NEW competitors always ruffle a few feathers. The unique thing about Uber, a new taxi-market player, is that it seems to have annoyed some of its customers as much as the incumbent cabbies it threatens. The problem is its “surge pricing”, which can make the cost of Uber rides jump to many times the normal fare at weekends and on holidays. Gouging customers like this, critics reckon, will eventually make them flee, denting Uber’s business. Microeconomics suggests that although Uber’s model does have a flaw, its dynamic pricing should be welcomed.
Taxi markets have long needed a shake-up. In theory, entry should be easy–all that is needed is a car and a driving licence–with new drivers keeping cab fares close to costs. Yet in many cities, cabs are far from that competitive ideal. Decades of regulation conspire to keep entrants out. In New York a pair of taxi medallions sold at a 2013 auction for $US2.5m; many other cities have similar schemes. In London “the knowledge”, a test of familiarity with the city’s streets which GPS has made redundant but drivers still have to pass, can take four years to complete. Taxi markets often end up suspiciously clubby, with cabs in short supply and fat profits for the vehicle owners. Antitrust concerns have been raised in Australia, Ireland and Bulgaria among others.
Uber aims to change all this. Launched in San Francisco in 2010 it lets passengers hail drivers from their smartphones–a move requiring even less effort than extending your arm. Some vehicles are not so much taxis as private cars that Uber has vetted. The convenience of hailing a cab from the comfort of a sofa or bar stool has given the service a loyal fan-base, but it comes at a cost. Most of Uber’s prices are slightly cheaper than a street-hailed cab. But when demand spikes, the surge prices kick in: rates during the busiest times, such as New Year’s Eve, can be seven times normal levels, and minimum fares of up to $US175 apply.
Critics of Uber’s pricing are treading a well-worn path: setting tailored prices for the same good–price discrimination–often causes howls from consumer groups. It seems unfair when the charges for drugs vary across countries, the price of train tickets varies with the buyer’s age, or, as in Uber’s case, the price varies depending on the time that the journey is booked.
But price discrimination is not necessarily a bad thing, as a 2006 paper by Mark Armstrong of Oxford University explained. A firm offering a single price to all customers faces a trade-off: lowering prices raises sales but means offering a cut to customers prepared to pay more. Maximizing profits can often mean lowering supply: goods are not provided to cheapskate shoppers so that more can be made from high-rollers. Customers who value the good at more than it costs to produce might miss out in a one-price-fits-all system–as many punters who have tried to find a regular cab on New Year’s Eve will know.
Uber’s price surge aims to solve this. Like many technology companies Uber is a middleman. It links independent cab drivers with customers wanting a ride in the same way that Google links searchers and advertisers or eBay links sellers and bidders. The business model only works when successful matches are made. Because price spikes raise the pay Uber’s drivers receive (they get 80% of any fare, if they drive their own car) more cars are tempted onto the roads at times of high demand. Prices are high at 2am at the weekend not just because punters are willing to pay more, but also because drivers don’t want to work then.
This strategy is common for firms that operate platforms or “two-sided” markets which link buyers and sellers, according to a 2006 paper by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole of Toulouse University. Firms often tilt the market to give one side a particularly sweet deal: nightclubs let women in free to justify charging men a hefty fee, telephone directories are given away to create a readership which advertisers pay to access. The theory predicts each side’s deal depends on two things: price sensitivity and how well-stocked each side of the market is. Uber’s price surge fits perfectly: Friday-night revelers are hit by a double whammy since they are willing to pay up precisely when the pool of cabs is low.
The real pricing problem
There is some evidence Uber’s surge pricing is improving taxi markets. The firm says drivers are sensitive to price, so that the temptation to earn more is getting more Uber drivers onto the roads at antisocial hours. In San Francisco the number of private cars for hire has shot up, Uber says. This suggests surge pricing has encouraged the number of taxis to vary with demand, with the market getting bigger during peak hours.
However, the inflexibility of Uber’s matchmaking fee, a fixed 20% of the fare, means that it may fail to optimise the matching of demand and supply. In quiet times, when fares are low, it may work well. Suppose it links lots of potential passengers willing to pay $US20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $US15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $US100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $US90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber’s $US20 fee means such journeys won’t happen.
Despite the revenues a matchmaking fee generates, it may not be Uber’s best strategy. A fixed membership charge is often firms’ best option in two-sided markets. By charging drivers a flat monthly fee Uber would generate revenue without creating a price wedge that gets in the way of matches. Since stumping up cash might put infrequent divers off, they could be offered a cheaper category of membership. Uber should keep its surge pricing in place. But to make the market as big as possible, and really revolutionise taxi travel, it might need to retune its fees.
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