Via no longer sees Uber and Lyft as direct competitors: Its operations chief discusses strategy and the future of transportation

Requesting Via ride-hail
Requesting a ride on the Via app. (Image courtesy of Via)

By Kari McMahon
Medill Reports

Via, Chicago’s third largest ride-hailing service behind Uber and Lyft, expanded its reach in the city in August 2019 with novel strategies such as partnering with Northwestern University on a new and improved Safe Ride program, which provides free rides to students in the evening hours to prevent students walking alone in the dark. The New York-based company’s global head of operations, Alex Lavoie, oversees its business in over 100 cities. Lavoie provided his perspective on how the company thinks about technology, regulation and competition.

How is Via different to Uber or Lyft?

From the beginning, we’ve seen ourselves more as a public transit service than as a ride-hail equivalent. Our entire philosophy is aimed at providing an efficient experience for the rider, for the driver and for the city we’re operating in.

Via is purpose-built for shared rides. We think about efficiency as the number of riders that you can get into a vehicle while still keeping the trip optimal from a routing and timing perspective. We’ve worked for years to develop the algorithms and technology to ensure the route we’re choosing for you is an efficient one.

Why did Via choose to enter the Chicago market and what has the response been like?

We viewed Chicago as a really attractive market to launch our ridesharing product because it’s a large urban market and one where we think the type of service, we offer can be particularly valuable. We have seen a very positive reception from riders.

In September, Via announced a partnership with Northwestern University to provide their students with free rides between the hours of 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. as alternative to walking alone in the dark. How successful has that partnership been?

We feel really good about how things have gone with Northwestern so far. When we started discussions, the school was looking to do a few things. Firstly, they wanted to provide a service that was reliable and always available for Northwestern students during the times they were looking to provide the program. Secondly, they wanted to provide something that was going to allow the students to have a better quality of service than previously.

If you compare how many rides Northwestern University students took this year compared to last year, there’s been over 65% growth. We think it’s a nice indication of how much students are adopting the program. We’ve also seen a significant reduction in cancellation rates — another sign students are enjoying the service.

Do you see partnerships as an important component of your business model?

University partnerships are increasingly important, and we also partner with corporate campuses to provide shuttle style services to large corporations and this is something we’re really excited about. Campuses, and universities in particular, are often looking for efficient and safe services and are open to the shared ride model. So, it’s usually a really good fit for what we’re doing. We are excited to continue exploring more growth in partnerships including in Chicago.

Legislation is being introduced across the country to regulate ride-hail companies. In New York, new regulations limit the amount of time drivers can spend cruising for rides and caps the number of ride-hail vehicles in the city. Chicago introduced a new congestion tax that specifically targets ride-hail companies. What’s Via’s take on the regulations?

We try to work collaboratively with the cities we operate in to help shape regulation that will make it as sustainable as possible.

Generally speaking, we are very supportive of a policy like congestion taxes. That being said, we do think it is very important that congestion taxes recognize the difference between a private ride and a shared ride, Cities should be incentivizing shared rides rather than treating them the same way as a private one. We have applauded both New York City and Chicago who have differentiated between private rides and shared rides.

One of the main discussion points in ride-hail regulation is driver welfare and pay in particular. What is Via’s approach to drivers pay?

For a long time, we’ve been one of the only companies in this industry that pays most of our drivers hourly rather than by the trip. It’s something we’ve gotten a tremendous positive feedback on. The high utilization [of vehicles] we generate means we believe we’re able to consistently pay our drivers more than most other companies. Data released by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission demonstrated our drivers were consistently paid at higher rates than most other companies. We feel quite strongly that shared rides lead to better driver welfare in the long run.

How do you aim to compete in the crowded marketplace against Uber and Lyft?

We are building solutions that we think are closer to providing dynamically routed [on-demand and data responsive] public transit than to a ride-hail service. More of our business is focused on providing services on behalf of the cities. We feel quite excited about the growth in that space. So, we think there’s a pretty big differentiator between what we’re doing and what Uber and Lyft are doing. We’re seeing them less and less as our direct competitors as the public part of our business becomes increasingly our main growth avenue.

What’s Via’s strategy in 2020 and going into 2021?

We are now in over 100 cities, and we’d like to continue to scale that. We recently won a contract to operate a large-scale paratransit (a transportation service that supports individuals such as the elderly or disabled, who can’t use regular public transport services) in Virginia, so we’re starting to enter that space.

We won a deal last year partnering with the Department of Education in New York City to introduce technology into the school bus system for all of New York City public schools. The technology will help provide visibility to parents, school administrators and school bus operators about what’s happening now with school buses and then introduce more dynamic routing and optimization into the school bus pickup process.

What’s Via’s view of the future of transportation?

We expect cities to continue to adopt micro transit [public transport options that are flexible and on-demand] and see more funding toward micro transit, both on the local and federal level.

Photo at top:Requesting a ride on the Via app. (Courtesy of Via)