[Part Four of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
Lauren: Uber and Lyft are getting sued for classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. Did you guys feel like contractors or employees when driving for these companies? Do you feel Uber’s “driver partner” designation is sort of a crock? Did you feel like Uber’s partner?
Kelly: I never felt like anything but a drone driving for Uber and Lyft. With Lyft, it was even worse because they made it out like we were all friends, but in reality, they’d deactivate a driver without hesitation over any infraction. Sometimes you mess up, and the consequence shouldn’t immediately be the end of your job – oh wait, it’s not supposed to be a job. It’s just supposed to be a paying hobby. That’s Uber and Lyft’s narrative and that’s how they’ll play it in court. They can’t be employers to drivers because they’re just giving them a way to earn a little extra money on the side. But they both offer incentives to drivers who log in more hours. After ten months of driving for Uber and Lyft and over two years of reading and writing about driving for hire, I’ll take my corruption straight, no chaser, thank you very much. Uber and Lyft are morally corrupt and hide behind the facade of innovation.
Driver 8: Wow. So you’re simply choosing one devil over the other?
Kelly: Yeah, I am choosing one devil over another because I find one less deplorable. And I have friends. Maybe it’s just the National thing. We’re like a family.
Driver 8: It’s too bad that you weren’t driving a cab in the days before Uber and Lyft, back when the taxi companies held all the cards, back when they’d put a driver out of service at the drop of a hat. Cab companies back then, like Uber and Lyft now, had no appeal system, they didn’t have to offer justification for terminating your job. And, if you really pissed them off, you could be assured they’d make certain that no other taxi company in the city would touch you – you were finished. Now, however, with the cab companies so desperate for drivers, you guys – the drivers – hold all the cards, and they’re bending over backwards to keep you happy, and coming back for more.
Kelly: Why would I worry about doing something wrong in a cab to warrant getting fired or blacklisted? If I like what I’m doing, I do it well. Otherwise I do something else.
Driver 8: I felt no more like Uber’s partner (when I drove for them), than I felt like the taxi company’s partner. I guess I just didn’t feel like either company made me feel like there was any real distinction between me and the driver next to me – it was all about bodies. Sure, because the cab company was a smaller organization, it was more personal relationship-wise. I mean, the managers at the taxi company knew my name – they knew who I was. But, at the end of the day, it was all about how many drivers they could put out on the street. If a driver got into a bad accident, the cab company would (at least) put up an envelope for drivers to contribute cash to the hospitalized driver. If an Uber driver was in the hospital, Uber would probably just send a text saying they’re missing out on big earnings by not being out there driving right now! In either case, if you do a better job than the driver next to you, it’s not like you get rewarded for it; you just avoided being penalized.
With Lyft, I do get a more personal feeling out of every interaction – sugary “fistbumps!” aside. When I’ve had an issue, like when I was assaulted, I felt like Lyft was genuinely concerned for my wellbeing. Still, that only goes so far.
To address the question about employment classification, I personally disagree with the contention that TNC drivers should be made employees. IF cab drivers aren’t employees, then neither are TNC drivers. The cab company had morepower over me: my driving schedule, the requirement to pay the gate fee even if I didn’t drive on a sick day, a specific cab assigned to me that I was required to drive, a dispatcher to obey, an operations manager to duck.
I do not wantto be Lyft’s employee. I don’t want them to have control over my hours and schedule, for one thing. I don’t want them to set my rate of pay, for another.
Kelly: Cab driving is definitely more like a real job. I have a schedule. Which is new to me. I’ve been a freelancer for over 15 years, as a personal assistant, a graphic designer and an online bookseller, among other nontraditional jobs, and the lack of stability can be frustrating and scary at times. Right now, I like the regularity of a set schedule, having to be somewhere at a particular time, after all those years setting my own schedule. While I certainly don’t feel like an employee of the cab company because they have my name down to drive on particular days, I would love to be an employee. I think that’s what we’re losing with this on-demand economy is the once lauded goal of gainful employment that provides stability and a chance to live a decent life with a regular salary and some benefits like health insurance and vacation time.
