Uber v. taxi in Brooklyn and Queens: twice as fast but no cheaper

The results of one day’s observation of taxi and Uber service in the outer boroughs of New York – the pilot phase of what is planned as a larger study – are now in.  Our riders in fact used three systems—street-hailing yellow cabs or Boro cabs, phoning NYC car ride services, and app-summoning UberX—in two randomly-selected low-income, low-crime areas, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. 

Even ignoring the substantial number of cases where no taxi or boro-cab service was available within a thirty-minute period or where the request for a ride was refused entirely, total time from initiating the request to being in a car was half as long for Uber as for the two varieties of taxi service. That more or less matched the results from Los Angeles. By contrast with the LA results, there was no measurable difference in price.

Uber v. taxi, Round II

The BOTEC Uber-v.-taxi study in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which I blogged about Monday, had some important limitations as a source of definitive answers:

1. It only covered L.A.
2. It didn’t address, e.g., service to people with disabilities.
3. It was paid for by Uber.
4. Uber had the final say on publishing the findings.

Of those, #4 was especially problematic. It’s well known that (before the FDA cracked down) pharma companies used to fund multiple safety-and-efficacy studies of new drugs and then cherry-pick which results to publish. I’m close to certain that wasn’t the case here; we only did the one study, and the idea came from us, not from Uber. Still, the question mark remains.

One way to cure that is for others to carry out similar studies. As I mentioned before, we’re happy to make our data available for re-analysis and our methods available for replication to anyone who asks.

#3 would be more of an issue had Uber been allowed to influence the study design or influence the data analysis, interpretation, or presentation. But that wasn’t the case, and the methods were entirely straightforward.

I agree with those who say that it would be better to have more studies not funded by Uber, and I’m aware of at least one independent group interested in trying. But the fact that Uber wanted the research done, while apparently the legacy taxi industry and is regulators don’t want it done, or at least don’t want it done enough to pay for it, suggests to me that everyone involved had the same intuition I did, and that was borne out by the study results: that Uber would turn out to be faster and cheaper in servicing low-income areas.

As to #2, of course service to those with disabilities is an important issue, one of many raised by the emergence of ridesharing. But no single study can cover all the issues.

The picture just got brighter with respect to both #1 (geographic scope) and #4 (the risk of cherry-picked results). Uber – motivated, no doubt, by the vote previously scheduled for tomorrow in the New York City Council on the Mayor’s proposal to cap the number of Uber drivers (but not privately-owned cars) in the name of reducing congestion – has decided to fund a similar study in New York.

That doesn’t entirely get rid of problem #1, but two research sites are better than one when it comes to generalizability.

Better yet, Uber agreed to fund the study but not claim ownership of the data, so we will be free to report whatever we find, thus avoiding problem #4 entirely.

The bad news is that, given the political calendar, data collection needed to be compressed into a single day. As I write, a small team is riding around New York, comparing UberX with both yellow taxis and what are called “boro taxis,” which operate only outside Manhattan (which accounts for 90% of all yellow-taxi trips).

So we will only be able to report pilot-scale data: a target of about 60 observations. If the differences turn out to be as dramatic and consistent in New York as they were in Los Angeles, that won’t matter, because such differences will show up clearly even on a small sample. If the differences are narrower, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion at this stage. The plan is to do it again, more slowly, at a much larger scale.

Anyway, watch this space. The team expects to have the analysis done late tonight (California time), so there should be results up tomorrow.

Twice as fast, half as expensive

The debate about how to regulate ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft – even whether to ban them entirely – has suffered from a surfeit of passionate assertion and a deficit of systematic data collection.

Ridesharing has been alternately criticized for its supposed mistreatment of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and the poor, and praised for providing those communities with an alternative to the inferior service they get from the regulated taxi industry.

A research team at BOTEC Analysis, with funding from Uber, set about to gather actual evidence about the relative performance of taxis and UberX in a sample of low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. (I’m on the author list, but only for editorial help: Rosanna Smart and Angela Hawken did the design and number-crunching, while Brad Rowe ran the data collection.)

The design could hardly have been simpler; we sent pairs of riders to call for taxi service or use an app to summon UberX for travel along pre-planned routes. The riders recorded how long it took – starting from the moment of picking up the phone or opening the app – before they were actually in a car and on their way, and also how much the ride cost, including a standard 15% tip for the taxi drivers and any premium charged under the Uber “surge pricing” system.

After each ride, the riders switched off; whoever took a taxi last time took an Uber next time. Our riders didn’t know that Uber had paid for the study.

The answer was clear-cut, and consistent across neighborhoods and days: summoning an UberX took less than half as long as calling for a taxi, and the trip cost less than half as much. UberX was also more reliable, with no very long wait times.

Even though Uber had no control over our data analysis or interpretation, the fact that Uber paid for the study makes some skepticism about our results natural and proper. We will happily share our data and methods with other research teams for re-analysis and replication.

