Inspired by a recent piece by Oliver Blanchard I was put onto by a friend (warning: it is a very long piece and gets very ranty), I thought I would put together some thoughts on the “Sharing Economy”, and in particular Uber. As there is a bit of ground to cover, I’ll split this into two parts. This first part will look at how Uber has improved taxi services and why taxi services may never be able to close that gap. The second part will look at some of the unfair advantages Uber has and why those advantages probably won’t last.
Before we dive into it though, I first want to say the economist in me loves the idea behind Uber and similar services such as Airbnb. They take some of the most valuable assets that most people will own (e.g. houses and cars) and helps their owners to derive economic value from them when they would otherwise be sitting idle. From the perspective of the wider economy, this is undoubtedly a good thing. Cars in particular are something that we spend a lot of money purchasing and maintaining, yet, end up sitting in a garage or parking lot for close to 90% of their existence.
How Uber Changed the Market
Since its founding in March 2009, there has always been a lot of hype around Uber. From their official launch in San Francisco in early 2011, they rapidly expanded to numerous other cities around the US and made their first move internationally to Paris in December 2011. As of today, Uber is available in 58 countries worldwide, and at a recent capital raising the company was valued in the ballpark of $50 billion. If publicly listed at that value, Uber would be among the largest 100 companies in the S&P500. Charts 1 and 2 show some of the explosive growth in driver numbers from a recent Uber paper.
Chart 1 – Total Active Drivers
Chart 2 – Active Drivers by City
Aside from the rapid growth, one of the more impressive things about Uber is the amount of good will there seems to be towards Uber. Despite ‘disrupting’ an industry that has been around for decades and taking an aggressive approach to protecting its drivers and business model, the only people who seem to have anything bad to say about Uber are taxi drivers. Outside that obviously vested interest, there seems to be the general consensus that Uber is improving the situation for everyone. The customer is happier because they are getting much better service than they were from a taxi, and the drivers are happier because they are making all this extra cash. To work out why that is, let’s take a look at some of the key ways Uber has improved the taxi experience.
1. Getting a ride is now easy
Having an app that allows people to request a car at the tap of a button and know exactly when it will turn up is a big improvement for customers. No more automated phones services forcing you to scream “OPERATOR!” into the phone. No waiting on the side of the road trying to flag down a cab. No waiting for 2 hours in line at the taxi rank at 2am on a Saturday night. And finally, no sitting in silence in your home waiting for the honk of the horn to make sure you don’t miss the taxi you ordered.
2. So is getting to your destination
The app also allows you to enter a destination, which is then used to determine the best route and guides the driver. This again is a big improvement over the taxi experience in most countries. No waiting for the driver to type the address into his circa-1996 dashboard GPS – if he has one at all. No missing the freeway exit because you weren’t paying attention. No more risk of been taken on ‘the scenic route’ because you are from out of town.
3. Bad drivers and passengers get penalized
As a customer, think about the things you dislike about taxis. Now consider how many of those things are as a result of taxi drivers having to deal with bad passengers. Clunky plastic screens separating drivers from passengers. Inability to sit in the front seat of the cab at all in some cases. Cars that haven’t been cleaned in the past 6 months. The overall surliness of drivers.
Having a system where drivers rate their passengers and have the ability to refuse rides to people with low ratings, creates a lot of positive incentives for both driver and passenger. Passengers can no longer act like douche bags towards the driver or trash the cab without affecting their ability to get a taxi in the future. Drivers can maintain nicer cabs knowing their passengers are likely to be well behaved.
On the flip side, passengers rating their drivers also creates positives incentives for drivers to be much more helpful to their customers. As a result, Uber drivers are generally much more pleasant, cheerful, helpful and generous towards their customers. In my own personal Uber experience we have had drivers provide free water bottles, chocolates and other goodies.
4. Surge pricing means you rarely have to wait long
This is a controversial one, but I firmly believe this is positive, and anyone who has spent hours waiting for a taxi should as well.
The reason you had to wait so long for a taxi is because there are spikes in demand for taxi services and little to no increase in supply to meet that demand. There are two main reasons for that:
- In almost all cities, the number of taxi licenses available is capped
- If there are any taxis currently off duty, there is no incentive for the driver/owner to clock back on
Uber avoids both these problems. By not capping the number of drivers in a given city, Uber ensures there are plenty of spare drivers around when needed. By significantly increasing the rates drivers can charge in periods of peak demand, Uber also provides a strong incentive for drivers to get in their cars and start picking up passengers at 2am on a cold morning.
Surge pricing has drawn criticism and negative press in some parts, but reading the details of some of these stories, it really is difficult to have too much sympathy. Some will argue surge pricing is taking advantage of desperate people, but they are misunderstanding the options. The two options available in that moment are not an expensive ride at surge prices and a normal priced ride. The two options are an expensive ride at surge prices or no ride at all.
Now, that said, there is an argument to be made for stopping surge prices in disaster situations. But the best way to do that is not to stop providing drivers with higher prices to pick up people in those situations, but to change who is paying for it. Whether this is the government, Uber or some third party is a separate discussion.
If we look at the four advantages that Uber has (as listed above), and add in the fact that in many cities Uber is significantly cheaper than the taxi services, it makes a pretty compelling case that taxi services are in big trouble. Following the news and seeing taxi driver strikes, taxi lobbyists pushing for cities to outlaw Uber and police spending significant resources pulling over and fining Uber drivers, it can look like the last desperate throws of the dice for a dying industry.
However, in the face of this threat to their business, there has been some positive outcomes for taxi owners. Apps (Hailo and myTaxi) are now available that put taxis on par with Uber for 3 of the 4 advantages listed above. You can now order a taxi easily from an app, provide a destination and have access to a ratings system.
It is also not difficult to picture a world where taxi services start using some form of surge pricing to encourage drivers to be on the road at peak hours. To some degree this is already in place with many services charging higher rates at different times and days. But the problem is surge pricing only really works if you have a bunch of drivers off duty at any given time that can be, through monetary incentive, convinced to clock on and start picking up passengers.
This gets us to the underlying problem facing taxi services – the capping of the number of available taxi licenses. Capping taxi licenses has led to a situation where each taxi license is extremely valuable because of the amount of cash it can generate. In New York City for example, the cost of a single license peaked at over $1 million in recent years. Because of the cost of a license, and its consistent appreciation in value over the past few decades, for many taxi owners, their taxi license represents their retirement savings. Now, due to competition from Uber, many cities (Sydney, Toronto and many others) are seeing the cost of taxi licenses falling.
You could argue taxi owners should have been smarter and diversified their investment. However, the fact is they made an investment decision on the basis of the rules as they stood at the time, and have since been severely undermined. Besides, they would hardly be the first people to invest all their savings in one overpriced asset class.
Leaving aside judgements on investment decisions though, it is difficult to see a scenario where taxi owners end up the winners in this battle. Now that people have experienced the higher level of service that can be provided by services like Uber, they will be very reluctant to go back to the old way of doing business. Taxi services can (and have) improved as a response to Uber, but unfortunately, as long as taxi services want to cling to the idea of a capped number of taxi licenses, customers will continue to be frustrated by a lack of availability at key times.
All that isn’t to say Uber has everything worked out or that shouldn’t be criticized for their own failings and dodgy practices. In fact Uber faces several large problems of its own. To find out more about those, tune in next week.
 Seriously, it’s like they want everyone to hate them