The global pushback against Uber domination continues to gain momentum. Over the past few weeks, the ride-hailing app was banned in India, Thailand and France, suspended in Spain and challenged in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and South Korea. Across the US, local governments in Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania and California are cracking down on the San Francisco-based behemoth, as well as its smaller rival, Lyft. Every day there are more and more articles in major news outlets documenting the growing rideshare backlash.
Uber responds to the lawsuits and rampant criticism with aplomb, holding the ship steady amid a tempest of dissent. They are always quick to fire back. When they’re not threatening journalists, they accuse city councils of subjecting them to unfair burdens. They claim their model of ridesharing is under attack by government overregulation. Since they profess to be a technology and not a transportation company, they argue they’re immune to the same laws that taxi companies must adhere to. They demand special treatment because they are disrupting the evil “taxi cartel” and bringing quality service to the masses. They hire lobbyists and ask their supporters – both drivers and passengers – to sign petitions and join rallies. They set up web pages to make it easy for customers to contact their representatives.
Being Uber means you never have to take your face out of an iPhone. Click a button, get an Uber ride. Click another, support the Uber cause.
As an Uber/Lyft driver, I’ve received dozens of emails and texts encouraging me to resist government meddling. I may drive for these companies, but I’m not stupid. Just broke and desperate. Which is why I use my own car as an unlicensed taxicab, despite the risks associated with transporting drunk and impatient people through crowded urban streets. I know I’m not protected from misfortune. When something goes wrong, whether it be car-maintenance or worse, I’m on the hook. My personal insurance policy is completely invalid when driving for-hire. If I get in an accident, I’ll be at the mercy of the offshore insurance company Uber uses to cover their drivers. From everything I’ve read about the experiences of other drivers, Uber won’t be clamoring to come to my aid. There isn’t even a number to call in case of an emergency. I could have bodies splattered all over the asphalt and still only be able to submit a support ticket through Uber’s website. And hope for the best. Even though drivers make these companies billions of dollars, we are entirely alone out on the streets.
Being Uber means never thinking about the consequences of being Uber.
So why support a system that puts the underemployed at such an extreme disadvantage? It makes sense Uber customers would oppose regulation. Until something goes wrong. They just want cheap, efficient rides and a cashless payment system. But a regulated Uber and Lyft are in drivers’ best interests. After all, we are the ones with everything at stake.
Maybe I am kind of stupid.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Regulation is all about insurance and background checks. Taxi companies are required to provide adequate insurance and use Live Scan background checks to properly vet their drivers. So what’s the big deal? Uber was just valued at $40 billion. Why can’t they provide adequate insurance and fork over the cash for industry-standard background checks? They have no problem writing code that makes hailing a car as easy as touching the screen of a smart phone, but when faced with a little bureaucratic paperwork, suddenly they don’t have the resources?
It’s almost impressive how far Uber will go to avoid regulation. Shawn Marquez, the acting director of Arizona’s Department of Weights and Measures, which regulates cabs in the state, recently pointed out, “Some areas regulate how many cars you can have, their color, their year, how much the price is. In Arizona we don’t do any of that. You can have purple cars with stars and stripes as long as you have the insurance.” (Arizona continues to crack down on Uber and Lyft.)
Instead of playing by the rules, Uber just plows into cities across the world and sets up shop. They figure after getting public support for their service, they can argue they’re providing an invaluable service that consumers would suffer without. When the regulators come calling, they cry injustice and rally the legal teams. It’s a gambit that seems to be paying off. Even with several pending lawsuits, including Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, they are still operating in those cities. Las Vegas seems to be the only municipality able to fend them off. (Though Portland is trying their damnedest to rout Uber’s advance into the Rose City.)
Being Uber means never taking “no” for an answer.
Lyft, on the other hand, is pulling out of places where regulation doesn’t bode with their model. In November, when the Houston city council approved regulations for rideshare services, they shut down operations, claiming background checks, increased insurance and safety exams create an undue burden for drivers. A few weeks ago, they ceased operations in Tacoma, Washington, after the city council passed regulations there. Since most people moonlight as Lyft and Uber drivers to supplement income, they don’t have time during the day, the argument goes, when they are supposedly at regular jobs, to sit around government offices waiting to get legal. (Never mind the fact that, as these companies squeeze the taxi industry, hordes of former cabbies are moving into rideshare.)
Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death
Uber and Lyft promote convenience. For passengers and drivers. They know people are lazy. If drivers had to get their fingerprints taken, pee in a cup and spend a day or two attending a class, they wouldn’t be as likely to sign-up. Or keep driving.