It was not possible for a single study in a single city to answer all the relevant questions about ridesharing. Would the same relationship hold in other cities? Would it hold in the small number of very-high-crime neighborhoods we excluded in order to protect our riders? Would it hold after dark?

This study didn’t address questions about service for minority groups; though the neighborhoods we selected tended to have high concentrations of Latinos and African-Americans, we didn’t systematically vary the ethnicity of our riders. Nor could our study address the question of how taxis and ridesharing compare in handling riders with disabilities. And people who lack either a smartphone or a credit or debit card cannot use ridesharing at all, though they can use taxis. It would be helpful to know how often people lacking one or the other use taxis.

So this study ought to be the beginning of the scientific effort rather than the end.

But for now, anyone who asserts that ridesharing services disadvantage poor people or poor neighborhoods is making a claim that is not merely unsupported but actually contrary to the findings of the one systematic study of that question. The evidence in hand strongly suggests that UberX outperforms conventional taxis in serving low-income neighborhoods, at least in Los Angeles.

Full report here.

The higher a monkey climbs …

I have to respectfully disagree with D.R. Tucker about the Berkshire Eagle’s decision to open its op-ed column to the local Republican party, leading to the publication of this stunning bit of racist rant.

There remains a widespread belief – supported by journalistic convention – that the country currently has two mainstream political parties, holding different views but equally able to govern. That belief is false. Of course there are lots of decent Republican voters, and lots of responsible Republican elected officials. But the party as a whole is now dominated by its lunatic fringe, well represented by Mr. Nikitas. The failure of the Republicans who are actually running for President to denounce Donald Trump’s nativism is the best recent illustration of that point.

So I want to thank the Berkshire Eagle for doing a public service by helping to reveal the truth. The content of the Nikitas column deserves forthright denunciation. But the decision to print it was fully jusified. The sooner the country comes to understand that the Republican Party has become an extremist organization, the better the prospect for the sort of electoral disaster that might shock it back into respectability.

This country needs two serious parties contesting for power. But pretending that it currently has them is counterproductive.

The GOP vs. the Reality Principle

If you, like me, have a twisted sense of humor and limited compassion, it’s rather funny to see all the Republican politicians and conservative pundits decompensating in the face of the rather predictable outcome of King v. Burwell

Not that it’s unreasonable for them to be disappointed that the court didn’t once again make up legal principles out of whole cloth in order to serve right-wing prejudices and policy preferences. But the reaction isn’t the “Well, it was worth a try” that might be expected when a long-shot didn’t come in. It’s sheer uncomprehending grief and outrage. Instead of saying “Too bad, I guess John Roberts decided he couldn’t stretch reality far enough to let us win this one,” the right wing is saying “John Roberts betrayed us! He was never really a conservative!”

More than anything else, it reminds me of Karl Rove on Election Night 2012, insisting that Barack Obama hadn’t really have carried Ohio (which, when all the votes were in, he carried by a reasonably comfortable 3 percentage points) and thus the Presidency.

In 2012, then The Republicans had spent so much time “unskewing” the polls that they’d really convinced themselves that Romney was going to win. Recall that Romney was so confident he hadn’t even drafted a concession speech.  This time, they’d convinced themselves that the fundamentally frivolous challenge in King - asserting that the Congress had deliberately set up Obamacare to fail – was obviously valid. (As Roberts points out in a footnote, Scalia’s dissent in NFIB, the previous Obamacare case, specifically asserted that the subsidies formed an essential part of the law.)

So when John Roberts, in effect, called “bullsh*t,” Fox News viewers, including the pols and the professional chatterers, were utterly blindsided, and reacted by insisting that the problem was with Roberts rather than with the plaintiffs’ case.

In a purely partisan sense, it’s an advantage for Democrats to be running against a fundamentally unhinged party. But from a patriotic viewpoint, the realization that the country no longer has two political parties that can be trusted with the reins of government is pretty damned scary. It’s possible that a convincing Clinton win and a Democratic recapture of the Senate in 2016 will shock the GOP back to reality. But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Feeding right-wing fury is a profitable venture financially, and it works well enough electorally in off-years to keep the hustle going. My guess is that it will take a Clinton re-election landslide in 2020 to do the job.




Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount

Three things to like about Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on incarceration:

1.  He starts in the right place: the sheer scale and horror of mass incarceration, especially as practiced in this country. (Douthat is right: by any reasonable definition, SuperMax is torture.)

2. He acknowledges the key fact: there aren’t enough harmless prisoners that releasing them would solve the problem. If we want to get to civilized levels of incarceration we need to let out some seriously guilty and possibly dangerous people.  Just to get back to the U.S. historical level – already about 50% above European rates – we would have to let out four out of five current inmates. That means freeing large numbers of armed robbers, rapists, and murderers.

