In the Spotlight: Uber’s Andrew Salzberg


Photo courtesy of Uber Newsroom

Since being founded in 2009, Uber seems to be in the news constantly – and for good reason. The company has taken the traditional taxi industry and turned it on its head – upending the traditional transportation world with a user-friendly smartphone app.

Even with the tumult around Uber over the past several years, the service has expanded dramatically and is here to stay. Representing Uber’s first-ever Global Mobility Policy Lead is Andrew Salzberg, who also recently joined Eno’s Board of Advisors. Andrew was able to take some time to talk with us more about his background and his newly formed position with Uber. (Ed Note: The interview has been edited for clarity)

How did you get into transportation?

I grew up in Montreal. My dad is Dutch and was an architecture professor, so when I was growing up I would bike or take transit everywhere. My dad used to talk to us about cities and urban design as we traveled around the city. That’s where my interest in transportation began.

As I got older, I realized I wanted to focus more on transportation as part of the bigger picture of urban planning. I received my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from McGill University and then my Master’s in Urban Planning from Harvard. Transportation was the link between the two.

Before you came to Uber, you worked at the World Bank in East Asia. Can you tell us about some of the projects that you worked on there?

I was based in D.C. but I spent most of my time working in China. This was during a period of time when China was building an unprecedented amount of new infrastructure. In a short period of time, they were building or planning to build more metro lines than existed in the rest of the world put together.

I was working with what they call ‘second tier cities’ in China – anything that isn’t Beijing, Guangzhou, or Shanghai – from about 2009-2013. Although we provided some financing for a wide variety of different public transportation investments, the major added value we provided came from bringing in experience from other cities and countries around the world. Places like London or New York or Hong Kong that have established transit systems have a lot of potential lessons to offer smaller cities in China building metro lines for the first time.  It was amazing to watch how fast Chinese cities were building infrastructure. It was also very illuminating to see up close all the challenges to building a system that is carefully integrated with city fabric and other supporting transport infrastructure. I can’t imagine there was a more exciting place on earth for someone just out of school and interested in urban transportation.

Did your time at the World Bank influence the way you observe and think about transportation in the U.S.?

I don’t know if this is a lesson, but it’s interesting to watch the implications of the infrastructure built in North America in the [1950s and 1960s] play out. Here in the U.S., we have had a chance to kind of go through a highway development period and think, ‘Well, maybe there are places where highways make sense and some where they don’t make as much sense.’  And we’ve had chances to adapt. But in China they are often moving so fast that it’s a challenge to see the consequences of past infrastructure decisions and feed those back into the decision making process.

Building infrastructure, as rapidly as it’s been done there [in China], is an incredible achievement, but it makes your life harder as a transportation planner in some very concrete ways.

Tell us about your job as the Global Mobility Policy Lead with Uber

Part of this is a return to form for me; it’s a return to what we were just talking about. When I initially joined Uber, I was working on the core business side, on the operations team. So for two and a half years I worked on the New York team. I was really in the weeds – I did everything from spending hours talking face to face with Uber partners, to doing email support, to thinking about the big picture for products like UberPOOL – anything you can imagine in the New York market. I was focused on running a business in New York City, which was exciting. That was part of the reason I wanted to leave the World Bank – to get some experience inside an operating environment [and] a real growing business instead of a more advisory role.

I did that for two years and then the policy team came knocking because we haven’t had someone from the “traditional transportation space” working at Uber and thinking about what we do here in those terms. So that’s my job. Uber clearly is having a huge impact on things like urban transportation but we haven’t really spoken the “language” of the transportation community.

One concrete example is our Transportation Research Board (TRB) presence. In January 2015 it was me, on my own time, and one other employee from San Francisco. At this year’s TRB, we had something like fifteen people participating from offices all around the country. And that’s just one concrete example of the fact that we really do want to be in the conversation that people are having about the future of transportation. We didn’t have that before, so my role was created to be the point person for that ongoing conversation.

What does that mean in practice? It means speaking with leaders in the transportation field to help them understand Uber’s goals. Our conversations focus on questions like: what does our growth mean for the big picture of urban transportation? What does transportation look like when every single car on the road is a shared car? And also going the other way: listening to those same transportation leaders, what they are saying about Uber, and how can we make sure that we understand the concerns of people who are out there and be present in places like TRB, where those conversations are happening.

We’re looking to work with public agencies, non-profits, academics, etc. to help understand how Uber can play a positive role in the future of transportation. It’s a pretty exciting time to make that link between a company that’s doing so much in transportation but hasn’t thought of itself as a transportation company, and the community out there that’s been thinking about the same problems we are: congestion, improving public transportation, environmental impact, etc. We’re trying to think about all of these same longstanding problems but now with Uber in the mix.

Many people worry about Uber’s potential to undermine local transit routes and fare revenues in certain areas. How is Uber going to work with the existing transit system in cities in order to best serve an area’s population?

