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Uber ad illustrates the problem with Uber

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Company’s “boxes” advertisement bemoans traffic created by cars

Ride-hailing outfit Uber released an ad that might have the unintended bug of pointing out exactly why so many city dwellers are so peeved at the San Francisco-based company.

The 80-second long piece titled “Boxes,” created by Swedish ad firm Forsman and Bodenfors, portrays people muddling around the streets wearing huge, bulky, inconvenient cardboard boxes that constantly get in the way.

In the end the commercial encourages drivers to throw away their “box” and instead to “unlock cities”—that is to say, to use urban space efficiently and humanely instead of as a clogged series of arteries for giant machines.

“We use boxes as a way to dramatize the traffic situation and highlight some of the funny, absurd and occasionally annoying situations that we face,” an Uber ad exec told Inspiration Room.

Or as StreetsBlog puts it:

By stripping away the gloss, anonymity, and cultural connotations of car exteriors and leaving only their bulk, the ad brilliantly highlights why moving around in single-occupancy vehicles is so absurd. [...] There’s just not enough space for everyone to get around this way.

It’s a thought-provoking ad. However, as StreetsBlog also points out, “Boxes” is a great advertisement against Uber. Why? Because Uber’s entire business relies on the very same car use the ad satirizes.

In theory, if everyone took an Uber instead of driving themselves, cities like San Francisco would end up with fewer cars on the road.

But in practice this has not happened. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) estimated in June that there are some 45,000 Lyft and Uber drivers operating in San Francisco and that over 70 percent of them are actually driving in from out of town to service popular SF neighborhoods.

[Correction: It was actually the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, not SFMTA]

Uber Releases Results Of Internal Sexual Harassment Investigation Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rather than unlocking San Francisco from car use, Uber and its competitors are concentrating outside cars in our urban center. So much so that SFMTA also claims 20 percent of all vehicle miles in the city these days come from ride-hail pickups.

The San Francisco Police Department alleged in August that ride-hailing companies commit almost two-thirds of downtown traffic violations, often blocking transit and bike lanes.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen called the companies’ drivers “out of control” last week and claimed they’re ruining the crucial Valencia Street cycling corridor.

If true, all of these accusations would mean that Uber is using “boxes” to crowd non-boxes from the streets.

No one at Uber has yet responded to queries for comment. In all fairness, the company shot “Boxes” in Bangkok, Thailand. According to the Inspiration Room, it’s meant to appeal to Asian markets, where traffic habits may be different.

And if enough future San Franciscans really do forsake their own cars in favor of car-sharing apps, then decongestion could result. But until achieving that parity, the company may be a little boxed in by its own rhetoric.