Since 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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