Ten things I learned about an Uber-based North South divide and the destruction of elites

SUMMARY:

Much has been made of the drivers’ Uber experience but living well outside London, the most commonly cited city in the UK, I’ve found remarkably consistent driver experiences among a cohort of full time drivers.

uber and taxiSince returning to the UK, I’ve made extensive use of Uber, covering everything from short hops to airport runs and up to 20 mile trips to places that would otherwise take close on two hours via public transport. The experience has been remarkably consistent and contrasts sharply with the more widely reported London scene.

  1. I am surprised that Uber has made it in our part of the world. Sure, there’s a substantial population but it is not wealthy, rather the opposite, being frequently cited in academic studies about social deprivation and poverty. It has a good sized student population but they’re now on vacation, so the pickings from that cohort are mighty thin. And, for years, the local taxi/private hire trade has been dominated by low cost firms operating under conditions of extremely fierce competition. Even so, Uber provides a competitive service that is superior to the local cabs at marginally lower cost.
  2. Many of the drivers I’ve encountered are ‘out of towners’ the Uber app scooped up because they happened to be making a drop from elsewhere. Indeed, my first question is whether the driver is local. This is because in the case of non-local drivers, it is likely I know a better route than the Uber app generated route or know where it is possible to almost avoid areas where Uber cannot go because of traffic restrictions and which are not obvious on the app. I don’t mind this because my primary concern is getting from A to B in an efficient manner, not worrying about an app.
  3. The vast majority of Uber drivers in my catchment area are non-white but I would not describe them as immigrants. Many are second and third generation locals who have immigrant heritage. I’ve only come across two white British drivers. But when you take them all together, their stories of what they do and why they do Uber are almost identical  in scope and experience.
  4. Uber drivers in my area are almost all working what they consider full time. That varies in terms of hours and seems to be largely dependent upon the amount of time they’ve been working with Uber. Those who have more than two years’ experience – I’ve met some with three and four years’ experience – tell me they work what sounds like a ‘normal’ work week of 40-50 hours. The most inexperienced are slogging well over 50 hours as they effectively learn on the job.
  5. In common with widely reported stories elsewhere, Uber rewards experience. One driver proudly told me of his 40 hour work week where Uber keep him constantly busy and where he believes he earns £25-30 an hour and that Ubers value his personal contributions to how Uber can improve its service. That’s taken nearly four years but comes on top of a previous eight year career as a private hire driver. In short, that driver knows what he’s doing and optimizes his work schedule to get the most value out of his time.
  6. What motivates most of the Uber drivers who have flipped from the private hire sector will surprise. They carry no cash and so they cannot be ripped off, a commonly cited hazard. Nearly all drivers I meet say that their biggest fear is of getting physically attacked as part of a robbery but that fear is eliminated when working with Uber. In short, they feel that Uber makes them safe. And so despite occasional grumbles at Uber’s 25% tax, these drivers value safety more than any other aspect of their experience as Uber drivers.
  7. Every driver I have met considers themselves to be their own boss and not an employee. Sure, they would like better terms but the deals and incentives they get are enough of a compensation for them to reject the premise of the much discussed legal cases around employment. One person pointed out that if Uber is forced to consider drivers as employees, then he expects Uber would revert to minimum wage rates.
  8. Not a single driver cares about the internal carryings on that have consumed the tech media. Most of them barely know the name of the most recent CEO, let alone concern themselves with his antics. It is just too remote from the work they do or the experience they have with the company. Investors might want to take note as they search for a new CEO.
  9. There are local turf wars and protests, especially in Leeds where the white cab has enjoyed significant market share over the years. Drivers regularly reported incidents of abuse from the white cab brigade but believe that will ebb away as Uber continues to attract more drivers into the region. If that sounds familiar then it might be because you’ve seen this story entitled, On London’s Streets, Black Cabs and Uber Fight for a Future. It is a glorious piece of reportage where the agenda is clear for anyone to see.
  10. In order for Uber to succeed for the long haul, it needs to widen its appeal. In our area, drivers rely upon students or, as one driver told me, ‘We don’t see old people.’

