Uber has launched its new Uber Boat service in London, and while it’s not a ride-sharing service, it’s both an interesting move from the company into an existing public transport system, and a savvy marketing exercise.
Straight-up, Uber Boat does not mean your own boat on demand. It’s not Uber as you know it, with private vehicles ready to pick you up at a moment’s notice. Rather, it’s a partnership between Thames Clippers, London’s commuter ferry service, and Uber. Basically, they’re rebranding 20 ferries and you can book your ticket through the Uber app.
Nonetheless, we headed down to the river to try it out anyway. Launching from 23 piers along the Thames, the Uber Boat system covers three zones: West, Central and East, running from Putney to Woolwich Royal Arsenal, and loosely coincides with the resumed operation of ferries in London on June 15 following the UK’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
Notably, while they’ll eventually badge up 20 ferries with new Uber branding (we saw only a couple of actual “Uber Boat” branded vessels and limited signage at the piers), the boats are still operated by Thames Clippers and that company’s captains. You can’t just sign up as a new driver without training. Plus, there’s no change in ownership of the boats — Thames Clippers is majority-owned by entertainment giant AEG, who owns and operates The O2, an indoor arena in the conveniently Thames-side suburb of Greenwich. Makes sense.
The biggest change (or more accurately, addition) is the ability to book your ride through the Uber app. You must be geographically close to one of the piers to book — which is the same setup as New York’s Uber Copter system, in which you can book helicopters to and from designated zones in lower Manhattan and JFK International Airport only if you’re in their vicinity.
Uber is rolling out the app to users over the coming weeks, with some already able to use it. You can open the app and see ‘Boat rides’ appear in the side menu, and follow the steps to purchase tickets through your Uber account. These then sit in your app until you’re ready to ‘activate’ the tickets, which last for 90 minutes as a QR code. When our ferry arrived, the boat staff seemed unsure what to do with our tickets and didn’t have anything to scan the QR codes with, and there were no scanning points on the piers beside the regular contactless payment point. Granted, it’s only been a week, so this will likely get ironed out, but it was a little awkward.
So, how cost-effective and time-effective is the trip? Look, the service is not cheap, and we did a cost comparison on the same trip with multiple different modes of transportation. Journeys start from £4.50 (or US$5.70) a ticket, but this won’t get you very far. If you were going to do the whole line from Putney to Woolwich, through all three zones it would cost a hefty £12.00 one way. You can buy season tickets for weekly, monthly or annual unlimited travel, which makes individual rides cheaper, but it would be ideal to figure out how much you’re going to use the service first before investing up to £2,159.55 for an annual, all-zone pass.
We took a trip from Tower Bridge to Westminster, two major tourist sites within the Central zone, with a distance of 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers). Here’s how much it costs and how long it takes on other forms of public transport, using the nearest station or pier:
Uber Boat: £7.20 (25 minutes)
Tube: £2.40 using contactless payment, £4.90 using cash (30 minutes)
UberX: £11.62 (20 minutes)
Bikeshare: Around £4 — Lime and Lime-owned Jump bikes cost £1 to unlock and 15 pence per minute (20 minutes)
Walking: Free (just over an hour)
Here’s the thing: You don’t actually need the Uber app to ride.
If you pick the Uber Boat option, here’s the thing: You don’t actually need the Uber app to ride. This is the part that makes the whole thing a bit of a branding exercise, because passengers can still buy tickets using the Thames Clippers’ existing platforms, whether on the website, its own ticketing app, at ticket counters and machines, or using an Oyster card or contactless payment at the turnstiles.
Also, Uber’s website says you have a “guaranteed seat” with your ticket but this doesn’t mean a “designated seat.” I assume this means the ticket takes into account the number of people legally allowed on board and the number of tickets sold, but our tickets weren’t associated with a boat or seat and were just valid for 90 minutes. So, you just hop on and find a seat where you can, really.
On booking, it’s important to note this not the first foray into public transport systems for Uber. The company’s been rolling out “transit” ticketing options in several parts of the U.S. over the last year. In May 2019, it announced it would start selling bus and train tickets through its app in Denver, Colorado. In Jan. 2020, it brought this option to Las Vegas for people booking bus tickets, and in July this year, Uber announced it would be enabling riders across Ohio and Kentucky to buy tickets for 13 local transit agencies.
The transit ticketing within the Uber app is powered by its mobile ticketing partner, Masabi, a UK-based company that’s also provided mobile tickets for Thames Clippers since 2014. And now, it’s powering Uber Boat tickets.
On another note, for those used to one of Uber’s biggest draws — reduced wait times and high vehicle availability — the boat service might not be your cup of tea. In a city with multiple public transport options, commuters might not even check a timetable before they head to a station, but with the ferry system, I highly encourage you to check it before you arrive, especially as services are only just starting to increase since the pandemic. We just missed a ferry from our pier on a Friday afternoon and waited 30 minutes for the next. Taking into account the 25-minute ride to our destination, we could have walked almost the entire distance for free in just over the same amount of time. Our fault completely, but man, waiting sucks.
It’s a tough time for London’s public transport system, with Transport for London reporting in July it will require £6.4 billion in funding support over the next two years to make up for losses during the pandemic lockdown. Londoners are slowly beginning to head back to work, though a recent poll showed 70 percent of Londoners now feel uncomfortable with the idea of commuting to work via public transport. Alternative measures have already been proposed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, who put forward plans in May to get the city moving again — but the big emphasis was on cycling to ease pressure on public transport systems. Granted, not all commuters can ride bikes, but they’re definitely a cheaper and greener option for commuters than a ferry.
According to Uber, 4.3 million people use the Thames for commuting and leisure trips every year using the Thames Clippers network, but I imagine the reliance on tourist dollars, rather than regular city commuters, will be significant for Uber as the piers link some of the city’s biggest landmarks with a ride on the Thames. Granted, people who live and work near the piers might use the service too.
Confident that the outdoor spaces on the ferries and social distancing seating guides will attract passengers, Uber said in a press release, “The increased space per passenger and fresh air are part of the reason why over 40 percent of river commuters are planning to increase their use of the service in the future, according to recent research carried out by Thames Clippers.” To be honest, the outdoor space in the Thames Clippers is extremely limited, with seating for just a handful of people at the back of the boat and the majority of seating indoors, so if you’re hoping for guaranteed wind in your hair, be warned.
Granted, Thames Clippers has made adjustments to the boats themselves in light of the pandemic, including making all journeys cash-free, supplying PPE for staff, blocking off seats with signs to encourage (not ensure, as we saw) social distancing, and a mandatory face mask rule for passengers in accordance with government guidelines.
So, Uber Boat is not the Uber you’re used to. In pre-pandemic days, it would be simply a pleasant, comparatively pricey way to commute and see the city from the water, but today, it’s honestly almost as stressful as other public transport options regardless of the promise of outdoor breezy spaces from the operators. But really, it’s exactly that: an option.
For me, I’ll probably stick to biking it.