Uber overstates Chicago economic impact

Rideshare services in Chicago

Rideshare companies such as uberX rely on drivers in private vehicles. Photographed Jan.31, 2014 (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune) (February 3, 2014)

Rideshare in Chicago is already kind of a hot mess. Think 4 a.m. pickups by strangers ghost-riding their pink-mustache-adorned whips. And now it's sloppier: lawsuits, regulatory proposals and threats of outing secretly gay aldermen. (If you don’t know all the facts, RedEye reporter Leonor Vivanco has covered the topic like a pro. Go here and here to get your hands dirty.)

And as the ridiculousness grows, rideshare companies are scrambling to prove their worth in the local taxi market. Uber tried to get serious this week by publishing the results of an economic impact study. Hardly any local news outlets, including RedEye, picked it up.

The study, conducted by paid economics consultancy ECONorthwest, found that Uber had a roughly $46 million gross total impact on Chicago’s economy.

[Insert eye roll here.] Shame on you, Uber.

My hope is that RedEye readers, who are also probably rideshare customers, know very well that these numbers are simply political fodder.

That $46 million is overstated. It's a big, sexy number, but anything that seems too good to be true usually is. And worse, Uber isn't clear: are they referring to all services or just rideshare?

And though I have a bent toward economics, I checked out my hypothesis with UChicago economist Paula Worthington. She agrees.

“$46 million is going to completely misstate the impact if Uber disappeared overnight,” she said. “Many of these rides are coming from rides that were previously being taken in some other way.”

If UberX disappears, I’m probably not going to walk to the Blue Line from a late night at Parson’s Chicken and Fish, wait on a train, and stumble home. I’ll hail a cab. A cab that I didn’t hail from my cellphone. A cab that won’t come get me at Parson’s front door. A cab that will charge me too much, driven by a cabbie who will probably hate me for my slushy-negroni consumption.

You see, Uber, we “under-30s,” as Worthington called us, love you for you. We’ll stick with you because we want lower fares and cellphone convenience. And let’s face it, rideshare drivers are generally pretty cool. (Does anyone else want to party with them? Best friends!)

Lyft and UberX are providing a new service. They brought technology into an industry that was well behind the times. So, Uber, stop spending money on fancy economic impact consultants, and start rallying the troops.

Uber's money could be better spent on bolstering its position in the market: Give me even lower fares. Make rideshare safer. Work with the city to create a sustainable business model. I want you around forever.

How else am I going to get home from my adult bowling party tonight? (Oh, and who still goes bowling? I’ll Instagram my shoes or something. @MonroeSchultz.)

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