Uber and Lyft raised their fares at the beginning of last month to cover a pay increase mandated by the city’s new minimum-wage regulations for app-based drivers. Via, which functions as a shuttle service with dynamic routes designed to pick up the most passengers, kept its fares where they were. Alone among ride-hail services, its drivers already earned better than minimum wage.
Also in February, the state slapped a congestion surcharge onto cabs and app-based vehicles, adding $2.50 to every taxi ride and $2.75 to each ride-hail trip below 96th Street in Manhattan. Via got hit as well—but with a 75-cent per rider fee, the surcharge for pooled rides.
Via, however, reports that its business has been up 15% in the weeks since the new rules went into effect.
“We’ve definitely seen a bump,” said Daniel Ramot, co-founder and chief executive.
App-based service Juno, which has a slightly larger share of the market than Via, did not respond to a request for comment. Industry sources say parent company Gett is trying to sell Juno, which it bought for $200 million in 2017.
For Ramot, the increase in dispatched trips helps confirm the basic premise of Via’s business model, which he and co-founder Oren Shoval set out to prove in 2012: that they could create an economical form of public transportation—a sort of dynamic, on-demand bus system—that would reduce congestion while expanding access to rides by making efficient use of increasingly overwhelmed roadways.
Via’s model, which has customers walk a block or two to the pickup point and from the drop-off, works only if the company’s algorithms keep vehicles full.
“To do this well you have to have the right number of vehicles on the road to match the demand,” Ramot said. “And you have to create routes that maximize your ability to fill the seats—which you need if you’re going to run a really efficient public transportation service.”
Via did not have to raise its fares, which already were lower than those charged by Uber and Lyft, because the minimum-wage rules are based on utilization rates, which represent the amount of time per hour that a vehicle is carrying a passenger rather than cruising for one.
The more trips per hour—the higher the utilization rate—the less of the fare the service has to fork over to drivers to ensure they are earning minimum wage. Drivers also are spending less time clogging streets looking for passengers.
Via has a utilization rate of 70%, which doesn’t even take into account that most of the time its vehicles are carrying more than one passenger. Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, are at 58% utilization, according to a TLC-commissioned industry economics report during the summer.
Via drivers earned an average of $22.94 per hour, after expenses, while Uber and Lyft drivers made less than $15, the report said. The TLC now requires that drivers earn at least $17.22 after expenses, equaling the state’s hourly minimum of $15 once payroll taxes and paid leave are factored in.
One aim of the city’s rule is to encourage app-based companies to make their operations more efficient, rather than flooding the streets with vehicles, regardless of whether drivers can make a living, just to give customers shorter wait times.
“Our mission in some sense is starting to align with what regulators and cities and states care about,” Ramot said. “And, yes, that gives us an advantage.”
The advantage is not limited to Via’s business in New York, Chicago and Washington, where the company has been profitable in neighborhoods in which it has been operating longest.
When Ramot and Shoval launched the company in 2012, they were former Israel Defense Forces scientists with doctorates in neuroscience and systems biology, respectively. They had developed algorithms for a dynamic system that resembled a souped-up version of the sherut minivan shuttles in Israel, and they tried to license the software to public transportation agencies around the country.
Unable even to land a meeting, they built the service themselves, launching Via on the Upper East Side in 2013 with a flat $4 fare per rider that soon rose to $5. By 2017, armed with a successful track record and more advanced algorithms based on massive amounts of data, they went looking for deals again. They scored a series of high-profile public-private partnerships, starting with French transportation company Keolis.
German automotive giant Daimler invested $250 million in the company and began producing the seven-seat Mercedes Metris vans that Via now leases, through a third party, to individual drivers as well as to cities as part of its contracts.
By the end of last year, Via had 50 partnerships including ones in Berlin, Los Angeles, Singapore and Tokyo. By the end of this year, it expects to have 200.
Some observers say that despite its achievements, Via is still proving itself.
“The fact that it has had success in New York—which is very difficult—is great,” said Gabe Klein, a former transportation commissioner for both Chicago and Washington and co-founder of business strategy firm CityFi. “Whether that will translate into a nationwide business, I don’t know.”
The most frequently heard criticism of Via is that its model requires population density to work. Although it now offers rides 24/7 across the five boroughs, a trip to a remote point in the outer boroughs from Midtown, for instance, could run triple the $12 that a shared trip from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to the West Village might cost.
Ramot said Via eventually could develop a big enough ridership in less-populated neighborhoods to become economical. Until that happens, however, one solution could be to offer a subsidized shuttle service similar to the ones it operates through public-private partnerships in other cities.
He said he is hoping to have a conversation with the MTA about launching such a service in New York.
Klein said he didn’t know how many cities Via could extend its consumer business to beyond New York, Chicago and Washington. In addition, Uber and Lyft continue to work on improving their own pooled-ride systems, and they have the resources to make them more competitive.
And although Klein is impressed with how well Via has handled its microtransit public-private partnerships, he points out that those are still essentially pilot programs, and no partnership anywhere has yet rolled out a full-scale program that might prove the model works.
“The jury is still out,” he said.
Via continues to innovate to keep its edge on the competition, Ramot said, adding that it is still expanding its consumer business, launching in four cities in Europe in the past year, including Berlin and London.
Even though the public-private partnerships are still pilots, they are demonstrating potential. Officials in Arlington, Texas, for instance, would like to see Via expand in the coming years from its current 26-square-mile zone to encompass the entire 99-square-mile city.
“There seems to be support for that,” said Alicia Winkelblech, senior officer in the Arlington Office of Strategic Initiatives. The expansion would mean an increase in Via’s contract to an estimated $8 million from its current $2.1 million.
The city of nearly 400,000 people, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, had no public transportation of any kind when it put out a request for proposals in 2017. It had tried running a traditional commuter bus line but found that too few people had access to it.
“We were looking for a nontraditional, innovative, technology- based solution,” Winkelblech said.
Possibly Via’s biggest selling point was that it could handle everything for a city with no resources to spare and little experience in transportation. The company connected the city to its provider of Mercedes Metris vans, recruited the drivers and runs the software.
The model can change with each city. In Tokyo, Via provides software but plays no part in operations. Such flexibility has been key to the program’s growth.
“You have a full spectrum of ‘transportation as a service,'” said Lior Prosor, general partner at Hanaco Ventures, who was an early investor in Via. “Every city needs a different package.”
Prosor sees a lot of room for growth in what is potentially a much-higher-margin business than the consumer service.
“It could be in hundreds of large cities as well as in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of small cities and towns,” he said. “The number of deployments can be very large and global.”