Uber

Uber Drivers: Collectively Making Well More Than Half-a-Billion

But the trend of techno-modernity is all about what's good for consumers, not drivers or big tech companies.

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Some recent data about Uber drivers—who they are and what they make—has just been released by the company, in alliance with economists Jonathan Hall and Alan Krueger.

Emily Badger from the Wonkblog at The Washington Post summed up some of the interesting findings, after noting that on average Uber drivers tend to make about $6 an hour more than cabbies:

The analysis shows that Uber's drivers in the United States collectively received $656.8 million in payments from the company in the last three months of 2014 (that translated in October to about $17.79 an hour in Washington, and $30.35 in New York). The taxi earnings in comparison — which reflect net income, not gross earnings — come from Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. This new Uber data shows that the number of new drivers signing up with the company has doubled every six months for the last two years. And UberX, the company's economy-class service deploying everyday drivers, has come to dwarf Uber's original black town-car offering in little more than a year:

Krueger says that most drivers:

"joined Uber not out of desperation, but because it offered new opportunity that could help them smooth their income, smooth fluctuations from other jobs, and add a supplement to their household income. The more I looked into it, the more I thought this rapid growth is really not a result of a weak job market, but the result of a new opportunity."

Some of the information comes from surveying drivers in 20 cities, and found:

80 percent were working full- or part-time shortly before joining Uber. Just 8 percent said they were unemployed before driving for the service, suggesting that Uber hasn't been flooded by would-be workers who could find no other jobs. Nearly a quarter of the drivers said Uber was their sole source of income; 38 percent said they viewed it as a supplement to earnings but not a significant source of them

The study finds slightly over 162,000 Uber drivers nationally. Uber drivers, compared to traditional cabbies, seem to be more white, more college educated, and slightly more female.

Badger later in story mentions the high satisfaction rates in this survey—the authors insist they have autonomy from the company in the findings—and also mentions that a growing wave of public complaints can be heard around the internet where Uber drivers communicate and even on the streets.

I have been following many Uber drivers online complaining lately that the company's supposed race to the bottom on set fares is driving them away, since they can no longer make as healthy a living at it as they could even months ago.

The Atlantic also looked at the new Hall/Krueger study, worried about whether these were truly sustainable and significant middle-class jobs:

The typical Uber driver is a college-educated man, married with kids, who is supplementing a full- or part-time job with about 15 hours of driving a week, logging 20 to 30 trips, and earning an extra $300 to $400 a week (before factoring in the cost of gas and upkeep).

But the article notes Uber's total drivership amounts to: "less than one month's net job creation. It's about 0.1 percent of the workforce. It is a rounding error. Then again, two years ago, Uber itself was a rounding error on the urban-transportation map."

Uber in these go-go digital 'teens makes it more obvious to more people how much the texture of life as lived, as opportunities to work and opportunities to have one's need met increase on the margins, can be significantly improved even if the service is just a macroeconomic rounding error. It's very important to every individual providing the service, and every individual using it, and demonstrates technological possibilities for connecting service providers and customers that will doubtless have huge significance beyond just the story of Uber as a company  or its drivers.

Just as gas prices are the consumer price that we all see shift up and down in real time most constantly and severely, yet are still the prices most likely to trigger dire suspicions that prices are really just a conspiracy of the rich and powerful to screw us, so is Uber's vivid demonstration about how supply and demand shift swiftly to capture customer love (more drivers, Uber driving down prices even if drivers don't like it) is used by many, including Uber drivers, to gripe about the power and greed of the highly-valued and hugely ambitious tech company Uber.

What this whole unfolding story indicates to me is that the ultimate future, unless there is some technical impediment I don't grasp, is a more truly peer-to-peer or even co-operative app system (perhaps charging reasonable yearly membership fees to drivers instead of a huge cut of every ride) connecting driver to rider that doesn't go through a company trying to sustain or exceed a $40 billion valuation but merely from app designers scraping, potentially, mere micropayments for facilitating the interaction.

If such a cheaper-to-drivers system to allow drivers to do without the middleman of Uber while still recompensing app designers is technologically possible, you can bet it will happen. As Uber and its sometimes disgruntled drivers are learning, everything in techno-modernity slides toward giving the customer the most for the least as long as competition is free.

As I wrote in my November Reason print feature on the rise of services like Uber and the political hurdles they face:

Cabs and limos, which used to have the field to themselves, now compete with e-hail services. The e-hail services in turn compete with one another, and within those services the drivers face off against each other too. Free markets create a nerve-wracking world for everyone but the customer.

The creative destruction and uncertainty of the terrifying world where the only way to get by is to provide a service to other humans at the best price they can find (other things being equal) is made hyper-real by Uber and its competitors.

It's a world where everyone's grasp on profits is conditional, tenuous, and not apt to last long. It can be terrifying for everyone except every one of us who benefits from a world where we can get more and more of what we want with more flexibility and ease and less cost. It's a digital world of more obvious true consumer power, one in which neither drivers nor multi-billion app startups can rest on their laurels for even months. 

• Bonus Uber link: The political fight to make the business model of it and similar services is never over. California's Department of Motor Vehicles wants to extend the state's mostly-sensible regulations on these e-hailing services to demand that drivers have commercial plates.