transit service.

What do modern ride-hailing services mean for the future of transit?

Serious observers think companies like Uber may help complement or substitute for bus service in spread out areas that aren't well-suited for fixed-route transit. And ride-hailing may help transit agencies provide paratransit services. But one thing that any technology based on space-hogging cars can't do is replace high-capacity city transit systems.

A recent Uber ad suggested otherwise, however, showing a woman peering over subway tracks, waiting for the next train. The caption: "You can't miss an Uber." So transit consultant Jarrett Walker took Uber to task at his blog Human Transit, arguing that the company's ad messages should be taken seriously:

So Uber isn’t even just trying to attract customers off of buses. This ad shows that it wants them off the subway too. In this implied vision of the future, most useful transit systems die from elite apathy once the elites are all on Uber. From this we can deduce that Uber’s notion of the ideal city includes:

  • moving people from big vehicles (transit) into more numerous small ones (Uber), and therefore …
  • increasing the total volume of vehicle traffic, which is to say, increasing congestion, … which means:
  • creating a new imperative to wipe out sidewalks, parks, bike lanes so as to make room for all these cars, and also
  • destroying one of the last few places in the city where a millionaire might sit next to the guy who washes dishes in her favorite restaurant, thus achieving an even more perfect state of rigid class segregation in which a desperately poor majority has no good transport options and is therefore pushed further away from the sources of opportunity that they could use to improve their lives.

I apologize if I sound like a killjoy, but the logic here is as firm as the logic behind climate change.

When corporations state their intentions this clearly -- especially if those intentions line up with universal corporate goals of growth and profitability -- we should believe them.  We should believe that Uber, given the chance, really would lead us into the dystopia of gridlock and class segregation that this ad implies.  And when it comes time for transit agencies to make deals with these organizations, they should know who they’re dealing with.

After that post, Uber contacted Walker and pulled the ad. That shows there are some conscientious people at the company who care about its impact on cities, he wrote in a follow-up post, but advocates need to hold them accountable:

Advertising, like political speech, has a long history that we can study and learn from. Precisely because it seems so fleeting and insubstantial, it can disarm our skepticism and shape attitudes that will define the world of the future.

This ad also had a context, as part of a torrent of messages -- from many parts of the culture including the tech industry -- that encourage contempt for public transit, or at least apathy about it, among the relatively fortunate. And when our transit systems are not what our cities need or deserve, that apathy is the main reason why. With that ad, Uber had identified itself as an advocate of that apathy.

The only way to disarm that ad was to take it seriously. Advertising always wants to engage us with a wink and a nod, so that we’ll forgive it for implying things that the company wouldn’t want to defend having said directly. So to confront it, you have to strip off that mask and make clear that you hear exactly what the advertiser is saying, and what that implies.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Transportist considers how self-driving cars will transform city streets and parking. Mobilizing the Region weighs in on Chris Christie's recently executed 23-cent gas tax hike in New Jersey and says it's too little, too late for the state's beleaguered transit system. And Seattle Transit Blog considers how voter approval of the region's big transit expansion package would address climate change.

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