Uber is suspending pooled rides in North America and Lime is halting its electric scooter and bike service in key markets as cities around the world struggle to contain COVID-19.
Lime, which counts Uber as a strategic investor, is among the first of the major urban transport companies to halt its service entirely in specific locations to encourage people to stay indoors. The move comes as a growing number of countries and cities impose lockdowns on citizens to curtail the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 virus is an unprecedented challenge facing cities and communities around the world,” said Lime CEO and founder Brad Bao. “We’re pausing Lime service to help people stay put and stay safe.”
Lime had previously announced it was enhancing its cleaning methods to protect users. Pulling its service completely from some markets is a response to the escalation of COVID-19, which has now infected at least 183,000 people globally, killing more than 7,000.
“We are worried about the cities we love and call home, the people we serve, and our colleagues on the ground,” Bao added. “Loving cities means protecting them too.”
Meanwhile, Uber has also bowed to growing pressure to halt pooled rides, a service that allows riders to save money by booking trips with up to three other passengers traveling in the same direction.
“Our goal is to help flatten the curve on community spread in the cities we serve,” confirmed Uber Rides and Platform senior vice president Andrew Macdonald. “We remain in close contact with local leaders and will continue to work with them to discourage non-essential travel.”
From today, Uber riders in the U.S. and Canada will also start seeing a message in the app asking them whether their trip is essential, and they will also be asked to wash their hands before and after rides and to improve the ventilation by rolling down windows.
For the time being, Lime is pulling its service entirely from Italy, France, and Spain, which have seen some of the highest infection rates outside of China — all three countries are currently under lockdown orders. In the U.S., Lime is also pausing service in California and Washington State, which have among the highest rates of infection in the country.
However, Lime will apparently continue to operate in New York State, which currently claims the highest overall number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the U.S. New York City, home to the largest concentration of cases, is approaching lockdown, with schools ordered to close and nightclubs, movie theaters, and concert venues following suit from today.
San Francisco-based Lime, which last year raised a whopping $310 million at a $2.4 billion valuation, is one of countless heavily funded micro mobility startups to emerge. “Last mile” transport now plays a huge part in people’s lives, with trains, buses, and cars used for longer distances and bikes and scooters leveraged to get to the final destination. But as more cities enter lockdown, what’s perhaps most surprising is that other transport companies have thus far failed to restrict their services in any meaningful way.
The Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), which represents for-hire drivers in New York City, yesterday called on city regulators to force Uber and Lyft to halt carpool services, given the increased risk inherent in having multiple riders bound for different destinations packed into a vehicle together.
“At a time when health authorities are urging social distancing, app companies should not be packing five strangers in a van,” opined IDG organizer Tina Raveneau. “For everyone’s health and safety, pool rides have to go.”
Last week, two lawsuits were filed on behalf of ride-hailing drivers in California. The suits accused Uber and Lyft of endangering the public by doing little to encourage ill drivers to take time off work — if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. To counter this, Uber has committed to 14 days sick pay for drivers who are unable to work during the COVID-19 outbreak, either because they have caught the virus, are forced to self-isolate, or had their Uber account suspended due to public health advice. Similarly, Lyft has said it will “provide funds” to drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or put into quarantine.
Elsewhere, Chinese Uber rival Didi has put aside a $10 million fund for drivers who test positive for COVID-19 in most of the markets it operates in, including Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Japan, and Mexico.
However, giving a little bit of money to drivers who have — or could have — COVID-19 isn’t really a solution to the underlying problem, and suspending drivers’ accounts is arguably too little too late. That said, social distancing is widely regarded as the most effective weapon against further spread of the disease.
Uber may be a better option than public transport in terms of minimizing contact with other people, but there are still real risks that the virus could spread through the millions of Uber cars operating globally — whether as part of a carpool service or not.
As more cities go into lockdown in the coming days and weeks, don’t be surprised if Uber and other mobility companies halt more of their services in the most affected locations.