There’s nothing worse than the smell of fresh garbage and general subway stench hitting your face in the morning before cramming like sardines into a packed car. Or is it worse to watch three trains go by that are full before you get into one and see someone clipping their nails while standing up?
After five years of things-that-cannot-be-unseen while riding the MTA, I was ready for a break from the subway horror stories. So when a friend told me about Via, a ride-sharing service that costs $5 flat rate for rides anywhere below 125th street in Manhattan between 6 am and midnight Monday to Friday (and $5.95 between 9 pm and midnight), I signed up immediately. Via recently added Saturday service, from 10 am to midnight, and Sunday service, from 10 am to 9 pm; they also often run promotions for less than $5 a ride.
A few reasons why I was interested in Via: Unlike uberPOOL and Lyft Line, the rate never changes, no matter the distance. (Note: Uber just announced $5 flat-rate rides for uberPOOL below 110th Street, but only during weekday morning and evening rush). Although you have to potentially share with more people than its competitors—Lyft and Uber usually cap off at four riders, while some Via cars can hold up to six—the pickups and drop-offs are always along your route so you're not stuck zig-zagging from the east to west side like often happens with other ride-share services.
After booking a seat on my smartphone (as per the usual drill with these app-centered rides), I hopped in a car half a block from my apartment—they do zone pickups within two blocks of your destination—and rode all the way down from the West 100s to Ninth Avenue to work in Chelsea Market. It took less time than it took to ride the subway 10 stops. Unless we hit major traffic, I could commute door to door in 30-to-40 minutes.
Given this, I decided to try taking only Via for a month to see the cost-effectiveness, comfort level, and if I could always get to destinations in a timely matter. Below, 15 things I learned from my month-long experiment:
1. Cost comparisons: If you take Via to and from work every day, it’s $200 per month. That’s about $80 more than the $116.50 monthly MetroCard, not including weekends.
2. Will you walk?: Sometimes the pickup and drop-off spots are more than two blocks away, but never more than one avenue. In my experience, the furthest I’ve had to walk was from 10th and First Avenue to 12th and Second Avenue. While it's not usually a big deal, for those used to door-to-door service, it might be something of a hassle. And when it's really windy out, pouring rain, or generally miserable weather, sometimes it's tough standing out in the elements without cover. It's similar to waiting for a bus, but without the semi-comfort of a covered stop.
3. Be prepared to say goodbye to friends quickly: Usually the wait time is less than five minutes. During inclement weather, the wait time can fluctuate dependent on traffic, going up and down between say, five minutes and fifteen minutes. That means you may need to wait out in the cold for longer than you might have wanted, or you may be making a mad dash from your house or desk or booth at a restaurant to catch it in time.
4. The waiting game: Drivers are only supposed to wait two minutes for fellow passengers until they’re marked as a no-show, but often they’ll be generous and wait at least five. (This is great if you're the one running late, and a drag if you're the one in the car trying to get someplace by a certain time.) The idea behind Via is to pick up passengers along your route like a bus stop, so you should be ready and waiting at the designated pickup spot when your car arrives. Waiting can really hold you—and everyone else—up.
5. Sometimes it's a full house: Usually there are only one or two other people in the car, but Via SUVs—usually Suburbans—can hold between four and seven passengers. Getting the front seat is ideal so you don’t have to get the dreaded middle seat or move over (or sometimes climb into the back row).
6. Late nights are quieter: That said, if you ride during Via’s “late night” hours (9 pm to midnight, which costs $5.95 instead of $5), you often have an entire car to yourself. I’ve rarely had to ride with fellow passengers at night. You can also do mid-day rides for $3.95 (a current promotion, as of publication time).
7. Cost issues: That $5 rate is only if you keep your account refilled with credits, which can be bought in $25 or $50 increments. You can set it to auto-refill when it dips below $10, too. Otherwise, there’s a $2-per-ride surcharge. If you cancel a ride, it’s a $3 charge.
8. MetroCard vs. Via: You can link a credit card or your pre-tax commuter benefits card if it’s eligible. I ended up buying a pay-per-ride MetroCard for weekends and using Via during the week.
9. Carpooling with friends: You can travel with up to three friends (or kids). Each “plus one” costs half the normal rate, so $7.50 for you and one friend. Four people is only $12.50, and you'll probably get a car to yourself.
10. Follow the rules: Sometimes the Via rules are posted and sometimes not. You cannot eat or drink, talk on the phone for extended periods of time, or slam the car doors (they are heavy, after all). It’s supposed to be a comfortable shared-ride experience that has similar rules to the city bus, but only some drivers will reprimand rude riders who talk loudly on the phone the whole ride.
11. To talk or not to talk. Like with Uber Pool and Lyft Line, it’s hit or miss whether the other passengers will want to talk. Most of the time, everyone is just on their phones, but I’ve met a few nice people—one designer in my neighborhood who runs a popular blog; another fellow dog owner who wants to do a pup meetup at the park; and two friendly people who work across the street from me and want to do lunch sometime. One particularly fun Via driver, Raphael Diaz, told me he has even hooked up couples in his car by making everyone in the ride introduce themselves. He’s basically the Hitch of Via.
12.You get credit for riding. After you take your first ride you'll get a referral code and for everyone you refer, you, and they, get a $10 credit.
13. Music to your ears: There are also some strange music rules in Via—apparently drivers are only allowed to play classical, elevator-sounding music or the news. This is unclear how true it is, since I usually hear Z100 or talk shows in cars.
14 Where everyone knows your name (or at least your face): You will run into the same people if you take the same route every day. There’s one rider who always gets on in the West 50s and gets off at my building. We didn’t become friends, but usually exchange a hello.
15. SatNav issues: The only issue drivers seem to have is that sometimes their iPads freeze up, which messes up their specific routing. Once I had to loop around an extra few avenues because he couldn’t tell there was a passenger pickup that we missed.
16. Do not opt for Via when you're in a rush: I’ve had great luck commuting, but I have heard horror stories of an hour or more in the car because of many pickups and drop-offs. Then again, that person was going from 72nd Street on the West Side all the way to Battery Park, which is a long ride. (Editor's note: It once took an hour to get from 80th Street to Varick Street because of evening traffic.) Overall, the longest I’ve been stuck in traffic was 10 minutes during morning travel—I leave my apartment at 8:45 am in my office by 9:15 or 9:30 am—and I rarely get stuck in standstill on the way home. To be safe, make sure you have an extra half an hour to get there.
17. Timing is everything: Via is something of a no-brainer when you're traveling off-hours, but during morning and afternoon rush, things get trickier. Cars are more full (more pick-ups take more time) and traffic, of course, can be worse. On rainy days, the wait for Vias can be longer.
My takeaway: I may be spending more on commuting, but for now, Via has been worth it. It allows me to check email on the way to work, not be stressed out by missing a subway or being crammed in with everyone else who's rushing, and allows me to schlep home groceries from the market or whatever weird stuff I get at work in the comfort of a car. This is not a sponsored post; I’m just genuinely obsessed with Via.
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