Thames Clippers announced a partnership with Uber Boats.
Thames Clippers announced a partnership with Uber Boats.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pexels)

On-water transportation Uber Boats solidifies the value of on-water travel

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Isabell Page

Uber's recent announcement of Uber Boats in London epitomizes mobility providers' opportunity to expand their brand to numerous verticals. While on-water travel may not be a daily occurrence for all, in many cities, it not only provides an alternative to other modes of transport but with appropriate partnerships can also actively reduce road congestion.

When you think of transport, your first thought it probably cars or trains. But on-water transportation, including electric boats, zero-emission functionality, and the development of autonomous vessels, are making water travel a more viable option than ever before. Uber recently announced their entry into the waters of London, with riverboat service Thames Clipper being renamed as Uber Boat later this summer. Thames Clippers operates a service that runs through the city and includes stops along the river at Canary Wharf in the east, the London Eye in the center of town, and Battersea Power Station in the west.

Piers and boats will be rebranded and users will be able to buy tickets on the Uber app alongside existing methods as residents seek alternatives to trains and buses amid the coronavirus outbreak. According to Jamie Heywood, Regional General Manager for Northern and Eastern Europe at Uber: "Londoners are looking for new ways to travel around the city, particularly when they start commuting back to work. Later this summer we will launch the Uber Boat by Thames Clippers partnership in London as a means for people to travel into the City by water, which will be fully integrated through the Uber app."

The Uber Boat by Thames Clippers.
The Uber Boat by Thames Clippers.
(Source: Thames Clippers)

Uber users can purchase tickets in advance through the Uber app and then use QR technology to board the boats. The payment will be processed using the user's Uber account details. Passengers will continue to be able to purchase tickets via the existing Thames Clippers sales channels, including touching in and out with contactless or Oyster to pay as you go at the piers they serve across London.

It's not the Uber's first foray into boating, with the company operating a trial service between islands in Croatia during the summer over the last few years. It's unclear whether the project will continue. Still, it demonstrates a broad approach to mobility orientated services by the company from Uber eats to Uber Debit Card, Uber Freight, a division dedicated to corporate travel booking and Uber elevate (landing pad infrastructure and a booking platform for VOTL aircraft).

Boats are a vital component of multimodal travel

It follows that cities surrounded by water are keen to include boats and ferries into their multimodal transport solutions, integrating both private and public offenders. Cities such as Hong Kong and Hamburg, provide one ticket transport solutions that bring together buses, trains, trams, and ferries. As people strive to practice social distancing, boats are proving a viable option with reports in Canada of ferries returning to pre-COVID passenger numbers and the Staten Island Ferry in New York, increasing its peak hour frequency.

However, for boats to be a viable part of the mix, pain-free connectivity to other modes of transport needs to be in place to make the travel as seamless as stepping from a train to board a bus. In Seattle, $187.3 million dollars in federal and state funding has been allocated as part of the Mukilteo/Clinton ferry route, one of the state's busiest routes, with more than 4 million total riders every year. It's predicted that by 2040, walk-on ridership during the peak afternoon commute is expected to increase 124 percent. The restricted includes a new multimodal terminal to provide connections to buses and trains.

In Sydney, public transport via ferry carriers over 16 million passengers per year, more than New York and London combined. Last year the NSW government trialed an on-demand ferry service between 7 am and 10 pm on weekdays, 8:30 am and 7:30 pm on weekends. A single trip will cost $7.60 (4.65€) for adults and $3.80 (2.30€) for children, students, and concessions. The route was serviced by a new 12-meter MiniCat that seats 43 customers and has an overall capacity for 60 customers. Customers could book a trip by app at one of the kiosks located at the wharves or over the phone, with a 15-minute window for ferry arrival. The trial was deemed a success, but COVID-19 has delayed efforts to resume service.

The customer experience is paramount to attract and retain passengers

Previous research by Transport for London (TfL) highlighted ferry travel as appealing to tourists but also subject to several challenges for everyday commuters, in particular:

  • Cost of travel
  • Lack of integration with other parts of London's transport network
  • Journey times for commuting passengers
  • Many different pier owners and service operators: inconsistency in pier facilities and appearance

TfL has installed Oyster pay as you go and contactless payment card readers at all River Bus piers, simplifying payment and speeding up boarding times. Piers also contain iBoat countdown screens at River Bus piers that display the next boat timings. TfL is working with river stakeholders to improve the visibility of piers and river services with clear branding and information that is standardized across the network. This includes exploring ways to provide clearer, simpler information about the services on offer, where to find them, and how to access them, improving integration with other transport modes, including looking into ways of better representing river services on the Tube map. Tfl is also working with developers and boroughs, to identify potential measures that promote pedestrian and cycle access at each pier, and potential improvements to wayfinding in and around piers and improved links to the Thames Path.

Travel by ferry can provide a crucial response to other mobility challenges

Uber played a critical part in increasing the appeal of ferry travel in Sydney. A study by The Grattan Institute found commuters from Balgowlah near Manly, heading to the CBD, endured Sydney's worst road congestion. Despite this, many commuters still choose to drive over The Spit Bridge rather than take the ferry.

In response, a pilot program developed as part of the NSW Government's Mobility as a Service Innovation Challenge used UberPool to provide discounted transport to ferry wharfs during peak hours. Using the Uber app, passengers who traveled to or from the Manly Wharf within a designated service area were eligible to receive an UberPool ride capped at AUD 3.50 (2.15€). The pilot hopes to remove the parking challenges, making leaving the car at home an even more affordable option. This helps reduce congestion and give commuters the best possible door-to-door travel experience. It's an important step to making integrated multimodal transport a reality, and a great example of an effective public-private partnership.