How much do Uber drivers value flexibility?

Uber drivers often explain why they choose to drive for the company in terms of more flexible working arrangements. Last month, an independent poll revealed that 80% of Uber drivers in the UK would prefer to remain as contractors, but the unions campaigning to give these drivers worker status don’t seem to care about the views of the people they’re claiming to help.

In most U.S. cities, Uber’s ride-hailing model provides greater flexibility than traditional taxi models because (among other things) it doesn’t use a medallion system. Most taxi companies make money by renting medallions to drivers, who pay a daily or weekly fee for the right to drive. Instead, Uber charges a percentage commission on each journey, which means drivers who only want to do a few rides can do so without losing out. To assess how much drivers value the commission fee model over the medallion system, two MIT economists and an in-house economist from Uber offered 1,600 randomly selected Uber drivers in Boston the opportunity to lease a virtual medallion that eliminates Uber’s commission-fee. People might be sceptical of a working paper co-authored by an Uber economist, but their study was released on the reputable, non-partisan NBER last month. The other co-authors are also eminent, non-partisan economists.

The researchers offered Uber drivers a range of medallions at different prices, recording their opt-in rates and logging the amount they worked. Using this data, they were able to estimate how much these drivers prefer Uber’s commission model to a traditional taxi medallion system. This can be expressed in monetary terms as “compensating variation” (CV): how much money it would take for Uber drivers to be indifferent between the commission model and the taxi medallion system.

Using the most realistic estimates of wage gaps between Uber and taxi drivers, as well as medallion costs, the study finds that average CV is $437 per week. Boston’s Uber drivers place significant value on a more flexible commission model. For Uber drivers who don’t spend many hours working per week, this makes intuitive sense. The fixed cost of a medallion would outweigh the gains from driving fee-free. But even among drivers who would have expected to earn more per week with a medallion system, many did not opt to use it. This could be explained by a combination of loss aversion and risk aversion: the former being the idea that “the decision to buy a lease may be a gamble that drivers hate to lose” and the latter being drivers’ reluctance to gamble money upfront in exchange for uncertain gains during the week.

Although the study’s conclusions are more directly relevant to U.S. lawmakers, they are also a reminder to UK regulators that Uber’s more flexible working arrangements are highly valued by its drivers. They care about having greater freedom to choose their own hours: so much so that they are willing to trade off potentially higher earnings in order to preserve that freedom. The same is also true of Uber's customers, who benefit from the influx of supply during predictable peak hours that Uber's flexible surge-pricing model makes possible. If Uber loses its appeal against last year’s ruling that its UK drivers are workers rather than contractors, many of the benefits of flexibility will be lost.