3. And he asks the right question: how to do that without ending our twenty-year winning streak in crime reduction.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer to that question: learning to manage offenders without putting them behind bars. The key to that – and, it turns out, to de-brutalizing the institutions themselves – is a system of rules and sanctions based on swiftness, certainty, and fairness.

The evidence for success in swift-certain-fair community corrections is pouring in. The next step is to extend it to the currently imprisoned population through some form of graduated re-entry. Since that’s a new idea, we can’t be sure in advance how well it would work, or which version of it would work best in any given population. But once you ask the right question – how to reduce incarceration while improving public safety – you’re well on the road to finding the right answer.

Footnote Douthat makes the implicit assumption that keeping someone who might commit crime behind bars naturally tends to reduce crime. That would be true if incarceration didn’t have criminogenic side-effects, both at the individual-offender level and the community level. But in fact it does, and as the scale of incarceration grows the crime-control benefits shrink (since you’re locking up less and less dangerous prople) while the costs grow. Useem and Piehl estimate that in the median state the marginal prisoner somewhat increases the crime rate. If this is right, then the first slice of de-carceration won’t come at any cost in the form of increased crime even if it’s not coupled with improved community supervision. But that surely wouldn’t be true of making the reductions we actually need to make in the prison headcount.






House zeroes out core funding for justice research; no one notices

At today’s meeting of the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice, I learned that the House of Representatives has voted to “zero out” core funding for the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That wouldn’t abolish those agencies; instead, the Office of Justice Programs would be invited to take money out of program funds (mostly grants to states and localities) to fund the research mission. (See p. 43 of the committee report.)

This is of a piece with the earlier House vote to slash the National Science Foundation’s social-science budget.

Of course I felt like a fool for not knowing about the NIJ/BJS budget disaster. But a fairly thorough Google search turns up no media mention of that vote. I suppose by now “Republicans vote for more ignorance” is a dog-bites-man story, not worth reporting.  But when this sort of maneuver goes on in the dark, it’s harder to mobilize any sort of protest.



Why does Scott Walker hate the people who do the work of government?

The actual work of government depends crucially on career civil servants. There’s no public task more vital than recruiting, retaining, and managing a corps of smart, honest, dedicated people who believe in the jobs they’re doing and have the respect of those around them.

And there’s no one less likely to do that task well than Scott Walker. Don Kettl explains why. And Ed Kilgore points out how Walker’s union-busting strategy is a big winner with the increasingly Koch-eyed GOP activist-and-donor class.

Like much contemporary Republican ideology, there’s nothing about bashing public employees that fits any sane definition of the word “conservative.”

Free trade, Pareto improvements, and redistribution

James Kwak demonstrates that Greg Mankiw is talking through his hat on the trade issue, quoting Mankiw’s own textbook:

Trade can make everyone better off. … [T]he gains of the winners exceed the losses of the losers, so the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off. … But will trade make everyone better off? Probably not. In practice, compensation for the losers from international trade is rare.

We can now see why the debate over trade policy is often contentious. Whenever a policy creates winners and losers, the stage is set for a political battle.

To put it formally:

Reducing barriers to trade creates potential Pareto improvements: making them actual Pareto improvements requires redistribution. But of course it’s precisely the people loudest in their support of “free trade” who are most vehement in their opposition to income redistribution, insisting (mostly falsely) that in a globalized economy capital and the people who own it are necessarily too footloose to be adequately taxed.

There’s no reason in principle that the same web of treaties that reduces tariffs couldn’t also restrain tax-dodging and the associated money-laundering, but that’s not what Greg Mankiw, or the people who support his work, are interested in, so it mostly doesn’t happen.  If the corporate-lobby “free traders” were prepared to talk seriously about shared prosperity, most of the opponents of TPP would be more than willing to meet them halfway.

To be clear, I don’t have a clue about whether TPP is, on balance, good policy. If it helps strengthen a Western Pacific coalition against Chinese attempts at regional hegemony, maybe it’s worth doing for that reason alone. And on an international scale the distributional consequences are way positive; the Vietnamese workers who benefit from better access to U.S. markets for their products are pretty damned poor, and – despite how badly they’re treated in the exporting industries – even very bad factory work kicks the crap out of tending a rice paddy.

But the Theory of Comparative Advantage doesn’t answer the question, and pretending that it does is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. In the absence of a redistributive mechanism, the claim that “economics” proves that “free trade is good for everyone” is no better than a verbal trick.

Footnote  All that is aside from the fact that deals like the TPP embody not very much actual reduction in trade barriers (which are pretty low by now to start with) and lots of less desirable (except to special interests) provisions such as imposing the absurdly inefficient and unjust “intellectual property” regime the patent- and copyright-holders have bought from the U.S. government on the rest of the world, and subordinating local health and safety rules to the whims of unelected international tribunals dominated by servants of big business. (For example, the international tobacco companies are challenging Australia’s plain-pack rule for cigarettes as a WTO violation.) In principle, trade deals could also require respect for labor rights and environmental interests, but  those provisions are mostly for show.