Uber’s ride-hailing business returned to pre-pandemic levels in the UK in mid-May, as the easing of lockdown restrictions spurred users to get back on the road faster than the company expected.
Wider geographic coverage beyond big cities such as London and an embrace of new forms of transport, including traditional taxis, helped fuel a sharp rebound for Uber in the UK and parts of Europe last month.
Across Europe for the week commencing May 17, Uber’s total gross bookings recovered to more than 80 per cent of the level reported in the same period in 2019.
The figures mark a striking recovery after the company reported a 38 per cent year-on-year drop in mobility revenues globally for the first three months of 2021.
“We were frankly not anticipating the speed of the recovery we have seen in some key geographies and definitely the UK,” said Anabel Diaz Calderon, Uber’s regional general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
In the UK, during the week that many lockdown restrictions on hospitality eased, gross bookings matched or slightly exceeded those of the equivalent week two years earlier.
Spain and Germany also saw gross bookings — a measure of customer spending on Uber’s various transport services that adjusts for any discounts or promotions — return to about 100 per cent levels around the third week of May compared with the same period in 2019, even as many coronavirus restrictions were still in force.
Other key markets are coming back more slowly. In France, gross bookings were about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels for the week of May 24, after various restrictions were lifted.
London, one of Uber’s largest city markets, is lagging slightly behind other parts of the UK, as many office workers and tourists are still staying at home.
But the recovery in other UK cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is so strong that passenger demand is already starting to outpace Uber’s supply of drivers, who are now classified as workers rather than contractors after February’s Supreme Court ruling.
“We are anticipating we will need up to 20,000 additional drivers for the growth we need in the UK,” said Diaz Calderon. In the US, Uber has been forced to boost incentives to lure drivers amid a wider labour shortage in some lower-paid roles.
While she acknowledged there was “a little bit of overexcitement” after lockdown restrictions were lifted, Diaz Calderon said she had “no concerns that the growth pattern we are starting to see is solid”.
The return to pre-pandemic levels of activity has arrived even before a wider recovery in business travel and tourism, which will bring with it trips such as airport runs that traditionally made up a sizeable portion of Uber’s business.
Across Europe, Uber has expanded its various mobility services into 40 smaller cities in recent months, so it is now available in more than 340 cities across the continent.
Entry to some of those new cities — particularly in Spain, Austria and Turkey — has only been possible because Uber worked with the traditional taxi industry, a group more often seen as a competitor or opponent to its ride-sharing model. Uber said that since the beginning of 2021 it had signed up 17,000 drivers across Europe whose cars can now be booked through its app as well as hailed on the street as normal.
“The partnership with taxis is a strong lever for the business in many geographies and is actually allowing us to grow or unlock multiple regions,” said Diaz Calderon.