Some passengers inadvertently jumping into UberPool

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Some Uber passengers in Philadelphia are being taken by surprise by the company’s new car-pooling feature.

UberPool, started in the city about two weeks ago, connects multiple passengers along the same route for a slightly lower fare.

“When you launch something new, it’s not going to be flawless,” said Uber driver Andrew, who wouldn’t give his last name.

But that’s putting it lightly. On a half-dozen UberPool trips, passenger puzzlement was common. Why was the driver picking up additional passengers, causing delays and, sometimes, awkward moments?

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They ordered it that way, but just didn’t realize it. 

“Are private rides no longer possible?” one woman who didn’t want to be identified asked an Uber driver in Rittenhouse Square recently.

Yes, individual rides are still optional but the way Uber unrolled the car-pooling feature in Philadelphia essentially requires passengers to opt out of the group ride. 

So now, when someone requests UberX, the most affordable of its slate of trip options, two boxes automatically appear: The fare for a regular UberX ride, and the price of an UberPool ride, which is typically about 30 percent lower — or a discount of a few dollars for most inner-city trips.

If you’re not paying attention, you may find yourself sharing a backseat with others who have to make stops before yours.

“It was the first option that came up. It looked cheaper than the other ones, so I said, ‘Why not?'” said passenger Maria Zeeb, who was on her way to a meeting near City Hall. “I don’t mind strangers, because the driver is already a stranger.”

But not everyone is embracing the collective ride.

It’s not the preferred method for passengers in a hurry, said Uber driver Adam Benhadjer.

And some drivers are irritated with the service.

“They don’t want to waste time,” Benhadjer said. “Picking up this guy, then go to the second one and pick him up, then pick up the third one, then drop the first one, then pick up another one.”

Drivers, who receive about 80 percent of the passengers’ fare, do not get a pay bump for pooled rides.

Uber spokesman Matt Wing said forcing users to opt-out is a way to promote the service. It doesn’t appear that way in every city, he said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to try it out,” Wing said. “The only way it’s going to work is if enough people are opting in.”

Since the car-pooling Uber is new in Philadelphia, Wing said, the opt-out screen is a part of educating riders about the cost-savings, because, sometimes, “there’s a natural resistance to share a ride.”

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s general counsel Dennis Weldon said Uber is still unregulated by the city and therefore illegal.

What does he make of UberPool?

“At some point, it basically turns into a bus service. It starts to look like a bunch of people who don’t know each other, getting in a vehicle at different places,” Weldon said.

“The fact that there are multiple people involved in the trip doesn’t make it any different. It’s still an illegal service,” Weldon added.

In New York City, some are capitalizing on the random selection of car-pooling to the delight of the city’s singles scene. The New York Post dubbed UberPool the “best new blind date spot.”

Philadelphia Uber driver Andrew, who is in college studying criminal justice, said he has yet to see UberPoolers looking for a tryst.

“I mean, you gotta be careful what you get into with that,” he said. “It can go both ways, good or bad.”

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