City Hall

Three Reasons Adding 2,500 Uber Drivers to Southern Dallas Isn't a Big Fix

Wednesday, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Leander Johns, the head of Uber Dallas, announced a plan to add 2,500 new drivers for the app-based ride hailing service in southern Dallas. On the surface it looks like an easy win. Dallas south of Interstate 30 needs jobs and is underserved by the city's transportation options. In reality, flooding the area with more Uber drivers might not be a great idea.

“Residents of southern Dallas deserve the same job opportunities and access to services as our citizens on the north side of town. This initiative is yet another sign of the commitment from the private sector to GrowSouth,” Rawlings said, referring to City Hall's effort to improve conditions on the city's southern side.

Rawlings and Johns said the Uber initiative was about providing service and employment in an area that's an opportunity for Uber's independent drivers and not, as Rawlings put it, a "charity case." Ken Smith, the president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, lauded the partnership.

“The South Dallas/Fair Park area has a 50 percent unemployment rate, contains less than 5 percent of all jobs in North Texas, and 59 percent of our residents do not own a car. Uber’s efforts to establish thousands of small, community-based businesses through this driver recruitment campaign is exactly what our community needs,” he said.

Still, given the issues Uber continues to have with its drivers in Dallas and the complaints that stream in against the company from across the country,  the initiative, called DriveSouth in an echo of the mayor's GrowSouth effort, might look better than it will ever perform. Here are three reasons why that's the case:

First, Uber is expensive. Compared with taking a cab, UberX, the lowest cost Uber option, is pretty cheap. After a $1 initial drop, riders pay 10 cents a minute and 85 cents a mile in addition to a $1.70 booking fee. The minimum fare, $5, will get you from downtown to Deep Ellum. A little more will get you from downtown to Oak Lawn or Uptown to Expo Park. Dallas cabs charge a $2.25 initial drop, $1.80 a mile and 40 cents per 90 seconds of waiting in traffic. Extra passengers are free in an Uber; they're $2 a head in a cab.

All of that's to say, if you're someone who needs a ride home from the bar to one of Dallas' more expensive, denser neighborhoods, Uber is a pretty good deal. It beats a cab, and it sure as hell beats a DWI. With the types of trips poor southern Dallas users need to take, though, that's not the case.

Uber has been touted by DART as a last-mile solution. DART riders who can't easily walk to a train station or bus stop can bridge that gap with a short Uber trip. If a rider does that, however, he's looking at about a $10 addition to a $5 DART day pass if he uses Uber to and from either his departure spot or destination, and $20 if Uber is needed at both ends of the trip. Even if someone only used Uber for weekday trips to work and kept a DART monthly pass, that would still mean about $280-$480 a month for transportation, which isn't sustainable for households that are using the service because they can't afford a car, not because they don't want to drive. Increasing availability won't change that unless Uber and the city find a way to subsidize fares, as Altamonte Springs, an Orlando suburb, just began doing in Florida. 

Second, Uber is not a good primary job. Uber works best as a side gig for those who are already employed. Otherwise, drivers are simply trading the equity in their cars for income. On minimum fare trips, drivers can take home about $2, which can come close to failing to beat the IRS's mileage reimbursement rate of 54 cents per mile. Costs aside, Uber's typically in highest demand during some really terrible work hours, like after the bars let out or really early in the morning while people are driving to the airport. When the company isn't running a guarantee with drivers, income from Uber is highly dependent on luck. If the weather's bad, Uber's good. If a driver gets 10 trips to the airport in one day, the money's good. Or a driver could get stuck doing 10-minute jaunts downtown for five hours. Drivers don't get benefits, and Uber has fought across the country against their being named as employees, rather than independent contractors.

Third, Dallas doesn't need more Uber drivers. Uber is largely a black box; the company releases very little data about the number of drivers on the road in a given location, but it's pretty clear Dallas is not suffering from a lack of drivers. Apart from a couple of weekends last year when Uber drivers went on short strikes or there were big events, Dallas just doesn't see that many surges — when demand outstrips available cars, Uber rates go up. Adding an additional 2,500 drivers into the system would kill the few surges that already exist in addition to increasing wait times for drivers between rides. On Uber People, a message board where Uber drivers gather to vent their frustrations and talk strategy, one driver called DriveSouth the end of surge pricing. Others questioned whether Uber actually wanted to help South Dallas.

"Correction: Uber wants to put 2,500 deeper into poverty. They kill me with their spin on 'helping the economy.' Uck Fuber," ABC123DEF said in response to another user who said Uber was trying to help with southern Dallas poverty.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young