Where would the so-called sharing economy be without this ease of participation? Especially for the folks providing these peer-to-peer services? Why go through the hassle of setting up your house as a legitimate bed and breakfast when you can just list empty rooms on Airbnb? Why polish a resume and apply to temp agencies when you can post your services on TaskRabbit?
For the Average Joe, the idea of using his personal car to transport drunks may seem like a fun way to earn some extra money. That it requires very little effort makes it even more appealing. Taking time out of your day to get a license in order to be legit… well, that sounds like a total drag. Nobody enjoys going to government offices like the DMV. (When will there be an app to solve that hassle?)
Uber and Lyft know prospective drivers won’t take the extra steps to become legal. In a recent article on SFGate.com, Lyft’s vice president of government relations said as much: “Most people would sign up for Lyft if they could do it standing at line in the grocery store and spend five minutes.” The entire business model of ridesharing is based on a never-ending supply of moonlighters.
Need some extra money to pay off credit cards? Drive for Uber.
Bored at home and sick of watching TV on weekend nights? Turn on the Lyft app. Look, there’s surge pricing!
To become a Lyft driver, I just ran my thumb along a slider in the app. Filled out my personal information and provided my social security number, driver’s license and the make and model of my car. It was a breeze. The only obstacle was waiting for a response. But a week later, I was giving rides and making money.
With Uber, the process was just as simple. Except I never received the Uber-issued iPhone 5 required to access their app in the mail. I had to wait in line at Uber HQ. Which was a slightly harrowing experience. But the majority of drivers get their phones and placards shipped to them. They start driving without ever once looking an Uber representative in the face.
The Uber Bait-and-Switch
This effortless process of onboarding is what pushes the ridesharing revolution. Anybody can get signed up without a hitch. But once you start driving, it’s a different story. From that point on, the experience becomes increasingly difficult.
Driving a car in a city like San Francisco is no cake-walk. When a request comes in, you have to deal with the app while negotiating traffic. You only have ten seconds to accept the ride. (Miss too many requests and you face deactivation.) Once you figure out where you’re going, you drive to the location and, invariably, wait in traffic with your hazards on for the person to saunter outside and get in the car. From there, the app tells you where the passenger wants to go and how to get there. But there’s still traffic to contend with. And along the way, you have to keep a careful eye on errant cars, belligerent cabbies and suicidal pedestrians. All the while maintaining a sunny disposition. It’s important to be accommodating to your passengers. Or risk a low rating. (If your rating gets too low, they deactivate you.)
Pro tip: When passengers ask if you like driving for Uber, always say you LOVE driving for Uber. Being Uber means not being afraid to tell a lie or two.
On the road, issues often arise that have to be dealt with, like unruly passengers, drunks, picking up the wrong person, lost items that have to be returned, physical and mental stress, low rates that keep getting lower and an unfair rating system that allows riders upset about surge pricing and app glitches to take their frustrations out on drivers.
I’ve been driving Uber and Lyft for ten months. I’m not going to make it much longer. I don’t earn enough driving for Lyft and Uber to afford to keep driving for Lyft and Uber. My car is trashed and the only way I can make the kind of money to maintain it anymore is by driving ten to twelve hours a day. Which would only rag my car out even more. And hey, isn’t that the cabbie’s life? And what rideshare is ostensibly trying to disrupt?
Hell, I’d rather be a cabbie. They have it much better. They don’t have to use their own cars. Or shell out the big bucks for car maintenance. Or provide their own insurance. Or pay a deductible if they get in a no-fault accident. They don’t have to deal with the demands of self-entitled kids accustomed to getting the world handed to them on a silver platter and expecting premium service at a cut-rate price. (I’d take the tourist trade over the start-up crowd anyday!) Cabbies actually have their own businesses in the form of repeat customers. Charm and quality service don’t pay when you’re an Uber driver. But cabbies get tips. On top of all the other indignities Uber drivers suffer, we are also denied tips! According to Uber’s official policy, “Being Uber means there is no need to tip drivers with any of our services.”
Being Uber isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not for drivers. When you think about it, sitting in the waiting room of a government agency for a few hours to ensure you’re protected from the evil machinations of a corporation bent on world domination doesn’t seem that bad. In fact, it sounds kind of like a vacation.
(Top photo taken by the author of artwork by Mansur. Second photo from a driver protest outside the Uber offices.)