Pando

Despite dangerous bonus schemes, Uber is failing at increasing ride volume among NYC drivers

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 11, 2016

From The Sharing Economy Desk

Morgan Stanley is leading a coalition of banks lending Uber an additional $1.5 billion in capital -- mostly to spend outright buying up international market share.

Morgan Stanley would -- apparently-- also like to understand what is actually happening in this black box of a company and industry. It is now analyzing New York’s TLC data in hopes that New York-- the largest US transportation market-- could be some sort of barometer for the world.

A few obvious problems with the premise: New York doesn’t come close to representing trends in China, India, Africa, or other major cities where Uber is spending the bulk of this capital because the competitive landscape is completely different.

And, even in the US, extrapolating a taxi and ride-sharing market based on what happens in New York is like assuming Silicon Valley represents broader startup trends in the US. Unlike China, few US markets have the density, congestion or low car ownership to ever look like a New York. And in New York, taxis were far more functional and omnipresent than other major US cities like San Francisco.

Still, as the largest US city, with low car ownership, and the largest pool of professional drivers, it’s certainly relevant info. New York should be the dominant market for any transportation company that represents the future of how people get around.

The first batch of results showed in part what you’d expect: Uber is by far the biggest ridesharing company with some 170,000 trips a day, versus just 27,000 for Lyft and far less for Via and GETT. Taxis are still dominant: Doing some 400,000 trips per day.

But the most interesting thing to me was what was driving Uber’s growth: It isn’t drivers doing more trips, rather it’s upping the number of drivers signing up to the service.

From the report:

Vehicles dispatched by Uber per week increased 102% YOY between April 2015 and April 2016, and trips per vehicle per week only increased 10%. Lyft reported a 114% increase in trips per vehicle per week and a 354% increase in vehicles per week. 

This is important because all of Uber’s talking points in the press and to lawmakers center around the opposite: That its technology and increasing market share is allowing drivers to be more productive, completing far more trips on a shift. This is key to Uber’s claims about how good it is for transportation and congestion in cities. This is Uber’s key defense in slashing drivers wages. And it’s key to Uber’s supposed only advantage in a driverless future: That somehow all that ride data has given it a way to better utilize vehicles.

It’s worth noting that taxis in New York have significantly higher utilization without all those mapped out trips and machine learning: Taxis represent less than half of the vehicles than Uber, but complete four times the rides.

If Uber is going to increase drivers’ volume in any US city, New York would be the easiest. It has density, lower car ownership, and a huge fleet of existing professional drivers. If it’s not doing it in New York, you can believe volume isn’t making up the wage cuts for drivers in, say, Detroit.

The finding implies that the bulk of New York Uber drivers aren’t professional drivers, they are trying to make extra cash. That’s exactly why Uber and Lyft have dug in their heels against fingerprinting in Austin, and by extension elsewhere. Lyft investor Mike Maples argued this exact point in the wake of the Austin battle:

The business models of Lyft and Uber create flexible options for drivers that are intentional — They want to let drivers drive only a few hours a week if that is what they want. They want to let drivers drive some weeks and not others, or some seasons and not others. They want to let some people drive as a part-time job and some as a full-time job. When drivers are qualified, they want to get them on the road asap, without process-heavy regulations that do not improve safety. They try to eliminate all of the friction for all of the safe drivers who are willing to offer supply, by offering them an extraordinarily fine-grained model for participating.

This is core to the model….

...The Austin City Council passed an ordinance for fingerprinting that broke this. People who drive only part time or some of the time very often choose not to get fingerprints because the process is too onerous and takes too long to complete end to end. 

This is what a lot of riders fail to understand about ridesharing companies. They are not designed to replace cabs in terms of how you hail one, pay for one, and how clean the car you ride in is. They are designed to replace fleets of professional drivers mostly with part-timers.

You can decide for yourself if that’s a good or bad thing. I take more Lyfts than cabs. But because they’ve made a security trade off to get more drivers on the road quickly, I also would never put my children in one alone.

More interesting is what this means long term when it comes to these companies’ economics. Uber has argued it’s profitable in the US, but part-time, extra cash jobs have incredibly high churn rates. It has to be a drag on the company to constantly be paying out subsidies to recruit new riders and spend marketing dollars and bonus schemes to acquire drivers who are far less productive than cabs. Uber knows this: Its New York bonus schemes incentivize its drivers to work dangerous amounts of hours, never mind all its promises about ending “drowsy driving”. It has pegged any hope of making a living wage driving an Uber to volume, in hopes of changing this trend.

That this is the case even in a market like New York where there are more full-time professional drivers than anywhere else in the US speaks volumes of how much (or how little) of an advantage Uber’s base of drivers ultimately is against competitors.

What would happen if everyone in the space simply stopped spending money on growth for one month? We’ll never know, but the answer would certainly be dramatic.

Lyft committed to investors it was “only” going to spend just $50 million a month, and true enough after rapid year over year growth in May, it didn’t grow in June.

And that may be one reason Uber is putting off an IPO as long as it can. We know the truth is ugly in markets like China, where Uber is spending more than $1 billion a year to have low double digits in market share. But it may not even be palatable in markets like New York, where Uber’s economics should be the most advantageous.

I’m as disappointed as Bill Gurley that Uber isn’t filing to go public anytime soon. I would love to look at the actual numbers behind Uber’s claims which are time and time again proven false.

That ride growth is so heavily pegged to new drivers coming into the system means Uber and Lyft will continue having to heavily spend to recruit and incentivize drivers, even as they slash their wages later on to ensure they have low enough rates to entice consumers.

Drivers will continue to get bait and switched once those bonuses and incentives go away. More anger, more lawsuits. Just last week, I was in my hometown of Memphis, where Uber is making a big recruiting push. I overheard a table of 30-somethings talking about how they were going to start driving for Uber because they’d been “promised” six-figure incomes. They should probably do a little Internet research first...

It speaks to what Lyft investors have been saying for a while: That these are ultimately two commodity products, and the one spending more money will win more market share. Uber’s technology isn’t winning, its base of drivers isn’t winning: Its cash is winning.

And Uber has no shortage of cash. Yet another reason I’ve argued, self-driving cars will be a harder era for Uber to win in, not an easier one.