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Getting ready to ride my first uberHOP at the 7-Eleven in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.

Will carpooling become cool? Will people no longer need to own a car? Will Uber replace public transit, or at least parts of it?

These are all questions I have after trying out Uber new’s carpool service, which is launching for the first time ever in Seattle on Thursday.

GeekWire had a chance to test drive uberHOP, the new transportation option which allows people to meet at designated pickup locations and ride together with as many as five others who are traveling on the same route. The idea is to pack more people in one vehicle, thus saving customers money and increasing efficiency for Uber drivers.

[Related: Economic experts are optimistic about Uber’s new $5 flat fee carpool service]

As we reported on Tuesday, Uber is initially offering three routes to pick from and will operate uberHOP during busy commute times: 7 a.m to 10 a.m and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m, Monday through Friday. The routes are Capitol Hill to downtown, Fremont/Wallingford to downtown, and Ballard to South Lake Union; Uber will also operate reverse routes, meaning downtown to Capitol Hill, downtown to Fremont/Wallingford, and South Lake Union to Ballard.

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Via Uber.

For my test run this morning, I met a few Uber employees at the Fremont/Wallingford stop, which is at a 7-Eleven parking lot.

If you’ve used Uber before to hail a ride, figuring out how to use uberHOP shouldn’t be too difficult. You simply slide the button on the bottom of your screen to “uberHOP,” and you can scroll through the different routes.

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Once you decide on a route and request an uberHOP, Uber will provide walking directions to the designated pick-up spot, and also tell you when the vehicle is departing.

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The rest is fairly simple, as you get inside the car along with anyone else who has also requested the same ride. My driver traveled directly to our drop-off destination at 1st Ave and Seneca St.

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For our test run, the driver dropped us off on the street, but by Thursday, the designated pick-up/drop-off area should be in a parking lot behind a local coffee shop. [Update: Uber’s app has since been updated to show the drop-off point as “in front of Cherry Street Coffee.”] The other uberHOP pick-up/drop-off spots are relatively easy-to-find locations like Starbucks or near retail stores.

It will cost riders a flat fee of $5 for each ride, no matter how many people are in the vehicle. For the pilot, uberHOP will use uberXL vehicles that can hold up to six people. Drivers will be guaranteed at least $35 per hour as Uber tests this new service in Seattle, but it’s unclear how they will be paid as the service grows — for example, even if only one person takes an uberHOP and pays $5 for the ride, how will drivers earn enough money?

uber-logoI noticed a few other things while experiencing this new service. Riding on uberHOP felt very much like a private bus. Unlike a public bus, it was nice to know exactly when the ride is departing and arriving — apps like OneBusAway offer something similar, but Uber’s technology seems more precise. Other perks include the fact that you get to sit in a nice SUV and pay directly in the app.

One downside for some folks is that you ride with strangers, which can be good or bad, depending on how social you are and if you like meeting new people. But those comfortable with public transit shouldn’t find this to be much trouble.

I’m also interested to see how Uber changes the $5 flat fee, especially if this new service catches on. It’s certainly an attractive price point for many commuters when factoring gas, parking, and simply time spent driving. But if Uber raises the fee, how much is too much for those that have alternative options like their own vehicle, the bus, or Seattle’s light rail service, which will soon expand.

Another thing to watch is how Uber adds or removes different routes on uberHOP based on consumer demand. The company, now valued at $62 billion, went through its internal data to see where the most popular trips take place in Seattle and used that information to determine the three initial routes noted above. The plan is to add more routes in the future.

Uber already has an existing carpooling service called UberPool that’s available in several cities worldwide. It’s a little different than uberHOP in that UberPool does not require riders to walk to pre-determined locations, instead having drivers pick up passengers at their exact location. This is a hassle that drivers won’t need to worry about with uberHOP.

Will uberHOP catch on more quickly in Seattle than UberPool has in other cities? Will UberPool launch in Seattle alongside uberHOP, and how will that affect transportation in this region?

Uber is adamant that these services will help Seattle, at least in some ways, fix its growing traffic problem with a constant influx of new residents moving to Seattle, many of which are taking jobs at Amazon and other tech companies — Uber included.

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Brooke Steger at the 2014 GeekWire Summit.

“We all know Seattle has huge congestion problems and there are limited ways for us to expand the current transportation network on the road,” Uber Seattle General Manager Brooke Steger told GeekWire on Tuesday. “Our goal is to pull people out of personal cars and encourage them to use alternative forms of transportation.”

One last topic to note — the Seattle City Council is voting Monday on legislation that would offer Uber, Lyft, taxi and other “for-hire” drivers the right to unionize. Since drivers are independent contractors and not employees, they are not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s new $15 per hour minimum wage law — and do not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The legislation, created by Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, would give drivers the ability to negotiate pay rates and employment conditions.

Some question the timing of uberHOP’s launch — it’s not being tested anywhere else in the world — as it relates to this upcoming vote, especially given how much Uber is talking about helping the city reduce congestion.

“If [the city] knows that a bus service is going to be cut in a certain area, we can help facilitate some of that movement of people across the city in a more efficient way,” Steger said on Tuesday.

But Uber says it is launching in Seattle because of the city’s willingness to embrace new technology, in addition to a growing traffic problem.

“They can share a ride with two or three people in that vehicle, which tend to be fuel-efficient vehicles,” Uber strategic advisor David Plouffe said in Seattle last week when talking about UberPool. “It makes transportation a lot more affordable and brings this service to all income spectrums. We think it’s an important part of what we offer to cities and we’e eager to continue to work with leaders in Seattle — both business and government — to figure out how we can build a city of the future.”

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