The new American Public Transportation Association (APTA) report does a good job laying out the big picture, but as for me, I always go back to the fact that less than 5% of commuting trips in the country are served by public transportation and 80% of people are driving to work alone in their car. Really, what that means is that for the vast majority of people in the country, they’re driving their own car, alone, almost everywhere. I think that’s the big opportunity for companies like Uber.

 Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, etc. are all very small right now, but collectively we’re providing an alternative to that “driving everywhere” model. We’re all kind of an alliance that provides people with alternative options to car ownership and use.

What I really liked about the APTA report is that it shows that we are really serving different kinds of trips than transit services. Public transit systems are generally designed to be really, really good at serving people during commuting hours but their service tends to be less effective on weekends and late at night because the density of trips is not as high at those times. But weekends and late at night is when Uber trips tend to spike for a variety of reasons. Because of that, the combination of Uber and transit together makes it easier for people to give up their car than either one can alone.

We’ve also talked about extending public transit. One good example is – I’m based in New York ­– if you pull up a map of the suburbs and where people are requesting Uber, you can literally make a map of commuter rail lines just by mapping where people are requesting Uber. People are opening the app while they’re still on the train to try to time it so that the driver is waiting for them when they get off the train. It’s kind of a game to try to determine when they have to request the Uber to have it waiting for them. So we’re trying to make it easier and take the gaming out of it so you could press a button and the app would know where the train is and know where your car is and it would make the connection seamless. I think that’s a concrete example of how we could work with transit agencies to make seamless journeys easier.

And we’re actually piloting that idea with TransLoc as we speak. That partnership is built on our open API. We’re working on integrating real time data from our open API and other transit agencies to create that magical connection where a person can press one button and plan a whole trip from their door, to Uber, to the train station, to their destination. That’s what we’re doing with Transloc and it shows that maybe one solution is that a third party builds the app. I think the idea of using open APIs and real time transit data to make seamless connections is really one very exciting way that we’re working to help transit agencies.

The other exciting example is the Pinellas County partnership in Florida where…if you take an Uber to one of their transit stops, they will subsidize that trip so that its only $3 for the rider. The cost for that is similar to what they’re paying for bus trips in the same area.

A recent PolicyLink report points out that “Low-income communities and communities of color carry the heaviest transportation burdens and could benefit tremendously from flexible, low-cost transportation options.” What plans does Uber have to serve these lower income areas?

In terms of lower income broadly, what we’re seeing big picture is that we’re extending the areas where it’s possible to get on demand transportation. If you look at New York, 5% or less of yellow taxi pick ups happen in the outer boroughs if you exclude airports. But with Uber, it’s something like 35%, so it’s a huge share of our business and it’s happening in places that didn’t traditionally have access to high quality on demand transportation. And we’re seeing that pattern repeat itself elsewhere. Anacostia in Washington D.C. is another good example. It’s now relatively easy to get an Uber there but it’s generally been harder to get a taxi. The South Side of Chicago is another.

The other benefit is that there is a lack of discrimination with the Uber app. There are well documented challenges to trying to hail a cab in New York or elsewhere if you’re a person of color. That’s a very common and long standing problem. But with anonymity on the rider side of the Uber app, we’re seeing huge progress on this issue.

We’re also just bringing the price down. If you take an UberPOOL ride in DC, you’re paying considerably less than half the price of a taxi. That might still be out of reach for many people but the trend we’re leaning toward is bringing the price down further and further to make it available to a wider and wider group of people.

You recently spoke to attendees at Vision Zero Cities 2016 about the role that for-hire vehicles have in setting the bar for driver safety and accountability. How is Uber working with their drivers to ensure that drivers and passengers alike are safe?

That was a great conference. Being a transportation nerd personally, I have been a fan of Transportation Alternatives for a while. But I think our relationship with this group and others who are thinking about Vision Zero – getting people out of cars, car safety, using road space more efficiently, safe streets, bike lanes, etc – that’s an agenda where there is an obvious overlap with Uber’s goals but we haven’t talked about it in those terms. [This] goes back to what I said about Uber becoming more engaged with groups like this that have been in the transportation space for a long time.

I had three points in that presentation about how Uber’s goals align with Vision Zero.

First, when Uber service is available, it makes it easier for people to walk or take transit because Uber serves as a backup option to other modes. I think a good example of this concept is Manhattan. Manhattan has the highest transit ridership in the country, but it also has the highest taxi ridership and number of walking commuters in the country. Having a taxi available 24/7 in the core of Manhattan has, to some extent, served as a ‘safety-net’ for public transportation. If a particular trip wasn’t convenient on transit, or you needed to carry groceries, etc, you always had a backup transportation option available. Uber is making that backup option available in a much wider geography than yellow taxis could – we’re doing 35% of our NYC trips in the outer boroughs, and we’re providing service to a huge swath of America that never had on-demand transportation before. We’re hopeful that providing that ‘safety net’ will enable more people to be comfortable leaving their cars behind and walk or take transit.

