Uber and Lyft Get a Lot of Hype -- But Ridesharing Is a Parasitic Business Model
Photo Credit: By Pkg203 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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Ridesharing companies like Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar use the ubiquitous ownership of smartphones to connect casual drivers and passenger clients through their proprietary applications. Like any broker they take their cut of the revenue in these transactions, ( Lyft, for example, skims 20 percent off each payment made by a passenger through their smartphone.) Ridesharing companies encourage unregulated, hyper-privatized transactions among precarious laborers.
Their business model relies on marketizing formerly non-economic spheres of life, like giving a friend a ride in your car, and they have aggressively externalized costs like gas, insurance, payroll, etc. so that profits are maximized and expenses are as close as possible to nonexistent. In doing so they undermine the very existence of the taxi industry, but they also undermine public infrastructure in toto.
Taxis are not just some private sector dinosaur that should be hit from an innovation meteor. Taxis are an integral part of every major city’s transportation infrastructure. Taxis have been strictly regulated to ensure that the industry’s companies and contractor-drivers pay revenue into the city for the infrastructure they use: roads, signals, bridges, signs, sidewalks, etc. In San Francisco taxis generate over ten million dollars each year in revenue for the city to spend on maintaining transport infrastructure. The funds also pay for the costs of regulating the industry through the Taxi Commission. Regulators attempt to shape the industry in important ways to make it more accessible and equitable and therefore democratic. For example, San Francisco’s taxi fleet is 85 percent hybrid or CNG fueled, reducing the fleet’s carbon emissions and improving the health of city residents. This environmental standard is only possible because the industry is regulated, and ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft undermine this effort. Taxis are also required not to discriminate among passengers, and to serve all parts of the city, among other things that might not be maximally profitable. It’s this public transportation infrastructure, a big part of which is comprised of taxis, that is being disrupted by the ridesharing companies who have inserted themselves as for-profit brokers in the transportation commons.
The people who will lose the most from the unbridled rise of ridesharing are those employed by the taxi industry which is seeing profits disappear. San Francisco’s taxi industry is very decentralized and highly competitive. There are about 31 cab companies today served by 10 dispatch companies, some quite big and some very small. No single firm is dominant. There are about 1,500 cabs authorized to drive within the city. The taxi industry employes several thousand workers. Taxi drivers are predominantly immigrants and people of color, and the average cabbie earns a very low yearly income.In 2000 upwards of 57 percent of San Francisco cab drivers were immigrants, with the largest groups having arrived from South Asia, East Asia, Russia and Africa. Of the 1,540 taxi drivers in the San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City metro region the hourly mean wage last year was $14.17, and the annual mean income was a mere $22,440.
When people say the taxi industry is “ripe for disruption,” what they’re saying, besides the real inefficiencies and problems affecting most big city taxi operations, is that it is a decentralized, highly competitive industry, most of whose owners and operators are low-income people of color, many of who are immigrants. They are susceptible because they are marginalized, and because they lack political and economic clout. In San Francisco the cabbies are definitely a noisy political lobby, but up against the tech and venture capital bosses and entrepreneurs, who are most influential in the Mayor’s office, the cab drivers are impotent.