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With Via, Sharing More Than Just a Ride

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Via riders: Dee Tseurate (left), Joanne Gamel (right), Kelly Lee (back left) and Seth Hirschhorn (back right). Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

The back seat of a Via functions as Joanne Gamel’s mobile office. It is where Ms. Gamel, a New York real estate agent, checks email, calls clients and gets listings, all while being chauffeured to appointments in Manhattan.

But the best part of a shared car service like Via is the business she does with fellow brokers who are also in the back doing the same thing.

“I’ve gotten at least 15 different business cards from other agents,” said Ms. Gamel, 35. “It’s great for networking, especially if they share their listings or refer a client. I love getting in the car with another agent. And if he has a nice smile, even better.”

Inside an UberPool car last month, Tanner Wells met the woman of his dreams. He was riding from a Brooklyn party back to his apartment in Manhattan when she hopped in.

“We flirted on the way back to the city,” said Mr. Wells, 37. “She was telling me about some guy she was going to visit. We were talking about goofy stuff. When we got to her stop, she said, ‘It was nice meeting you,’ and got out. The driver turned to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you get her number?’”

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Shared car services like Via bring New Yorkers together. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

The next day Mr. Wells created a “missed connections” post on Craigslist in the hope she would find him. (So far, no answer.)

Within the last year, ride-sharing services like Via, Lyft Line and UberPool have exploded onto New York streets as an alternative to pricey taxi rides and unreliable public transportation. Their fleet of S.U.V.s has created a new vision of car-pooling that is luxurious, cost-effective and timesaving. Executives are taking them to work. Parents are taking them on school runs. Packs of young professionals are taking them home after happy hour.

Compared with taxis, where rides are on the decline, the price of a shared ride is worth the middle seat and constant pickups. A Via ride costs just over $ 5 for any two points throughout Manhattan south of 110th Street.

But convenience aside, these shared cars are also prime breeding grounds for scandalous, titillating exchanges, where New Yorkers sandwiched together are networking, flirting and sparring in a seemingly consequence-free environment where nearly anything goes.

Given the tight seating and anonymous climate, shared rides are the new setting for thrilling flirtations. “It’s an odd psychology like in that old show, ‘Taxicab Confessions,’ where everyone feels comfortable talking to the driver,” Mr. Wells said. “In some respect, that same psychology applies to other passengers. The vibe in the back is kind of loose.”

A rider named Carmen hopped into an UberPool on a recent Thursday night and locked eyes with a handsome man in the back. The two began flirting instantly. He was complimenting her dress, begging her to go out with him, even holding her hand.

“He said, ‘Let’s go somewhere together, let’s go dancing,” said Carmen, an assistant to a prominent New York executive who asked that her last name not be published because it might jeopardize her job. “I said I was tired and that I just came from a party and we should go another time.” When the car approached his stop, the man leaned over and kissed her passionately before getting out.

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Jon Lowenstein (middle), Gregg Arenson (back) and David Franco. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Such rides are also prime opportunities for the modern-day matchmaker. Jonas Jean Baptiste said that he was driving for Via last month when he picked up two women who began chatting about their children. One woman had a 30-year-old daughter who was single. The other woman’s 30-year-old son had just suffered a terrible breakup.

“They started showing each other photos of their kids,” said Mr. Baptiste, 55, “and the next thing I knew, they were exchanging emails and phone numbers to try and get them together.”

Gabrielle McCaig, a Via spokeswoman, said that passengers will often call Via to request a fellow seatmate’s contact information after the ride. It has led the service to institute a policy: If a passenger would like to contact another passenger, he or she must first contact Via, which will then connect the two if there is interest.

“That way, no one is obligated and they can politely decline if they’re not into it,” Ms. McCaig said. She recently rode with a driver who recounted a story about a man and woman chatting passionately in his back seat. When the driver picked up the man six months later, he said, he learned that the two passengers were dating seriously.

But it’s not all cosmic love connections. Depending on who is in the back seat, some rides can be downright terrifying. Caleb Angel, a junior at Yeshiva University, recalled a Via ride that resembled an episode of “The Sopranos.”

Inside the car, a fellow passenger started detailing some threatening plans he had for his ex-girlfriend. “He’s telling me how his ex stole $ 6,000 from him and because he has a police record, he had to hire two hit men to go break her skull and her kneecaps,” Mr. Angel said. “We hopped out early.”

Katie Shea stepped into a Via ride this fall with a 5-year-old girl she watches when they were met by three men who appeared highly intoxicated. They were cursing, slurring loudly and making crude jokes about women they had just seen at a bar.

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“It was really inappropriate, and this little girl kept asking me why they were talking so loudly and acting so weird,” said Ms. Shea, an early childhood educator. “Just as I was about to put on the ‘Frozen’ soundtrack for her, she pulled out her ‘Peter Rabbit’ book and asked one of the guys to read it to her, and he did. And suddenly the mood settled. It was very funny and sweet.”

In shared cars, everything from air-conditioning to riding shotgun can be up for debate. A Via driver, Ruben Araoz, recalled a ride in September in which a woman ordered only one seat and showed up with her daughter. Via’s rules are such that riders must reserve the exact number of seats needed.

“She ends up bringing her kid thinking she can put her in the way back, but the third row isn’t meant to be used,” Mr. Araoz said. “So I had to ask another woman to get out to allow me to access the last row, and she freaked out, complaining that the first woman ‘always does this.’ So I guess they knew each other.”

The two women argued for the rest of the trip.

According to Ms. McCaig, the rules of Via were created by the Via community so that riders would be more inclined to follow them: Be on time, be courteous, limit phone calls and don’t eat or drink in the car.

“There’s always going to be the off person who won’t move or wants the air-conditioning on in 20-degree weather,” Ms. McCaig said. “If there’s a conflict, our policy states that we follow up one-on-one with each rider in the car to get the full story. We want everyone to be comfortable, but our values are to treat drivers and riders with respect.”

Sometimes the fortuitousness of a shared ride outweighs potential drama. In October, Esther Novik, 25, ordered a Via from her apartment in Midtown to go to SoHo, where she was meeting her mother to shop.

“The car pulls up and I open the door and my mom is sitting in the back seat,” said Ms. Novik, who posted the run-in on Instagram. “I had no idea she even knew how to use it. We were laughing. The driver was laughing. Now she is an avid user and tells that story to everyone she meets.”

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