Ads Matter: What Uber's Marketing Says About High-Capacity Public Transit

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker argues that Uber's ads betray dark aspirations for the future of transit.
October 7, 2016, 12pm PDT | Casey Brazeal | @northandclark
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In a recent blog post, transit consultant Jarrett Walker, took issue with an Uber ad showing a woman who had recently missed a train. This ad is one of a number of billboards and bus advertisements that compare mass transit with Uber, and while these ads may seem innocuous to the average person, Walker saw something more pernicious at work. "I reminded readers of what it would mean to shift large numbers of people from big transit vehicles, like the subway pictured here, to individual Uber cars — in terms of outcomes for cities, society, and the environment."

For their part, Uber contacted Walker to tell him that the ad was being removed. Walker noted this as a good move, but emphasized that his original complaints were still valid. "This ad also had a context, as part of a torrent of messages — from many parts of the culture including the tech industry — that encourage contempt for public transit, or at least apathy about it, among the relatively fortunate."

The argument is that the danger of these ads is in part their feigned light-heartedness, "Advertising always wants to engage us with a wink and a nod, so that we’ll forgive it for implying things that the company wouldn’t want to defend having said directly."

This ad may be going away, but the tension between ride sharing and mass transit isn't going anywhere.

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Published on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 in Human Transit
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