The biggest thing that sucks about cab driving, as you pointed out, is when you take the cab out, you’re on the hook for the gate no matter whether you’re able to finish your shift or not. You can’t just take the cab back and go home because you’re not feeling it. You still have to pay the gate. With Uber and Lyft, of course, you can log on and off as you wish. That has perks, but again, it can also lead to laziness.
Lauren: Driver 8, have you ever been the pink mustachioed car coming the wrong way up Fell that Kelly was complaining about?
Driver 8: No, but I intentionally drove up Ritch Street the wrong way in a taxi once, because it was faster than driving around the block. In fact, as a cab driver, I’d often drive up one-way streets in reverse, just so my cab was at least pointed in the right direction. Look, there’s no shortage of terrible drivers in this town – Lyft drivers, Uber drivers, private drivers, MUNI drivers, and taxi drivers alike. I do take fewer chances when I’m Lyft driving (since it’s my car, and because of the rating system), than I did when I was driving a taxi that didn’t belong to me.
People often complain that Lyft/Uber drivers don’t know their way around the city, but it’s still a relatively new system, and every cab driver had their first week on the job too. In fact, the last time I flew into SFO, I hopped into a taxi, and the driver had to enter the intersection I live near – a well-known intersection that any cab driver should be familiar with – into his GPS in order to get me home. After all, how many Uber and Lyft drivers are ex-cab drivers? Many, if not most, are coming from the same labor pool.
I think the biggest problem is one of simple courtesy, and awareness, which everyone seems to be lacking these days. Rather than pull to the curb, drivers of all types of vehicles are simply stopping, hitting their hazard lights, and blocking traffic lanes. As the streets become more congested, people are driving more aggressively – there’s more horn honking, and more confrontations. It’s easy to target one group, and point to them as the problem, but I don’t think that is an accurate depiction of the greater issue of San Francisco’s overburdened infrastructure.
Having said all that, I have noticed a certain “Lyft Driver Syndrome,” in which TNC drivers accept a ride, and will suddenly change lanes, stop, or turn unexpectedly, in an attempt to gain a direct route to the pickup location. As we are all increasingly guided by technology, I think this will become an increasing problem, and not one limited to Lyft and Uber drivers.
Lauren: Sounds like the phone zombies stopping in front of me on the sidewalk.
Kelly: True, when Flywheel sends you a fare you have to change directions suddenly and/or figure out where you’re going quickly while you’re in traffic. This is why I hate app-based transportation so much. It’s awkward and inefficient. Flywheel, at least, gives you cross streets when the order comes up. Like a normal dispatch call. So you know if you can handle it or not before you accept the ride. But with Uber, the order comes in and you don’t know where you’re supposed to go to pick up the passenger until you accept the ride. At least I had a hard time figuring this out because I can’t see the tiny print on the screen, which only has an address (which isn’t necessarily helpful unless you know every block number in the city) and whether the ride is an UberX or UberPool. So I understand the hesitation I see from Uber and Lyft drivers when they’re taking orders or picking up fares. They have to process a lot of information through the tiny phone. I have an iPhone 6 now, which has a bigger screen and makes it easier, but with the 4, it was torture to see the information on the phone.
Ultimately, I like the simplicity of hitting the meter and driving to the stated cross streets. I do not like using a phone while driving. Drivers who rely on GPS will always have to use GPS. It becomes a crutch. I stopped using GPS six months into driving. I learned my way around fast to avoid using the phone.
Lauren: Anything you want to ask each other?
Kelly: Driver 8, do you ever feel like a cowboy driving for Lyft? Do you get the same charge driving in San Francisco that you felt in a taxi?
Driver 8: No, I don’t feel like a cowboy anymore. Driving for Lyft/Uber is a little drone-like, to use your word. It’s passive. You just wait for the order to come, and you go pick it up. I do miss the more “active” nature of driving a taxi. It was like being a shark in a constant quest for food. But we overfished the ocean, and swimming endlessly in empty waters lacks the thrill of the old days. You’ll have to ride the range for me now.
Kelly: I like to think of myself as more of a pirate, but yeah, driving empty for hours can get old and tedious. And there will always be more Uber and Lyft drivers to fill the streets and take a larger slice of the business. I have faith that eventually things will get better though. Or maybe they’ll get worse. Either way, it’s more interesting than working at Trader Joe’s.