The article referenced above makes good points about the London Black Cab culture, its 17th century roots and the incredibly tough Knowledge test. While the story makes clear the opportunities offered by Uber, it utterly avoids parsing how a combination of a novel business model, challenges to the status quo and relatively simple technology has up ended a feature of London life. As I read the story, I realized that most on the ground stories miss how innovation improves experiences but are focused on the preservation of an entitled business segment or heritage whose time is ending.

I could for example make the same laments for accountants, whose core book-keeping work is being eroded by SaaS and machine learning technology and which normally represents approximately 70% of small business accounting fees. Do we hear the same outcry from that source? No, because in large measure, professional accountants know only too well that the mystique and complexity of understanding book-keeping rules has largely served to maintain a closed shop monopoly. Just like The Knowledge closed off the London cab trade to almost all except an elite, learning double entry has been the price of entry for years of training by would be accountants. In both cases, technology has swept away that advantage.

In the end however, I’ve learned something that is often missed in the long running debate about the impact that Uber’s thinking has had on an entrenched business and the broader implications for other business models that could be networked. As a consumer, your mileage (sic) will vary, depending upon your location and the experience your driver brings to the table. Simply painting Uber with a single brush doesn’t hold up as a way of characterizing its impact and those other firms/organizations considering the existential tech driven threats to their models might wish to bear that in mind.

Image credit - via Uber

    Comments are closed.

    1. Rick Johnson says:

      One of the very best articles I’ve read on the subject of Uber. I’m 70 yrs old, live in London and use it several times per week. I now have no need to own a car. Many seniors in London use it consistently.

    2. Great article. My user experience preference for Uber over cabs is the certainty created by tracking in real-time on the Uber app my ride approaching. Creating agoric feedback has many lessons useful lessons for digital enterprise applications. Mini cabs are to MRP systems what Uber is to creating certainty of demand thru UX.

    3. says:

      What I think you must remember about your encounters with uber drivers is you are rating them at the end… they are scared to give you a fully open and honest opinion due to the fact that if their rating drops below 4,6 they will get de-activated and lose there source of income. As you quite rightly pointed out most uber drivers are cross border (out of area) drivers and can only work for one firm (uber) so they keep their mouth sealed in order to protect their income.

      My own experience of 4 years of uber is its a complete rip off for the drivers.. goal posts constantly moving, fares being dropped, over supply of out of town drivers diluting work until the point there is no work other than the minimum.

      Luckily the employment tribunal ruled in the favour of drivers and this should be upheld at the next hearing and uber will be made to change their exploitative working practices.

      I would like you to think of this as an example, the black cab fares are set by an independent body (the local council) to reflect the costs of doing the job having the correct insurance ect.

      The uber price you pay is minus 25% (ubers fee to drivers) which means here in Birmingham drivers are paid 75p per mile plus a time element of 7.5p per minute.

      HMRC mileage rate for returning expenses is 54p per mile without:

      Hire and Reward insurance (usually £3500 per year or more for new drivers)
      Drivers PH licence
      Vehicle PH licence
      Multiple mot tests per year
      To name but a few

      The cost to operate is not reflected by ubers rates and some drivers realise this and just leave, some stay hoping it will get better and some shout and try to drive for change.

      We as drivers need better awareness around these exploitative working practices that drivers are being paid well under minimum wage AFTER costs of working!

      1. says:

        I find these kinds of reply incredibly frustrating because they’re not based in any facts I find but rather bolster cases with which I am not familiar or don’t experience. Maybe a bunch of these folk in my area rely upon surge pricing but whatever it is, Uber is working for them.

        I don’t understand why anyone would continue to work for a company that exploits (to use your term) in this day and age. It makes no sense unless it is politically motivated.

        What stands out to me about my most recent experience is the consistency of reply so unless I am living in a hive mind I cannot buy the ‘scared’ argument.

        At a rough guess I’d say that 70% are ex-private hire with years of experience behind them. Why would any of these people work with Uber if they were unable to make an acceptable living?

        The only folk I found who are struggling are those who’ve never done this type of work before or don’t know the area.

    4. James Farrar says:

      Dennis

      Your reply to Steve is disingenuous and, frankly, amounts to sloppy journalism.

      You say:
      ”I find these kinds of reply incredibly frustrating because they’re not based in any facts I find but rather bolster cases with which I am not familiar or don’t experience.”