Second, UberPOOL helps use the backseats of cars more efficiently and move more people in fewer cars. In theory, when we start to do that, you don’t need as much road space. So many of the conversations at this Vision Zero conference were about claiming back road space for things like bike lanes, safety improvements, pedestrians, etc. If Uber can be a part of the solution to use less road space, then I think we fit well into the agenda of many of the groups that were present at that conference.

And finally, the part you asked about, how do we ensure that the cars that remain on the road are as safe as possible. First is that from the beginning, Uber has always asked for feedback on every single trip from every single rider. This was unprecedented even 5 years ago in the field of transportation. A public transportation agency or taxi company traditionally has not been able to ask you for feedback every time you use it. It’s been too much effort and too much of a logistical challenge. Having feedback helps us determine driving quality and we’ve always taken that seriously and we’ve always used that feedback proactively to try to help drivers deliver better service to riders. The next frontier will be to use technology in smartphones to cross check things like phone movement, hard braking or acceleration, etc. – all these things help us beef up how accurate our information is about your ride. On those fronts, we’re just scratching the surface and therefore just at the beginning of this conversation. That’s another reason we were excited to be at the Transportation Alternatives conference – to meet up with outside groups who’ve been thinking about these problems longer than Uber has been around.

UberPOOL recently launched in several cities in the U.S. and Europe. Its received generally good reviews but I have heard on several occasions that both riders and drivers alike have issues with it:

  1. Riders run the risk of paying the full fee if no other passenger is picked up and on the opposite end of the spectrum, if too many passengers are picked up the ride becomes much longer than anticipated.
  2. Drivers don’t like it because no matter if they pick up one, two, or three passengers, they only get paid for one.

Does Uber have plans to improve the service? If so, what are they?

To start with the riders – when they request, they get their price upfront. That price is true no matter what, even if you don’t get matched. So now when you ride POOL, you’re always getting a discount and you know the price before you decide on taking that Uber. So it’s on us, essentially, to make sure that we’re matching enough riders to make that discount sustainable.

Carpooling is a hard thing to get right. In 1980, 20% of people commuted by carpool but the percentage has been dropping ever since. It’s a complicated problem, but we’re seeing enormous pick up even though it’s a new product. We’re continuing to iterate on it and I think it will continue to change. But given how short of a time it’s been since it was introduced, I think it’s amazing to see how people are picking up on POOL and using it consistently. We’ve done 100 million POOL trips overall since we launched the product, so I think it’s safe to say that riders are embracing it.

On the driver side – I have spent most of my career at Uber focusing on the drivers, so I have talked to many of them about POOL. It’s definitely complicated but I think the benefit is clear. Drivers who work with Uber don’t get paid when there is no rider in the car. So if you’re pooling multiple riders on a longer POOL trip, you’re being paid the entire time that there is a person in the car and you’re potentially picking up a second, third, maybe even a fourth rider and getting paid that entire time. The dream there is that you have a perpetual trip – you’re picking someone up, dropping them off, picking someone else up, etc. So what that does for the driver is that 100% of the time you’re online, you’re with a rider. That’s the number we’re looking at for drivers: getting to them to the point where their paid time is a higher and higher proportion of their time online.

What is the biggest challenge that Uber is facing right now?

For me, as mobility policy lead, what’s interesting is that we used to be a small start up in a handful of cities across the country serving a small group of users. But we’ve grown so much in the past few years that we’re now a real presence in urban transportation. So there are now a lot of benefits to be gained from working collaboratively with those who have been in the transportation space for a long time. But the challenge is that the business model for Uber, Lyft, etc. is so new that many regulations and rules that were written to enable collaboration don’t conceive of something like Uber existing. So the challenge is: how do we work with people who want to work with us – like public transit operators – under rules and regulations that were written for an era when we didn’t exist? I think there’s an ocean of potential collaborations with public agencies of all kinds if we can find the right way to get them done.

Where do you see transportation in 20 years?

Making predictions is always difficult, but I think the field of urban transportation is going to change so much in the coming decades that it makes predictions these days almost impossible. Clearly, in twenty years, we’re going to have some level of adoption of autonomous vehicles. I’m also hopeful about the rise of ‘mobility as a service’. In the same way as people have moved from owning 200 pounds of records to having Spotify on their phones, I think we’re going to go from having a car to just having a smartphone. I got into transportation because of the link between how we move around cities and what cities ultimately look like. I think a shared, on-demand mobility model has a lot of potential to make cities more livable, more efficient, and more equitable – but a lot of different pieces have to fall in to place to make that vision come true.

A final word

I think on-demand, shared mobility really is a new form of urban transportation. We used to have two extremes of motorized transportation – public transit and people driving their own cars. Now we have this huge middle ground – this fleet of shared on-demand vehicles– and I think that’s creating a genuinely new mode. I assume there will be textbooks written about it someday that will be used in planning programs like the one I went to. It’s exciting to be on the inside of a company that is helping to make that happen.

(Photo courtesy of Uber Newsroom)

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