The Scourge of the Surge

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You can always tell when Uber and Lyft are surging: the cars bearing their trade dress begin racing through the streets and driving even more erratically than usual.

It’s all part of the process. As demand spikes and dynamic pricing kicks in, Uber/Lyft drivers are desperate to take advantage of the higher rates, as well as complete more rides to earn power bonuses and incentives.

Driving for Uber and Lyft is like playing a video game. The more rides you give, the more money you make. Obviously. But during peak times, rides are worth even more. Get enough of them and you can double your earnings.

During rush hour, though, you can only move so fast. So when last call rolls around, the empty streets provide a perfect opportunity for drivers to chase the surge. And that’s when things get out of control.


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You Can’t Go Home Again

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After circumventing the 45 bus, the red carpet on Third Street is all mine. With an eye out for any interlopers who think they’re clever enough to access the transit lane, I scope out the W. and St. Regis for potential fares. At Mission, I see an outreached arm halfway down the block. I flash my high beams and go in for the kill.

“Clay and Battery,” the guy tells me, arranging a bunch of shopping bags on the backseat. “How’s your day going?”

Right as I’m about to respond, a van careens across three lanes of traffic, cuts me off and swervs towards Stevenson.

I hit the brakes and squeeze between the van’s rear bumper and the front end of the car next to me. “Ah, you know… Same old, same old.”

“Wow, that guy almost hit you!”

“Yeah.”

The real tragedy is missing the light at Market.

“Is traffic always this bad?” he asks.

“Eh. It gets worse.”


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Breakfast of Champions

 

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Maybe it’s just my imagination. Or maybe I really do need to get my aura cleansed. 

That was Irina’s sardonic recommendation to cast away the various misfortunes that have been following me around lately like a personalized rain cloud. Or, in her more succinct evaluation: to become less of a schlimazel.

It definitely feels like the universe has been having a cosmic giggle at my expense these days.

Half the time when I order take-out, they give me the wrong food… A perfectly healthy plant only has a 50-50 chance of life expectancy under my care… Despite maintaining the same clothes sizes for over 20 years, I somehow invariably buy shirts in medium instead of large…

Why? It makes no sense.

As I sit behind the wheel of my cab, stranded on Maritime Street at West Grand and waiting for the tow truck to arrive, I can’t help but contemplate my propensity for misfortune.

After all, it was my rotten luck to end up in a taxi without a spare tire in the trunk. Road flares? Check. Lug wrench? Got it. Donut?

Uhhh… Nope.

Even worse, I’m out of cigarettes. And way too un-caffeinated to deal with this predicament.


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The Sharp-Dressed Kid Takes a Second Chance

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on December 27, 2018.

It’s a cold, blustery evening in The City. As I wait for a red light to cut me some slack, a tsunami of garbage drifts through the intersection. Competing tabloids wrestle in the street, while crimson and ocher leaves, plastic bags and stained fast food wrappers egg them on like hype men in a rap battle.

Even though the rain has finally let up, the sidewalks are vacant and most of the bars are quiet. Not much traffic either, which makes waiting so long for this light to change all the more frustrating.

“Come on, signal,” I mumble out loud. “Turn green already.”

I’m not long for this shift. With only fleeting moments of demand earlier that have since become few and far between, I don’t see much promise in the small hours ahead. Or the next few blocks, for that matter.

Should I waste my time circling through SoMa? I wonder. Or take a right and go straight to the bridge instead?

When the light turns green, I make a left.

After finding no love on Eleventh Street, I turn onto Folsom. Outside The Willows, there’s an arm in the air.


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Knowing Better than to Make Things Worse

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on December 20, 2018.

On Friday night, as the symphony and ballet are about to break simultaneously, I’m racing up Seventh Street, hoping to get a fare before there’s nothing left on Grove but a bunch of phonies standing on the curb and the usual swarm of empty cabs circling the area like sharks late to the kill.

Approaching Mission, a figure emerges from the shadows with his arm extended. I glance in the rearview. Since there are no cars directly behind me, I hit the brakes, expecting the guy to quickly jump into my cab. But he just stands there, until traffic catches up to me.

Then, out of nowhere, I’m blinded by a flash of light.

Two lanes over, a cop has his spotlight aimed at me.

“Why couldn’t you pull into that open space?” the officer yells through the window of his cruiser.

“What?” I respond, confused by the unexpected scrutiny. Despite overtly egregious infractions, the police usually ignore taxi drivers. Even if we’re in dire straits. My cab could be engulfed in flames while a deranged lunatic chases me around the wreckage, stabbing me in the neck with a rusty icepick, and the cops would just look the other way. So why single me out?

“You’re blocking traffic,” he points out.

I look over my shoulder at the dude struggling to open the backdoor. “I didn’t realize it would take him so long to get into the cab,” I yell back.

“Come on,” the cop says. “Use your head. You know better than that.”

“But I…”

Before I can defend myself, he speeds away.


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The App Is Watching You

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Wheels in the Head: Ridesharing as Monitored Performance

Ridesharing services offer on-demand rides much like taxicabs, but distinguish themselves from cabs by emphasizing the friendly, social aspect of the in-car interaction. Crucial to the ability of these companies to distinguish themselves from cabs has been the insertion of smartphones as “social interfaces” between drivers and passengers, restructuring social interaction through an allegorithm the productive co-deployment of a socially relevant allegorical script and a software-mediated algorithm). Much of the affective labor of ridesharing drivers consists in maintaining this affective framing and internalizing the logic by which their performances are monitored. In this article the writings of three ridesharing drivers will be drawn on to illustrate the ways drivers develop and evaluate their own performances as ridesharing drivers.

This scholarly article in Surveillance and Society (available as a free PDF) by Donald Nathan Anderson explores the “social interface” as part of driving for Uber and Lyft, and how the companies utilize algorithms to remotely monitor – and ultimately control – the behaviors of drivers and passengers.

The author references the first two issues of Behind the Wheel, as well as early I Drive SF blog posts, to elucidate the Uber/Lyft experience from a driver’s perspective.

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‘Tis the Season to Go Old School

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My column for the S.F. Examiner published on Dec. 13, 2018 is about avoiding the debauchery of SantaCon while transporting revelers stranded at company holiday parties in remote parts of the city …

With the holidays fast approaching, there are certain things a taxi driver can count on: Union Square will be packed with shoppers and families enjoying the festive atmosphere, which means gridlocked traffic; most of the event spaces around town will host company-sponsored Christmas parties; and thousands of revelers will don red velvet suits and wreak havoc throughout The City during SantaCon.

In years past, I’d venture into the sloshed fields to document the annual bar crawl out of journalistic responsibility. But now that there’s a toddler in my life, I deal with enough bodily fluids. So last Saturday, with SantaCon happening, I avoid the roving bands of Santas, sexy Santas, elves and reindeer altogether and focus on more profitable, and less disorderly, opportunities. Like the Facebook bash at the Palace of Fine Arts …

Normally, I wouldn’t have even thought to look for fares in the Marina, given its proximity to a plethora of SantaCon-friendly bars, had Loco not mentioned the event on the Hackers message board. And I still wouldn’t have ventured north of Broadway if I didn’t get a fare to Sacramento and Broderick. But seeing as how the Marina isn’t too much of a schlep from Laurel Heights, I follow Loco’s advice and take Divisadero to Lombard, go around the Palace of Fine Arts to Marina Boulevard and join a long procession of Ubers and Lyfts waiting to enter a quasi cattle corral that winds through a parking lot towards the front of the museum, where several hundred people are waiting for rides.

Read the rest here.