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Uber: A Force for Bicycle Safety

By James Lynch

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When many of us think of companies like Uber we focus on the ride sharing services that help us get to appointments, carpool with friends and get home safely from the bar. But Uber, and companies like it, often have a network of services beyond ride-sharing, and many of those services happen on bicycles rather than in cars. In support of these employees and all those who share the road with ride-share services Uber has embarked on a multi-path  commitment towards bicycle safety.

While the U.S. is a car-dominant culture, in many countries were Uber operates cycling has far greater participation. “If you remove the U.S., the majority of Uber Eats deliveries are done by bicycle, and in some countries it’s upwards of 75 percent,” says Kristin Smith, Uber’s head of global road safety policy. Even without removing the U.S., 46 percent of Uber Eats rides globally are completed via bicycle. “We’re really committed to helping ensure the safety of those people who are delivering, and, more broadly, multimodal and bike safety in general.”

One of the first steps Uber took was to create a coalition of road safety experts in 2020.  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, they relied on these experts from the National Safety Council, the Governors Highway Safety Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the League of American Bicyclists to help Uber more effectively educate and protect its drivers, riders and delivery people.

“During the pandemic the overall road safety trend has been quite dire. There were less cars on the road, so people were speeding more. The crashes were more serious; they were more deadly,” says Smith. “People were engaging in other dangerous behaviors like drinking and driving. We wanted to pull together this group and see how we could work together to help address some of these trends.”

In many ways this became the North Star for programs to come. Uber adapted the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly Driver educational material to reflect the unique challenges of being a ride-share driver and disseminated this information across the driver’s platform. “We really wanted to be investing in safety education,” says Smith. “We make this education available to every single driver on the platform so that it’s a really seamless experience. It’s really digestible and small and engaging and in tune with other communications that they might get from Uber.”

The education, when someone receives it, and how often they receive it is based upon the market the driver is in and the unique challenges of that area. “We’re educating in every single market and then customizing based on the specific needs,” says Smith. “Road safety is a hyperlocal issue.”

For its Uber Eats delivery people, Uber wanted to do more than educate, so it created its Ridecheck safety feature. The in-app feature recognizes when a delivery person is on a bike and tracks them on their ride to ensure they make it there safely. “It detects a long stop along the route and proactively reaches out to a delivery partner to say, ‘Hey, we noticed that you were stopped for a long time on a route, are you okay?’” says Smith. “‘Do you need any support? Have you been in a crash? If you were in a crash let’s connect you right away with 911 and get you the services that you need.’”

If a rider is alright, they can simply dismiss the alert. If they do need assistance, though, they can go down a number of avenues towards getting the appropriate help within the app. Uber can connect them to a 911 dispatcher, a national Uber service line, or it can help the delivery person report a crash. The app even allows a delivery person to share their live location with a trusted friend or family member so that they can follow along with the delivery to be sure they are safe and give both rider and those who care about them a greater sense of security.

Keeping those on bikes safe on the road is a responsibility of all who use the roads though, which is why Uber is also making efforts to educate its ride-share riders, including bike lane alerts. In bike dense areas, riders receive a warning about a block before their destination telling them to be aware. “If it’s along the bike route, you’ll get a triggered message about a block before you drop off reminding you to watch for people on bikes before you open the door,” says Smith. This is in the hope of limiting and eliminating “dooring,” the phenomenon where a passenger opens a door into a bike lane or road in front of a cyclist causing them to run into the door. The results of such an accident can be horrendous, even deadly. “We say watch for people on bikes. We really want to humanize the rider.”

While this may sound simple, Uber actually went through quite a bit of work to make this information accurate. “We overlaid the open source bike network in every city that had that data available—It’s more than 200 cities that we operate in—and overlaid it with the drop off locations for an Uber ride,” says Smith. “We continue to update that product as new bike lanes are added to the networks.” Since the start of 2020, Uber has sent Americans more than 18 million such warnings.

While much of these efforts come down to personal responsibility, education and awareness, Uber recognizes the larger systematic and infrastructural changes that need to happen to make the streets safer for everyone. “Infrastructure is really core to bike safety and safety in general,” says Smith. “It’s executed at the local level. It’s a harder nut to crack.” In pursuit of this aim, Uber began a partnership with Vision Zero with the hopes of improving public infrastructure and limiting, and eventually eliminating, road fatalities. Smith says Uber asked, “How can we use our scale to make that positive impact?”

And while Uber makes these efforts, it also wants to be transparent with its own involvement in a community of drivers, riders and delivery people in the accidents that can happen when we all interact on the road. “Uber is really committed to being a leader in transparency around safety,” says Smith. In 2019 Uber launched a U.S. safety report cataloguing every safety incident that happened on the platform, and committed to releasing another report every two years. “The only way that you can really make change in terms of safety is by tracking it, measuring it and working to improve it. We hope that other companies will follow our lead.”

While infrastructure is a major part of making safer roads and reducing accidents, education, information, accountability and community action are equally important, if not more so, to ensuring the safety of us all. Uber is using its platform to improve these for all who use Uber, or interact with its drivers, riders and delivery people. We hope that other companies and organizations follow their lead, protect their users and employees, and check behind them before opening a car door.