      But Steve has given you a full account of reference facts and figures on how the industry operates, true operating costs and the economic basis for taxi fares set by local authorities – they are designed to return the driver a fair industrial wage.

      You berate Steve because his real facts don’t congrue with the ‘facts you found’. But the facts you present seem to be little more than a subjective view from the back seat of your hired ride. And yet you find this ‘frustrating’.

      You cited the New York Times article which chronicled racism and exploitation. I’ve pointed you to Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and his investigation which declared Uber labour sweated labour. Yet the only explanation for this exploitation you can offer is that somehow drivers have conspired to willingly accept it for some type of mysterious political gain. Talk about victim blaming!

      I can’t help but notice that Diginomica is a commercial partner of Salesforce whose CEO is an investor in Uber while Salesforce itself has deep commercial ties with Uber.

      https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-16/salesforce-rises-in-benioff-s-shadow-to-become-a-force-in-venture-capital

      1. says:

        James – as usual you are cherry picking to suit what I can’t help but note is a politically motivated agenda with language and supporters to match. As I recall, when you worked at another place you had no difficulty in defending that company’s commercial ties to a slew of companies with ‘interesting’ backgrounds so I’d suggest being very careful where you go with the innuendo.

        Regardless of that I still don’t understand why anyone in the 21st century would be prepared to work under the conditions you describe. It makes no economic sense.

        Let’s leave it at that because we’re not going to agree and that’s fine as long as the ad hominem is avoided.

    5. James Farrar says:

      Hi Den

      There is no intent at ad hominem. That said, we can’t shy away from the facts.

      You say our concerns over Uber’s behaviour is ‘politically motivated’ and yet you accused me of ad hominem. In doing so you completely discount and under cut the very reasonable complaints workers have about Uber not only in the UK but in almost every market it operates in.

      You seem unwilling or unable to accommodate these legitimate and substantiated complaints from people who work for Uber. In fact, you have gone out of your way to deny there is even a problem and that flies in the face of the reality Uber faces in almost every market in which it does business. Instead, you insist that the very low paid would never accept exploitation as it is an irrational economic choice. I’m afraid this shows how so very out of touch you are with this segment of the labour market.

      To suggest that drivers in Bradford routinely make £30 per hour is nonsense. Not even Uber claims that. In fact they claim drivers make only £15 ph in London. Reality is more like £5-6 ph.

      Now I’ve spelled out my complaints about your journalism in this instance and before. Its not personal. In fact, I quite admire your work and have for a long time which is why I feel its always worth challenging you.

      That said, even though I’ve spelled out my complaints loud , clear and transparent; you have responded with a crude smear with a veiled threat thrown in to boot.

      ”you had no difficulty in defending that company’s commercial ties to a slew of companies with ‘interesting’ backgrounds so I’d suggest being very careful where you go with the innuendo.”

      Of course that is utter nonsense but please do feel free publish any evidence to support what you are implying. And for the record threats like this usually have the opposite to the intended affect on me!

      It is no secret that I and others staged a protest at Salesforce offices in December in protest at SF’s failure to follow their own ethical procurement policy in their use of Uber. Diginomica’s relationship w SF and theirs and Benioff’s in turn w Uber is at least worth disclosing IMO.

      Anyway, hope you keep covering this area but please do try and present more objective data and analysis when it comes to driver income and welfare.

      1. says:

        James – TBH I am staggered that you choose to continue taking a poke at my findings when you are over 150 miles away. I have no dog in this fight so no motive to see things one way or another. Heck – I’ve reported them all ways up and then some.

        But rather than carry on poking at me, do yourself a favor, and come find out for yourself.

    6. James Farrar says:

      Den,

      Its not about you, really. I’ve been up and down the country including Bradford. Also Manchester, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and South Coast. Everywhere its the same story.

      It’s not personal but its not political either. If you can show my 20 drivers in Bradford making £30 per hour I promise you I’ll be on the next train and I’ll buy you a curry. I’ll show you drivers any day of the week struggling on £5ph working 60-90 hours a weekj – the same sort of typical drivers that the New York Times uncovered.

      I had to say something about this when I see Uber PR types re-spinning your numbers when they have already declared drivers earning £15. You may have one number and I another but Uber can’t pick and choose what the truth is..