Uber's Magic Numbers Won't Turn Us All Into Professional Drivers

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Yesterday, Uber Technologies, Inc. doled out some impressive Uber-related numbers. According to the company, a revolution is upon us: an Uber revolution, where riders are transported with ease and grace from one locale to another, and the drivers who get you there are making out like bandits. Hold your horse(power)s, Uber.

In a press release, Uber bragged that drivers in its UberX program (the lower-cost Uber option) make an annual median income of $90,766 in New York City and $74,191 in San Francisco. Pretty impressive numbers.

The company says it is injecting 20,000 new jobs into the driver economy each month, and that 43 percent of Americans are now within about ten minutes of an Uber car pickup. Uber CEO Travis Kalanic offered some remarks on his firm's triumphs, saying:

Just four years ago we set out to build a better option for people to move around cities – to make getting a ride safer, easier and affordable... But Uber’s positive impact goes further; hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs are using the platform to build their own small business, resulting in a huge job growth engine for cities resulting in billions of dollars being pumped into the U.S. economy.

Taxi drivers who have made the switch say they were sick of spending money to lease cabs — up to $32,000 per year — and that the Uber platform makes them feel more safe. So why isn't everyone becoming an Uber driver? Specifically, why isn't everyone in New York City becoming an Uber driver?

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According to the Boston Globe, many cab drivers have already made the switch: 

The company has hundreds of thousands of drivers. According to the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association, one-third of its drivers ditched their registered cabs in a 12-month span to drive for services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.

CityLab, however, is taking issue with some of these figures. For starters, that $90K figure is "business income," which is not the same as take-home pay or profit.

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... 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. 

Even if the numbers went straight into driver's pockets, the barriers to entry are high for those not already in the driving industry. According to the Uber website, only two applicants need inquire about a driving position: those who are current taxi drivers, certified and licensed by the city, and with a commercial taxi vehicle; and those who are "professional chauffeur[s] with a commercial license and commercial auto insurance," who drive "a  black sedan, town car, crossover SUV that comfortably seats 4 passengers, or a full-size SUV that comfortably seats at least 6 passengers." In other words, "car not included."

Assuming that you're not already driving a taxi for a living — in which case prohibitive medallion costs would make employment by Uber appealing — you'll have had to make some major investments before applying for a job at Uber, including spending somewhere between $8,000 and $50,000 for a suitable car and acquiring the proper license. Only half of New York City residents even own a car, and public schools generally don't offer free drivers ed. Plus, public transport makes driving less of a priority for most New Yorkers. So though Uber may (or may not) be successfully reshuffling the industry, we have a feeling it's not going to make Uber drivers out of the rest of us.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.