Uber Study Declares Uber Is Great for Boston, But Take it With Several Grains of Salt

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 01: In this photo illustration, the app 'Uber' is launched in a smart phone on July 1, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. Taxi drivers in main cities strike over unlicensed car-halling services. Drivers say that is a lack of regulation behind the new app. (Photo Illustration by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A recent study performed by Uber shows that the smartphone-based car hire company has done what traditional taxis either can’t or won’t: serve all areas of the city quickly and reliably.

But—and this is a big but—Uber’s study used data from a 2013 study of Boston’s taxi scene performed by an independent consulting firm. And while those traditional taxi companies did participate in that study (being licensed providers, they have to furnish the city with this data), Uber declined to provide it with any information whatsoever.

“We sought their participation, we sought data from them, they opted not to participate,” Will Rodman, a principal at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, which conducted the original study, told Boston.com. “We tried, we emailed, we did everything we thought possible and they just opted not to.”

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That’s a shame—an independent study that compared Uber and traditional taxi services may well show that Uber’s car are more reliable and better serve areas like Mattapan, Roslindale, and South Dorchester. According to Uber’s interpretation of Nelson\Nygaard’s study, roughly a third of people who requested taxis from those areas waited over 20 minutes for a car to arrive. By contrast, 99 percent of Uber users in those areas got their rides in 20 minutes or less.

(It should be noted that we have no access to Uber’s data nor to Uber’s interpretation of Nelson\Nygaard’s—Uber said it combined two of Nelson\Nygaard’s datasets using an “unambiguous metric,” but didn’t elaborate further. Also, the taxi data was taken from one dispatch association representing about a quarter of the city’s fleet.)

Or not: Uber drivers have the ability not to accept fares in the first place. Taxi cabs don’t. And Uber users must have a credit card, while taxis take cash or credit. So Uber drivers are able to choose the areas they serve and the pool of potential riders is limited to those who are able to obtain a credit card (and a smartphone) in the first place. A taxi cab may take its time getting to an undesirable area, but an Uber car doesn’t have to go there at all—and that refusal wouldn’t be noted in the data.

Madison, Wisconsin hopes to combat this effect with a proposal that would require services like Uber to register as “Transit Network Companies” and be required to provide data on rejected ride requests. Unless that comes to Boston, it’s not fair—or accurate—to compare taxis and Uber cars.

The Nelson\Nygaard also pointed out that there are “several issues” associated with companies like Uber. This did not make it into Uber’s version of the study but is worth noting. The lack of regulation makes it impossible to know what, if anything, the company does to screen potential drivers. Uber says it performs background checks on applicants, but Chicago’s NBC5 had a woman with a two-decade-long rap sheet apply to be a driver. Despite being on probation for a 2012 assault (“she nearly beat a woman to death,” NBC5 reported), she was hired. And, Nelson\Nygaard noted, people who don’t have access to a smartphone or the internet—elderly, the disabled, and low income people, for instance—don’t, in turn, have access to Uber.

In its report, Uber said its uberX service “has brought an unprecedented degree of access to reliable transportation throughout the city.”

Uber did not respond to request for comment.