Ok, let’s talk about the money…
There is a common misconception that being an Uber/Lyft driver is more profitable than traditional taxi driving. The media likes to publicize reports, usually supplied by Uber and Lyft, that taxis are on the brink of becoming obsolete as these new app-based ride services continue to grow in popularity and take a larger share of the market. But if the taxi industry is really doomed, why am I making more money behind the wheel of a cab than I ever did with Uber and Lyft?
For over a year now, I’ve been driving the streets of San Francisco for hire. During that time, I saw my income go from around $800 a week (before expenses) when I first started driving for Lyft back in March of 2014 to $600 (again, before expenses) after Lyft and Uber went to war that summer and began enacting a series of price cuts. By the fall, my earnings had dropped to $500 a week (yes, before expenses).
All the while, Uber and Lyft kept sending me emails that claimed I was making more money than ever. I’m no mathematical wiz, but isn’t there a limit to how many rides a driver can even complete in a given time period? And if I’m giving more rides per hour while my expenses stay the same and, due to all the extra five-dollar rides, the wear and tear on my car increases, aren’t I really making significantly less in the long run? (Answer: yes.)
It was like being a factory worker in some dystopian nightmare where the foreman sped up the assembly line and initiated quotas. Then denied anything had changed.
Eventually, it got to the point that I only drove on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes Thursdays. The rest of the time it just wasn’t worth the effort of cleaning my car, driving across the bridge from Oakland and dealing with traffic for a bunch of five-dollar rides. I felt like I was losing money. Before the price cuts and massive recruitment campaigns, I made around $150 driving for six hours on a Wednesday. Afterwards, I was lucky to clear $50. Yes, before expenses.
The only way Uber/Lyft drivers make decent money is rider referrals (AKA, the bizarro pyramid scheme) and surge pricing. Some drivers are always trying to figure out how to hornswoggle the app to generate a false surge. It’s almost comical how devoted they are to gouging passengers, like funny little cartoon villains with pink mustaches.
As Johnny Rotten said that time he was in San Francisco, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Since I’ve been driving a cab, my earnings have increased from $700 a week when I first started to $900 a week after just three months of driving forty hours a week. That’s AFTER my gate fees, gas and greasing the palms of the window guy to get a decent cab. The only other expense I have is my annual A card permit. But get this, I’m still learning how to drive a cab. Cab driving is an entirely different beast from the Uber/Lyft experience, where fares only come from one place: the apps. In a taxi, they come from a multitude of sources: street hails, dispatch calls, voucher accounts, cab stands, the airport, regular clients and yes, even apps.
I guess I did start driving smarter and not harder: I stopped driving for Uber and Lyft!
So far, I’ve learned that a successful taxi driver does not just keep warm bodies in the seats. They get their fares to where they’re going as efficiently as possible and avoid traffic and other hazards of the road at the same time, all the while providing a pleasant customer experience along the way. I do this with aplomb. Always have. When I was a Uber/Lyft driver, I had a 4.9 rating with both. But positive ratings—even with glowing comments—weren’t going to pay my rent. Or cover my power bill. Shit, they couldn’t even support my daily cup of Philz coffee.
Now that I’ve taken my customer service skills to taxi, though, I get something much better than five star ratings: cold hard cash.
Tips make up at least 30-40% of my income. It’s not unusual to get a twenty-dollar bill for a ten-dollar ride. This happens multiple times each night. Even at standard tipping rates, a seven-dollar ride is a ten-dollar ride when the deal is done. And a ten-dollar ride easily becomes a fifteen-dollar ride. Once you get into the $30-$40 range, the bare minimum of 20% bumps up fares significantly. And there’s always the chance you’ll get a big spender who drops a C note on a $25 ride. (Yes, the lead picture is real. It happened during my third week as a cab driver.)
