I recently tallied up all the money I've spent on Uber. I was sure the total would be an embarrassing extravagance.
The existence of the app on my phone, already connected to my credit card, is a constant temptation. I take Uber to the airport. I take it if I've been drinking and feeling lazy. I take it at any time of night that could be described as "late." I've taken Ubers to work just because it was raining—and I know other coworkers who do this too.
But good news, readers! I only spend about $215 on Uber per year. In New York City, where the $20 is the new $5, this feels like nothing.
Obviously, it's not nothing, but compared to the costs of food, housing, and even haircuts, it turns out it's actually pretty affordable to have Uber in your back pocket.
Of course, we're talking about New York City, where Uber trips are short and there is an abundance of other transit options. This also doesn't mean anything for the future of Uber prices: The company is still in its startup phase and facing robust competition from companies like Lyft as well as the existing taxi infrastructure, and it has been known to sacrifice profits in order to keep things cheap and gain market share. I'm also mostly taking UberX, the slightly cheaper option, and for a while, Uber was letting New Yorkers also use the app to hail yellow cabs for free.
Frequent Uber users spend 1.3 percent of their income on the service
Not everyone's habits are the same, either. The Uber Leaderboard, built by Alexei Chemenda, lets people easily calculate how much they've spent on Uber, then ranks them anonymously. I rank between 991 and 1,020 out of more than 500,000 people. The person leading the ranking at the time of writing had spent $54,627, more than the median annual income in the US, on 2,429 trips—which suggests either a very wealthy Uber rider, or someone with a very generous corporate account.
This all made me curious. How much does the average person spend on Uber? Or rather, given that only 15 percent of Americans have every used a ride hailing app at all, how much does the average Uber or Lyft user spend on those apps? The average American spends between 9 and 25 percent of their income on transportation, depending on where they live. Is Uber starting to approach those levels?
To get the answer, Motherboard partnered with Earnest, an online lending startup based in San Francisco. This sample set isn't representative of the nation, as it skews toward early adopters and younger users, but it is a pretty good data set in which to find Uber users.
Lian Chang, Earnest's data editor, looked at granular spending data for more than 50,000 people in the US, breaking the data down by age, income, education, location, gender, and more, to answer questions about income distribution and other things we wondered about the company.
People are spending a relatively small portion of their income on Uber and Lyft. What we found was that people are not spending a huge amount on Uber relative to their income. There were some outliers who skewed the averages higher, but the median percentage of income spent on Lyft or Uber was less than .02 percent for all ride hailing users in markets that both companies serve.
For frequent users—people who used the service at least once a week—it was a bit higher. Frequent Uber users spend 1.3 percent of their income on the service, according to the median numbers, and frequent Lyft users spent the same percentage. By comparison, experts recommend that people spend not more than 10 to 15 percent of their income on car payments and related expenses, according to the financial planning company LearnVest.
That translated to a median spend of $95 a month for frequent Uber users and $76 a month for frequent Lyft users, who tend to be younger and have lower incomes.
Uber is still crushing Lyft. In markets where both companies operate, 23 percent of people have used Uber compared to just 9 percent who have used Lyft.
Lyft also got beat out by taxis, which were used by 16 percent of those surveyed.
Women are less likely to have tried Uber than men, and also less likely to have used Lyft, although the difference is smaller. In areas served by Uber, 19 percent of women tried the app at least once versus 23 percent of men. In areas served by Lyft, 8 percent of women had tried it versus 9 percent of men.
For markets served by taxis, 13 percent of women had taken a cab at least once versus 15 percent of men.
More education means you are more likely to use Uber or Lyft. Of people with less than a four year degree, 15 percent have used Uber and 6 percent have used Lyft.
Compare that to those with a bachelor's degree or higher: 24 percent have used Uber, and 9 percent have used Lyft.
Uber and Lyft use generally goes up with income. Among people with individual incomes up to $35,000, 18 percent have used Uber and 8 percent have used Lyft. Among people with incomes between $35,000 and $75,000, 21 percent have used Uber and 8 percent have used Lyft. And for the highest income group, people with incomes over $75,000, 27 percent have used Uber and 9 percent have used Lyft.
Frequent riders. Of people in areas served by Uber and Lyft, 11 percent are frequent Uber users and 7 percent are frequent Lyft users.
Where are Uber and Lyft most popular? In comparing 12 major metro areas, the major cities with the greatest Uber penetration are San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, with New York and LA close behind. The cities with the greatest Lyft penetration are San Francisco, Chicago, and LA.
The cities with the highest percentage of Uber users who fire up the app at least once a week are San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. The cities with the highest percentage of frequent Lyft users are San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver.
Uber and Lyft had not-insignificant user bases in Austin. Before the two companies pulled out of Austin, Texas, after a dispute with the city, 21 percent of people had used Uber at least once and 13 percent had tried Lyft.
Lyft is cheaper (or else Lyft trips tend to be shorter). The median transaction for Uber was $13.01 while the median transaction for Lyft was $10.89, suggesting that Lyft rides are cheaper. This could be due to discounts and promotional offers rather than a difference in pricing; Uber also pointed out that its premium services, such as UberBLACK and UberSELECT, the two tiers above UberX, are more expensive. The other possibility, though it seems less likely, is that Lyft trips may be shorter.
Uber and Lyft declined to respond to requests for comment on these numbers, but I talked to Harry Campbell, the Lyft and Uber driver and writer behind the popular blog The Rideshare Guy, who confirmed that most of the trends we found correlated with the data he's seen as well as his own experience.
The relatively small percentage of income we found people are spending on these apps sounds about right, Campbell said, although he believes that percentage will increase.
"Most people are typically using Uber and Lyft as more of a casual ride here and there, go out to the bars on the weekends, or restaurants," he said. "I think in the future, that's definitely going to be going up as more people ditch their car and say, 'I'll use Uber or Lyft.'"
He also found in his own surveys that Uber is clearly dominant over Lyft, at least for now.
"I think Uber has kind of become the verb as far as it comes to transportation, whether you're taking a taxi or Lyft," he said. "I've been driving for Lyft, and I'll pick people up, and they'll say, 'oh, it's our Uber.'"
Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.