Both Uber and Lyft tell The Verge that the past year has seen a surge in public officials interested in giving the companies taxpayer dollars for public transit contracts. For the companies, it’s an appealing new way to establish themselves as vital infrastructure, especially in low-density communities like Altamonte where running traditional mass transit can be expensive. Given the pace at which these partnerships are coming together, it’s possible to imagine ride-hail companies taking on the role of all-encompassing, smartphone-driven public transit providers, one town at a time. ... The pilot program is unusable for people without a smartphone or credit card, and the company attempted to have the city sign an unusually far-reaching nondisclosure agreement. ... At a subsidy rate of 25 percent — and assuming the ridership would grow annually by 100 percent — Uber would receive roughly a million dollars per year from the city. A potential indication of Uber’s aspirations, the chart also included a scenario in which Altamonte would pay Uber a full 100 percent subsidy, putting the town on the hook for up to nearly $7 million in ride-share funding over a two-year span. ... Martz settled on a 20 percent subsidy for any trip within Altamonte, and 25 percent for rides to and from the city’s commuter rail station. Martz foresees the yearlong pilot costing taxpayers less than a hundred thousand dollars, far cheaper than building a new bus system. Nor does it involve navigating the regional transit authority or negotiating with potentially unionized public employees.
Under Cheng, Didi has expanded in just four years to 400 Chinese cities. The service lets users digitally hail and pay for taxis, private cars, limousines, and commuter buses. Cheng says 80 percent of all taxi drivers in China now use Didi to find passengers. So many people use the app, it can be difficult to get a cab during rush hour without it. Investors recently valued Didi at $35 billion, making it one of the most valuable private companies in the world. Uber, with operations in almost 500 cities on six continents, is worth $68 billion. ... Cheng was born in Jiangxi province, a landlocked region in eastern China famous for being the cradle of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution. His father was a civil servant, his mother a mathematics teacher. He says he excelled at math in high school but during his college entrance exams neglected to turn over the last page of the test, leaving three questions blank. He got into the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, less prestigious than the upper-echelon schools. ... it turned out that Didi had a few advantages over the competition. Some were copying Uber’s U.S. strategy of working with limousine and town car chauffeurs. But there are far fewer black cars than yellow cabs in China. ... Instead of imitating competitors and giving away smartphones to drivers, an expensive proposition for a capital-strapped startup, they focused on providing their free app to younger drivers who already had phones and were likely to spread the word about Didi.