Love it or hate it, Uber’s name is on many people’s lips at the moment. The “ride sharing” company – which allows you to book a cab from your smartphone – is popular and huge, valued at $40 billion (R460 billion). But it’s also proving controversial thanks to dodgy adverts, ill advised comments from senior staff and concerns over the wisdom of disrupting several centuries of legislation aimed at making public transport trustworthy. Here in South Africa the number of Ubers on the road is rising and, while we don’t have actual numbers of drivers in the network, we’ve seldom seen a lack of supply when we’ve booted up the app.

In a country, and specifically a city, where the car is still the preferred but least effective way to get around town, Uber has few critics (although there is one potential controversy brewing – the company is investigating allegations made on Facebook of a drunk driver). It’s almost as if we’ve been waiting for something that makes public transport safe, cost effective and convenient.

Uber is certainly convenient: tap the app and a car turns up to chauffeur you to your destination. So far it’s been safe: we’ve not heard of passengers being accosted by Uber drivers or credit card numbers being swiped from the app database (the caveat being it’s early days, of course). But cost effective? Surely not. Yet according to our figures travelling by Uber may actually be cheaper than buying a new car.

More on that later.

The question is, could you live without your car? Would you cope without the ability to go anywhere you choose, at any time of the day? Could you sacrifice the spirit of independence to rely on public or shared transport – like they do in other major cities around the world?

To find out, I ditched my car for a week in the name of science and being chauffeur driven. For a whole week I said goodbye to my vehicle, affectionately known as Hondabot, and decided to travel using my smartphone and the low cost UberX rides. To facilitate the experiment, Uber provided me with an R2 000 credit on my account to try the experiment out, but no promises of coverage were made and I entered the project with – what I think – is an open mind.

Fair thee well Hondabot
Fair thee well Hondabot.

Uber launched in South Africa in 2013 and earlier this year the company launched its budget uberX option. uberX eschews the fancy German sedans uberBLACK drivers favour for the likes of the humble Toyota Corolla and VW Polo Vivo sedan. In exchange, uberX offers much friendlier pricing.

The rules were simple:

  • I wasn’t allowed use my car for the whole week
  • If no uberX was available I would use uberBLACK instead
  • I had to do everything I would normally do in a week

After 21 trips, 201.49km and R2 008 my week with uberX had ended.

And what an interesting week it was. Instead of listening to the radio and cursing traffic, I had discussed macro-economics with one driver who was doing his masters degree in agricultural economics. I had met a driver who was busy buying his fourth uberX car with a partner and creating a transportation empire. And I had conducted a radio interview from the back seat of an Uber stuck in traffic on the M1.

Learning how to schedule my life down to the minute was only the beginning my journey, I now had to figure out whether or not I could ditch my car entirely and go with Uber from here on out.

For my sins, my tertiary education happens to be in the financial field and as such my love of figures and spreadsheets meant that I set about trying to work out what all of the numbers actually meant to the average guy in the street.

Here’s what I learned:

Uber Back End
Not your average Uber in Parys.

The rule of ten

No matter the distance I travelled nor the time it took to get there, the overall cost of travel with uberX stayed at around R10/km. So to answer the most basic question, if you add up all of your vehicle related expenses for the month and divide it by 10 it would give you the distance you could travel using uberX every month.

If that distance is greater than your travel in the average month then uberX is the better option financially. If it’s less, then right off the bat having your car seems to be the better choice.

Toyota Corolla
To Corolla, or not to Corolla. That is the question.

How does that compare to buying a car?

Leaving behind the simple maths I decided to take a look at what it costs me to keep my car as well as what it would cost to buy a new 2014 Toyota Corolla and pit them against the cost of using uberX.

I used the AA’s rates for fuel expenses as well as wear and tear costs for the same month that I used Uber to get to a total cost of ownership figure for both. My car, which is fully paid off, easily trounced using uberX to do all of my travels, but when compared to the ongoing cost of buying a new Corolla, things got seriously interesting.

To get to a monthly average cost using Uber, I took the costs for the week, divided them by seven to get a daily average usage figure and multiplied that by 30 to get to a monthly figure.

The Corolla’s costs were made up of the purchase price of the car over 48 months at an interest rate of 10.5%. I used the same distance that I travelled with Uber to estimate the fuel and wear and tear costs for the Corolla and topped it off with comprehensive insurance quotes for the car.

Obviously these costs will change with distance variations and individual insurance rates, but since this is my article, I worked on figures that would apply to me.

Using uberX my monthly transport costs would be1 R8 605.71 versus R11 882.762 for the Toyota Corolla if you included wear and tear. However the Corolla comes with a five year service plan that covers all of the standard maintenance costs of services. If we make an assumption that 80% of the wear and tear costs will be covered by a standard service plan over the course of the four years then the total cost of ownership for the Toyota will be R8 642.803 per month.

Uber Table

So there’s essentially no financial difference between travelling by Uber or buying a new Toyota Corolla. The difference is that after four years of paying off the Corolla you would have an asset that you could then sell on, but any unforeseen major expenses with it could see the prices spiral out into Uber’s favour.

What happens if you drive a lot more?

The more you drive the more cost effective buying a new vehicle becomes simply from the point of view that the increased wear and tear costs are covered by the service plan. When we doubled my, relatively paltry weekly distance, the costs of using Uber predictably doubled as well but the cost of using the new Corolla became much cheaper per km traveled.

Uber Table 2

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a reliable method of transport and can plan the 10 minutes ahead that it usually takes an Uber to arrive then it’s the easiest way to get from A-B without needing to worry about applying for vehicle finance. If you’re the kind of person that always finds yourself popping out for small errands with your car, then Uber still makes for a great cab service for nights out on the town.

Uber is of course not the only game in town at the moment with the likes of Snappcab also out there competing for your app-based transportation monies which could lead to a whole other set of tests in the future.

Personally I’m going to be investing in a motorbike for the short commute from home to the office and using Uber for longer trips or times when a plus one  is joining me.

Calculations:

1: Actual uberX costs / 7 days X 30 days = R2 008/7*30 = R8 605.71
2: Monthly instalment + Cheapest insurance quote + ((AA fuel/km + AA wear and tear/km) X (uberX distance/7 X 30)) = R5 752.22+R958+((R1.30+R4.69)*201.49 /7*30) = R11 882.76
3: R11 882.76 – ((R4.69*201.49km/7*30)*80%) = R8 642.80