Occasionally, there are some passengers who don’t tip at all. Foreign tourists are notorious for not understanding American tipping culture. But over the past three months, I’ve only been stiffed a few times. The most egregious case was an older guy from the Midwest who gave me a twenty-dollar bill and a dime on a $10.10 fare. Confused, I asked how much he wanted back and he replied indignantly, “Ten dollars.” It didn’t occur to me until I drove away that I should have returned the dime with a snotty comment like, “You probably need this more than me.” But that’s not my style. Although, to be honest, I wish I could be more of an asshole sometimes.
When it comes to Uber and Lyft, it doesn’t matter how well you drive, how friendly you are or how accommodating you are to passengers, there is no expectation of a tip. Since Uber doesn’t allow tipping through the app, unless somebody hands you cash—which is extremely rare—you don’t get anything beyond the price of the ride. Lyft, on the other hand, has the option to tip, but very few people actually tip. And those who do tip maybe give you a dollar or two. You certainly never get enough to cover Lyft’s 20% commission. Never.
Out of desperation, some Uber drivers have been experimenting with putting tip jars in the backseat. Or taping signs to their cars. Or starting online petitions.
Without a doubt, most people who take Lyft and Uber are cheapskates. They only use these ride services because they don’t want to take the bus or pay for a real cab. (Or they just really hate taxis.) So what if they have to wait ten minutes for a driver to show up? Who cares if the driver has no clue how to get from the Mission to the Castro? It’s all about cheap rides. And if they’re using Lyft Line or Uber Pool, they’re only paying a few dollars more than the bus. Unless it surges. And then they just get in a cab.
“But my drivers tell me they’re happy all the time!” you might exclaim when confronted with the reality that Uber/Lyft drivers actually have needs too.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but they only say that because they don’t want a bad rating. Uber/Lyft drivers live in constant fear of deactivation. No matter what you tell yourself to feel better about supporting an exploitative business model, when you ride with Uber and Lyft, you are encouraging a system that takes advantage of people so desperate for money they are willing to use their personal vehicles as taxicabs. At half the price! And no tip!
When I was an Uber/Lyft driver, I joined all the Facebook groups for drivers. I’m still a member of most, although I had to unfollow them after a while because I got tired of practicing my gag reflexes as the posts showed up on my wall. I still occasionally drop in to see what’s going on in Uber/Lyft land. Not much ever changes. Ratings are always on the top of drivers’ minds. Drivers seek sympathy for low ratings and post screengrabs of the positive comments they get in an email from Lyft each week. It’s kinda pathetic.
Money is the second biggest topic. And how to make it. Few seem to know what they’re doing. They just turn on the app and hope for the best. But there are some drivers who like to brag about making the big bucks. They claim to earn $1000 a week in 40 hours. This figure, of course, doesn’t factor in expenses, particularly unforeseen costs like major car repairs that not only require money but also time, during which they aren’t earning money. They also assume major insurance risks that could cost them thousands of dollars, and they deal with an unfair rating system that could end their ability to use the system. It takes just one self-entitled asshole on a power trip. And let’s not forget about Uncle Sam. He’s gonna want a cut too.
Meanwhile, a beginning taxi driver like myself who also works forty hours a week is making $900. Which is straight profit. Money in my pocket. (Minus taxes, of course… though with all that cash floating around, it’s hard to keep track of it all…) And as I get better at driving a cab, I expect my income to continue rising. Hell, baseball season just started this week. Summer is on the way. Tourists! Oh, bless the tourists and their cab-taking ways!
The way I figure it, if I can make $900 a week during the off-season, despite the alleged dominance of Uber, the future is looking bright for me in a cab. Plus, no insurance risks, no rating system and no car maintenance. And I get to use taxi lanes and cab stands, I can make left turns where it’s most strategic and I can cruise straight down Market Street like I’m a la-di-fucking-da…
So yeah… go ahead and believe the hype that Uber and Lyft are destroying the taxi industry. The propagation of lies is the only sustainable component of their business model. And they need all the suckers they can get.