Boston company enters ride-sharing fray

Boston company enters ride-sharing fray

By Cassidy DeStefano, news correspondent

Boston-based startup Fasten hopes to take the wheel of an increasingly crowded ride-sharing industry by promising an end to surge pricing and a business model more favorable to drivers than the approaches taken by industry leaders Uber and Lyft.

“We are the only company who is interested in making ride-sharing the most affordable way to get around,” CEO Kirill Evdakov said.

In Boston, Fasten is slightly cheaper than rival Uber. Fasten charges users a $1.85 base price with added fees of $1.10 per mile and 19 cents per minute, Evdakov said. UberX – the company’s lowest-priced service – charges $2 for base fare plus $1.24 per mile and 16 cents per minute, according to the company’s website.

Surge pricing – inflated prices at times of high demand – is the chief cause of dissent in the industry and a detriment to its growth, according to Evdakov.

“It’s not actually helping the industry to grow. It may solve the issue for five or 10 minutes, but in the long term, people learn that they cannot rely on ride-sharing services anymore,” Evdakov said. “Our method eliminates the shock that some riders get at the end of the ride when they go to look at the price tag… We show riders cost in real time. We focus in on what people actually need. They need a reliable ride free of surge error.”

However, Peter Furth, a professor of transportation and planning engineering at Northeastern, holds the opposite view.

“The general population thinks that surge pricing is a way of screwing them, but that’s not how I see it all,” Furth said. “The way you get demand to match supply is through pricing.”

Furth added that ride-sharing companies implemented surge pricing as a tool to allow them to profit off of resource deployment when it is most needed.

While sometimes frustrating to experience, surge pricing has value as a practical model and is accepted as one of the costs of using ride-sharing services, according to Northeastern University sophomore business major Jessica Osher.

“Sometimes you’ll just have to deal with it and accept the higher fare,” Osher said.

In addition to pricing issues, Fasten, along with other ride-sharing services in Boston, will also have to contend with questions about rider safety. A Boston Globe report described the case of two women, one from Boston, suing Uber for “marketing the company as a safe transportation option, then failing to appropriately screen their drivers to make sure that female passengers are safe.”

Meanwhile, a former Uber driver was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a passenger in Boston last year.

The case caught the attention of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who suggested state policymakers were better-positioned than those at the city level to address the issue.

“Our hands are tied to some degree in the city as far as being able to put regulations in place,” Walsh told reporters, stressing the need for political attention.

Earlier this month, ride-hailing services and taxi drivers alike rallied on Beacon Hill in support of new legislation to boost public safety and crack down on insurance policy holes, local radio station WBUR reported. The policy, authored by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, would mandate dual background checks for drivers by both companies and state regulators, as well as strengthen liability protections for drivers.

Evdakov, however, stressed that the focus should be on justice for drivers and lower fares for riders, instead of on security measures.

“We are a technical platform that connects drivers and riders, and part of that is maintaining the income of drivers,” Evdakov said. “That’s how you, as a rider, can pay less and drivers are more content… Our company is earning money based on the quantity of rides rather than the price of each individual trip.”

Fasten absorbs 99 cents of the fare per ride, as opposed to the proportional cut of up to 28 percent of overall commission some companies take from drivers, according to Evdakov.

A Northeastern College of Science student and Lyft driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he would support emerging pro-driver platforms like Fasten.

“I think these other ride-sharing companies are taking advantage of the fact that drivers don’t really understand where the costs go to and everything,” the driver said. “The cut is like 80-20, and while that doesn’t seem entirely unfair to me, something more like 90-10 would be ideal.”

The student added that while  his personal experience in the profession had been decent, large companies like Lyft tend to exploit drivers that don’t exercise skepticism.

“This is a question that more drivers should be asking,” the driver said. “[Fasten] is a huge thing because it shows that if they’re able to do this and make a profit and be a successful business, then these other companies have been robbing drivers.”

The credibility drivers gain through driving for more established companies, however, is a fair swap for lower wages, according to Northeastern University sophomore finance major Benjamin Yau.

“I mean honestly, I feel like the company needs to make money, too. Getting 20 to 28 percent is a pretty large commission compared to a lot of other driving services around,” Yau, a proponent of Uber, said. “And the fact that [drivers] are putting their name out on Uber, which is a pretty influential company, makes them credible.”

In the end, Fasten’s success may be determined not by prices or driver satisfaction, but by how quickly it can serve customers, according to Furth. In many cases, users are prone to submit to overblown cab rates if it will cut down on overall travel time, he said, adding that companies like Fasten will likely have to implement higher flat rates to offset charging less during peak times.

“The price that you pay in transportation is never just the money – it’s always the money and your time,” Furth said. “If you’re going to have to give up more of your time, some people would say it’s not worth it.”

Photo by Scotty Schenck

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