Is Uber Making the Taxi Market More Efficient?

The Economist analyzes the microeconomics of Uber's controversial "surge" pricing model, in which users are charged significantly higher prices during high-demand times:

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 optimize 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 $20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber's $20 fee means such journeys won't happen.

Why Does Airport Pickup Cost More?

We are arranging a car to take us from our flat to Heathrow Airport early Saturday morning, then return us on Monday evening.  The price going to the airport is ₤28, the price returning is ₤38.  Why the difference?

One possibility is cost-based price discrimination: the driver may have to wait at Heathrow, since the plane and retrieving our baggage may be delayed.  Another is that the prices are set to match the differential set by metered taxis to reflect waiting time for fares at Heathrow (although I would think that competition among car services would eliminate that differential).  I don’t see how this differential could arise from demand-based price discrimination; and neither of the other explanations seems very satisfying.

(HT: DA)

Why Don't More Professional Drivers Use Traffic-Enabled GPS?

A couple years ago, when I first noticed the ability to overlay a traffic report on Google Maps on my iPhone, I assumed that the world of drivers -- especially people who drive for a living -- would take it up very quickly. In a place like New York, choosing a free-flowing route versus a congested route might save you 30 or even 60 minutes on an airport trip.

But I seem to have been quite wrong. In most instances when I take a taxi or hired car to/from an airport, the driver doesn't check any kind of device to see where traffic is heavy and where it's light, even though smartphones with map and traffic apps have exploded in the last couple of years. Once in a while, he'll tune in to the all-news radio station to get a spotty traffic update.

Therefore, I usually now check my traffic app as soon as I get in the car to see what routes are looking good and which are looking bad, and then relay that info to the driver. Why don't more professional drivers use traffic-enabled GPS?

Taxi Pricing: Hail or Call?

I called a taxi for a short trip in Melbourne, Australia.  When I paid the price on the meter, the driver added a $2 booking fee.  This is standard here, unlike in the U.S. where the price is the same whether you hail or call a taxi.  

The Australian system may be a sensible way to set price to cover marginal cost.  The booking service generates costs; and in many cases the booked driver “dead-heads” to pick up the passenger, using his valuable time without generating revenue.  On the other hand, having a booked fare saves the driver time waiting in a queue or cruising, so perhaps the impact on marginal cost isn’t so clear.  Is this monopoly pricing, or price reflecting cost?

Men, Women, and Taxi Fare

A study on the taxi market in Lima, Peru examines price differences between men and women. Taxi prices in Lima are set by bargaining, and the market of sellers is extremely competitive. The authors initially found, surprisingly, that "men face higher initial prices and rejection rates."

However, when the experiment was performed again with a strategic move, the discrimination disappeared:

Passengers in this study begin by rejecting a first taxi to send a signal of low valuation to a second (waiting) taxi which they then negotiate with. Despite passengers otherwise using an identical bargaining script, we find that negotiated outcomes at the second taxi are gender blind. The second taxi treats men and women the same.