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The Coronavirus Crisis

How Uber And Its Riders Are Adapting To The New 'Social'

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After months of shutdowns that have damaged the ride-hailing industry, Uber says it sees signs of revival.
David Paul Morris, Bloomberg via Getty Images

After months of shutdowns that have damaged the ride-hailing industry, Uber says it sees signs of revival.

Uber is seeing signs of recovery as cities, states and countries lift lockdown restrictions and businesses reopen, according to one of the ride-hailing company's top executives.

Commuters are the first people returning to Uber as businesses reopen, Andrew Macdonald, senior vice president of mobility and business operations, told NPR in an interview.

"Morning and evening rush hour are the parts of the business that have come back first, and then you tend to see the social hours start to come back after that," he said.

In parts of the world that have been opened up for longer and where new cases of the coronavirus are declining, people are using Uber to get to places other than work, too.

"People are still adapting to what 'social' means," Macdonald said. In Australia, "instead of [on] Saturday night, going to a bar or restaurant, we're seeing a lot more people using it to go to a friend's house for dinner or for drinks."

The 36-year-old Macdonald, known as "Mac," has been overseeing the company's rides business from his home in Toronto during the pandemic.

Last month, he was promoted from head of global rides to take charge of a "mobility" team that includes public transit partnerships. That was part of a reorganization around Uber's core businesses — moving people and delivering goods — and a scaling back of other projects, as the company aims to slash $1 billion in costs.

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"As many, many companies have over the past few months, we've had to make some hard decisions to right-size our cost structure and set ourselves up for success going forward," Macdonald said. He says Uber remains committed to its ambitious goal of being "the Amazon of transportation" — a single app for getting around.

But there is no denying that the wide-scale shutdowns of Uber's biggest markets have taken a steep toll on the company this year. At the worst point in April, demand for Uber rides was down 80% from a year ago, while rival Lyft reported a 75% drop.

Both companies were already losing money before the coronavirus hit. Now they have laid off or furloughed thousands of employees and are aggressively cutting costs. The millions of drivers on their platforms have also been deeply affected by the loss of income and health risks of remaining behind the wheel.

Last week, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the business has begun to rebound, with rides bookings now down 70% from last year. Some pre-pandemic staples of demand, like trips to the airport, are taking longer to recover.

In recent weeks, the curfews that cities including New York and San Francisco enacted during the nationwide protests over police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd threw a new obstacle in the way of the ride-hailing recovery. Uber declined to comment on the financial impact of the curfews, most of which have been lifted.

Like other companies in the sharing economy, from Airbnb to clothing rental service Rent the Runway to car-sharing services Zipcar and Turo, Uber is preparing for business to return in ways that reflect a health crisis that the world will be coping with for the indefinite future.

"The reality is that the world is going to open up again, and we will have ongoing health considerations and I think likely waves of this virus," Macdonald said. "But people are going to need to go back to work. People have a desire to socialize, to see family, to see friends. And they're going to need transportation options to do it."

Uber operates in more than 65 countries, which has given it a glimpse of how customer behavior is changing in places that are further along in containing the pandemic and returning to a more normal way of life.

In Hong Kong, Macdonald said Uber is seeing more rides than before the coronavirus that are related to "domestic tourism" destinations, like hiking trails.

It is now requiring all drivers and passengers in the U.S. and some other countries to wear masks, and using facial scanning to make sure drivers comply.

Some drivers have told NPR they are concerned the company may cut off their access to Uber if they refuse to pick up riders who do not wear masks.

Macdonald said it is "within [drivers'] right to reject passengers who refuse to wear masks" and that Uber will kick off passengers or drivers who repeatedly do not adhere to the policy.

Editor's note: Uber is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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