For passengers, Uber may seem like the cheapest, most convenient way to get home after a night at the bar, get to and from Trader Joe’s or trek across town without getting a sunburn. But for those with a car and a little free time, it could mean much more.
At least, that’s what Uber wants you to think.
In 2015, a study commissioned by Uber claimed that drivers in 20 American cities make roughly $17 per hour. Combine that with what Uber Chief Advisor David Plouffe described in a speech as the empowerment of flexible scheduling and self-employment, and driving for Uber starts to look pretty [American] dreamy.
In essence, then, people tell us that they drive with Uber in order to get a pay raise that they’ve been denied for years. Or they do it to help themselves when they get in a tight spot. And drivers consistently report what they prize most about the Uber platform is the flexibility of being able to work around job, family, school, and other obligations.
In fact, nearly 90 percent of drivers choose Uber because they want to be their own boss and set their own schedule. In other words, they want work that fits around their life—not the other way around.
But data leaked to BuzzFeed tells a different story. The documents contain pricing data from tens of thousands of Uber rides in Denver, Detroit and Houston throughout late 2015. It contains information enough to calculate driver costs in those cities—something Uber has repeatedly claimed it has insufficient information to calculate, according to BuzzFeed.
The authors of the 2015 study acknowledge that their failure to calculate driver expenses affected their calculations.
The discrepancies in earnings, as calculated by BuzzFeed News, were significant — particularly for Detroit drivers.
To calculate driver cost, BuzzFeed made some assumptions. I’ll outline them here:
- Vehicle cost: $16,000
- Vehicle lifetime: 250,000
- Vehicle depreciation: 6.4 cents per mile
- Gas cost: $1.75 per gallon
- Gas mileage: 25 mpg
- Miscellaneous costs: $3,000 per year
Based on those assumptions, only Denver drivers’ earnings came close to matching the gross estimate promoted by Uber’s 2015 study. Before expenses, Denver drivers could make up to $16.89.
After expenses, Detroit drivers made about $8.77 per hour and Houston drivers made about $10.75 per hour. Denver drivers came out on top, with average wages of about $13.75 an hour. The data looked at drivers who worked between October 19, 2015, and December 14, 2015.
If driving were a full-time job — sure, a big if — that would be $28,600 a year or about 50 percent of area median income.
Is it really worth it?
A Denver driver named Jody told BuzzFeed he originally picked up driving to supplement the income he made from his part-time, tech job. He lost that job in January and has been driving for Uber full-time since.
“It’s just enough to cover the bills,” he said to BuzzFeed, adding that rising gas prices have him seeking full-time work. He hopes to stop driving for Uber within a month or two.
Uber may exaggerate its drivers’ earning potential, but the company maintains that most of its drivers do not choose Uber as their only source of income. Of the 1.1 million active drivers, only 400,000 take four or more trips per month, Plouffe said. Although the pay may not be quite enough for those drivers, he said the vast majority drive only occasionally to earn some extra money.
And then there are the rare few who just drive for fun.
Take my last Uber driver, a recently retired father who picked up Uber to get out of the house. He had only been driving for one week when I got into his car. He said he doesn’t need the money, he just likes meeting new people.
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