Think twice the next time you’re hailing a ride to the airport.
Have you ever gotten the feeling a taxi driver is taking you for a ride? Consider taking a Lyft or Uber instead, researchers say. Taxis take unnecessarily long detours on about 7% of routes from airports, a study distributed this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found, and the detours are even longer for tourists. This leads to more time spent on the road and higher fares.
It’s harder for ride-sharing apps to get away with that kind of behavior. “Uber has tools in place to prevent this,” Erik Brynjolfsson a researcher at MIT Sloan School of Management, who co-wrote the paper with Meng Liu, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, said. “You can watch the trip on the dashboard and rate drivers, so it’s easier to say if you’re unhappy whereas it’s relatively difficult to do that in a taxi.”
The study examined data from 95,357 New York City UberX rides, which are not shared or pooled, involving 23,974 Uber drivers. It compared those rides with taxi trips that had the same origin points and airport destinations. It also compared trips from various places in Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport, for which passengers always pay a flat fee, to trips to LaGuardia Airport, which don’t have a fixed fee, and found there were more detours on rides to and from LaGuardia.
Taxis are more likely to rip off customers because there is less opportunity for feedback, researchers said. Some 73% of trips on Uber are rated by passengers and, of those, one in 170 trips get a partial or total refund after a passenger reports an unsatisfactory experience. In contrast, NYC taxi complaints are more difficult to lodge and occur for only one in every 6,356 trips. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance did not respond to request for comment.
Both taxi and ride-share drivers sometimes must spend hours waiting to pick up a fare at the airport, according to Ippei Takahashi, the chief executive officer and founder of rideshare comparison site RideGuru. That gives drivers more incentive to go out of their way for higher fares. The average wait time is 15 to 30 minutes, but can be more than two hours long, according to the RideGuru.
Riders who want to avoid unnecessarily long routes can take Uber or Lyft, Takahashi said.
“The fact that there is a paper trail for the routes taken and all transactions enforces accountability,” he said. “Because of the transparency and the fact that everything is documented, drivers are less likely to take detours for increasing the fares.”
Uber drivers are not completely exempt from allegations that they’ve ripped off their passengers, however. The study found the drivers often seek out routes that are subject to surge pricing, Uber’s practice of increasing fares when there is high demand. They also occasionally tell the app that they’ve started a ride before a rider gets in the car, or a driver will keep driving without ending the trip within the app, research from Takahashi and RideGuru found.
Riders can flag that type of behavior in the app. Drivers also occasionally try to stretch rides by having long conversations or discreetly changing the route, Takahashi said. Another potential problem for consumers: Uber charging more for some routes arbitrarily. While Uber’s pricing is more transparent than taxis because they quote riders up front, that doesn’t always mean it’s consistent, said Harry Campbell, founder of The RideShare Guy.
“One alarming trend we’ve noticed with Uber lately is that they are now charging riders different rates for the exact same trip,” he said. “One of the nice things about taxis is that there is a flat rate structure that doesn’t go up or down but with Uber, their pricing algorithm is basically a black box and we don’t know what’s behind it.”
Uber told MarketWatch its systems respond to small changes in demand that can cause riders to see different prices, but customers always see the full rate before ordering a car. Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.
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