When Are Taxis Cheaper than Uber?

A study examined that question in New York City to find that shorter trips favor cabs.

Uber, the service that lets you summon and pay for car service using a smartphone, alleges that it is both more convenient and often cheaper than regular taxi service. Is that always the case?

A team of computer scientists from the U.K.’s University of Cambridge and Belgium’s University of Nanmur ran a study comparing trips using UberX to journeys in a regular old yellow cab. The researchers used public data on all New York City taxi rides taken in 2013 then asked Uber to provide a range of prices for similar trips on their service. The results of this huge data dive, reported this week in the MIT Technology Review, found that for trips under $35, taxis were usually cheaper.

There are some caveats. For one, the study was performed using New York City as its model, with its unique traffic patterns and taxi fares. Would a $35 threshhold hold steady if you were to perform the study in Boston? Almost certainly not. But hey, if you’re taking a trip to New York, check out the app designed by the study authors, which will allow you to calculate whether your trip would be cheaper in an Uber or a cab.

So what else can Boston take away from this? Well, the general principal that shorter trips favor cabs and longer trips favor Uber might still hold true. (Just beware the surge pricing on Uber, which the study didn’t account for.) Indeed, we’ve sort of seen this trend before. The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey A. Fowler ran a much smaller-scale study last year.

I mustered Journal colleagues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington and New York. I took each service to work for a week in San Francisco, and in each city, testers embarked on a mini “Amazing Race,” starting the same peak-traffic trip at the same time, headed to the same destination. In most cases, three people used three apps [Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar] while a fourth hailed a local taxi to compare.

This test focused only on peak-traffic trips, and it ran a limited number of tests. The result: “On average, our rides on UberX cost about 20% more than taxi fare.” That would seem to align with the larger study’s finding that short, high-traffic trips favor taxis, at least when it comes to price. Still, we’d like to see how that principal holds up under a larger-scale study of Boston’s fares.

The larger point in all this is that price might not be the main selling point for UberX over taxi services. Uber, after all, didn’t start out billing itself as the cheaper alternative to cabs. When it began, it was a luxury black car service only. The advantage lay in hailing the car to your exact location from your phone and paying for the ride seamlessly. In short, Uber was cool and convenient. Since then, it’s expanded into cheaper alternatives, but the convenience factor remains the main selling point. In downtown Manhattan, that convenience factor is slightly diminished by the fact that the streets are a sea of yellow cabs. You’re not going to have trouble finding one. That might not be the case if you’re leaving a friend’s house in Boston late at night. In that situation, a cab might be cheaper, but a cab also might be nowhere to be found.