Uber today added real-time public transport data to its ride-sharing app in Hong Kong, with the launch of Uber Transit, a feature that allows users to integrate public transport into their Uber trip planning.

“Around the world, we see many Uber trips begin and end at transit stations,” says Estyn Chung, Uber’s General Manager in Hong Kong. The firm did not offer any data specific to Hong Kong, where Uber drivers have no permit to legally carry passengers, but Chung said the company would “look forward to partnering with various local public transportation agencies.”

Uber Transit works like other real-time transit apps, such as CityMapper or Google Maps, but from within the Uber app. As customers enter a destination, they’re offered public transport options as well as UberX, Uber Comfort, Uber Flash, and taxi.

Two screenshots of transit apps, CityMapper which gets the route right and Uber Transit which makes a mistake in the minibus number

Comparing CityMapper and Uber Transit, with Uber incorrectly identifying the minibus route. On a side note, Telford Plaza Transport Terminus is an interesting choice for Uber’s publicity shots, being directly below MTR’s global headquarters.

Uber says its transit data is supplied by a third party and the company cannot guarantee accuracy – in fact, on the screenshots supplied, the minibus route suggested for a trip from Telford Plaza to Sai Kung is incorrect, with Uber Transit listing the minibus as 1, not 1A. Uber did not disclose its third-party data provider, but its information is in line with Google Maps, which also gets the route number wrong (regular app users say Google Maps is notorious for missing letters from bus routes, often leading to confusion as the letters in Hong Kong often signify quite different bus routes). CityMapper, on the other hand, not only gets the Telford Plaza to Sai Kung route correct for rail, bus and minibus but also offers Uber as a trip option.

Uber Transit was launched in a few countries last year and is now offered in 15 cities around the world, including New Delhi, Boston and Nice. The company says the roll-out in Hong Kong is “another sign of Uber’s commitment to Hong Kong and the millions of Hong Kongers who use Uber’s technology.”

Last month Uber announced it would move its regional headquarters to Hong Kong and establish an innovation and engineering hub – if the government could offer regulatory certainty for its future here. The company has embarked on a large-scale PR campaign, with Facebook ads and direct emails urging people to contact the government and demand regulation of ride-sharing services.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok says Uber is welcomed by most Hong Kong people. “It’s hated only by the vested interests, the taxi trade,” he says. “Bottom line is, people want the service. And they don’t want the terrible, horrible services of the taxi trade. The government is denying us that choice,” he says.

A Tesla S Uber blocks a pavement in Hong Kong with its trunk open

An Uber blocks a pavement in Sai Ying Pun – the company now says it wants to demonstrate innovation and investment in Hong Kong, if a proper regulatory regime can be guaranteed

“I don’t mean everything about Uber is good,” continues Mok. “They have their share of problems: labour issues, safety issues, many more, but still, either you regulate them, or you ban them all. But our government’s motto is ‘do less, fewer mistakes’,” he says. “That’s why Hong Kong is a history museum.”

A police sting in 2017 saw 22 Uber drivers arrested, with police threatening further crackdowns against illegal ride-share services. Despite the legal grey areas of ride sharing, Uber says it’s been a part of “tens of millions of trips to over 25 percent of the population of Hong Kong.” The company says it has almost 250,000 “driver-partners” now.

In the US last year, the firm admitted that its services, together with those of ride share firm Lyft, are “likely contributing to an increase in congestion.” Uber’s head of global policy for public transportation, Chris Pangilinan, who made that statement, said that the scale of Uber/Lyft’s contribution to congestion was dwarfed by private cars and commercial traffic. Nevertheless, Uber and Lyft accounted for 13% of vehicle-miles travelled in San Francisco in September 2018.

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