Earlier this month, a group of disgruntled UberX drivers staged a protest outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco. The drivers felt misled that Uber had jacked its cut of their fares from 5 to 20 percent (the company says the shift was seasonal); a few threatened to defect to rival transportation network companies. The main reported grievance was that the drivers were doing all the work and seeing very little of the money:
"We work for less than minimum wage!" one driver said. "The fares are so low. It doesn’t make any sense."
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see Matt McFarland of the Washington Post report yesterday that UberX drivers who work more than 40 hours a week make a median wage of $74,191 a year in San Francisco. Meanwhile the average cab driver in the city makes just under $40,000. (In New York, the figures are even more impressive: $90,766 for an UberX driver, compared to about $38,000 on average for a cab driver.)
It strains credulity, given the recent protests, to think UberX drivers make twice what cabbies make in San Francisco. Indeed, Dan Kedmey at Time points out some important nuances to the discussion. The UberX figures don't take into account business expenses like gas, insurance, parking, and car maintenance. And by looking at drivers who work more than 40 hours a week, Uber is taking the juiciest sample set from which to derive its average.
So the truth still lies somewhere in the vast expanse between minimum wage and $90,000, and no doubt is as varied as the businesses being run by the drivers’ themselves.
Some additional points to consider. The UberX averages don't mean much unless we also know how many UberX drivers work such long weeks. Is that half the fleet? Or five guys hustling to pay off their bookies during the NBA playoffs? It also seems likely that the numbers are inflated by surge pricing. That's an acceptable practice for now, but whether it will stay that way as cities get more involved in regulating TNCs is an open question.
CityLab conducted a rigorous scientific survey of precisely one San Francisco UberX driver upon hearing the new income report. During a 1.7-mile, 8-minute trip downtown, he said it was "almost impossible" to believe UberX drivers make two or three times what cabbies make.
The driver said on a good day he made about $300 net, which dropped to maybe $220 after deducting Uber's cut and business expenses. If he were one of the super-dedicated drivers, and got out there every single day of the year, that does come out to about $80,000 in annual income. But for a standard five-day work week it's closer to $57,000. And that doesn't take into account seasonality or the fact that not every day is a "good" day.
So it's far too soon to say that UberX will fundamentally elevate cabbie pay across the board. That's not to say it's a bad deal; on the contrary, it's disrupting traditional taxi networks in a very beneficial way for city residents, and may well have the legs to succeed where previous jitney revolutions have fallen short. There's a reason that a startling number of registered taxi drivers have jumped ship to TNCs, and why Uber may be valued at $17 billion.
There's also a reason to follow some bad news with good publicity.