I was a guest on Tony DuShane’s eponymous podcast/radio show, Drinks with Tony. We discuss the craft writing, how I ended up driving a taxi, my experiences with Lyft and Uber, how I landed a gig writing a column for the S.F. Examiner, the pandemic and how a little bit of success can lead to a whole lot of despair.
I think. We talked for a while, and I kinda hoping he edited a bunch of stuff out…
Anyway. Not sure what Tony was drinking, but I had a seltzer on ice.
Ah, the memories… Even if I try to forget, Facebook always reminds me of the stupid shit I did in the past… And wrote columns about…
The increasingly blurry lines of driving for hire
By Kelly Dessaint
published on Nov 6, 2015
I was a Lyft driver for Halloween.
The idea came to me at last week’s barbeque. For some reason, driving around San Francisco, picking up fares with Lyft’s iconic trade dress on my cab, seemed like an absolutely hilarious prank. Even if I just caused confusion, at the very least it would be a noteworthy social experiment.
So that Saturday, once it got dark, I fastened the fluffy pink Carstache Lyft sent me when I first signed up to the grill of National 182 and attached the Glowstache I’d received as a top-rated driver to the dash.
I created a Pandora station around The Cramps, Misfits and Ramones.
To augment my trickery, I planned to tell my passengers I didn’t know where I was going and that it was 200 percent Prime Time all night.
I figured everyone would laugh and throw piles of money at me for having such a clever costume.
On 16th Street, a girl dressed as a spider flagged me down.
“Can you take me to Geary and Fillmore, please?”
“Sorry, I’m a Lyft driver,” I said merrily. “I don’t know where that is.”
“It’s easy,” she responded in all seriousness. “I’ll direct you.”
From Japantown, I crawled down Polk Street behind a beat-up white limo. A few cab drivers looked at me like I was committing the greatest sin by “rocking the ’stache,” as they say in Lyft parlance.
Trevor, the Street Ninja, impersonating Travis Bickle, cruised past me at one point cracking up.
“I’m a Lyft driver!” I yelled out the window. “Where am I? What street is this? Are we in SoMa?”
I stuck to the more congested parts of The City, where I knew my caricature would get the most exposure. Some Lyft drivers scowled at me. Others blew their horns or flashed their high beams.
The majority of my passengers, though, didn’t seem to notice or care. They just told me where they were going, and off I drove with my mouth shut.
So much for being a friend with a cab.
After dropping off a group of revelers at Bar None, I was heading deeper into the congestion of Union Street with The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at full blast when a guy darted out of the crowd.
“You!” He pointed at my cab, laughed and jumped in the backseat.
Barreling down Gough, we talked about irony and thrash metal. When I dropped him off on Valencia, he almost took off without paying.
“Hey, I’m only pretending to be a Lyft,” I reminded him.
On my way to the Haight from the Mission with a fare, Other Larry pulled up next to me on Guerrero in Veterans 233.
“Nice fucking mustache!” he shouted.
“Look at me!” I jeered. “I’m a Lyft driver and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!”
“Does it ever get old?” the guy in the backseat asked.
“Making fun of Lyft.”
On a ride through the back roads of the Western Addition, I tried to explain to another guy the tension between the Smartphone Hailed Internet Transportation Services and cab drivers and why the Lyft mustaches on my taxi were so hilarious.
“You mean you can’t do Lyft in a cab?” he asked. “I always assumed you guys were all the same.”
Sure, the lines are blurry these days: Flywheel is an app and a taxi company; most Uber drivers are Lyft drivers and vice versa; decommissioned Yellow cabs are used as Uber-Lyft cars; Towncar drivers slap fake TCP numbers on their bumpers to access commercial lanes; out-of-town cabs come into The City all the time and pick up street hails; and now Uber-Lyft drivers are putting toplights on their Priuses.
According to a recent study from Northeastern University, the streets of San Francisco are congested with more than 10,000 vehicles for hire on average. During a holiday like Halloween, that number is considerably higher. But only taxicabs are required to follow rules and regulations. Everyone else is free to play make-believe all they want.
It doesn’t even matter if the portrayal is convincing. The general population just wants the cheapest and most convenient ride available. Who provides the actual service, whether they’re knockoffs or the real McCoy, is completely irrelevant.
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.
Due to an oversaturated market, drivers need to work long hours to make decent money. So instead of making the long commute back home, only to turn right back around, they sleep in their cars.
One morning, around 4 a.m., I’d just dropped a fare at Geary and Webster when I happened upon this scene. The Safeway parking lot was full of Uber/Lyft vehicles, many of which had sunshades or towels covering the windows.
I’ve seen this situation elsewhere, in other Safeway parking lots, as well at the rest area on 280, just outside the city. It seems that wherever there’s a place to park, there’s a place to sleep.
This was a very interesting project I participated in with a few other cab drivers. The idea, as conceived by creator Lexa Walsh, was to have people from diverging points of view get together over tea and hors d’oeuvres and talk things through.
The project gathers artists, writers, tech workers, “sharing economy” laborers (Uber and Lyft drivers, AirBnB hosts) and their critics (taxi drivers, tenants rights activists) together in a hospitable environment so each may share their positions in a safe yet open and critical dialogue. Each position will be respectfully held in the space.
Besides taxi drivers, there were supposed to be a few Uber/Lyft drivers, but she wasn’t able to find any willing to participate. So we sat around the table, drinking tea and talking about the problems we face because of the onslaught of unregulated/untrained drivers.
Some of the quotes were commemorated on plates that hung in the backroom gallery at Adobe after the talks.
Remember when UberX and Lyft were referred to as peer-to-peer transportation? Or what about Lyft’s former motto: “your friend with a car?”
When I first started driving for Lyft in February of 2014, it was all about pink mustaches and fistbumps. That’s long gone. Now it’s “rides in minutes.” Although they still refer to their drivers as being part of a community, we know that’s bullshit. Lyft has grown up. It’s no longer about competing with Uber and taxis, but also the bus, with their discounted LyftLine service.
Uber, which was never one to be confused with anything remotely associated with a community, refers to itself clearly and succinctly on their website as “on demand” transportation. Enough said.
But this rampant forms of convenience doesn’t stop with cheap rides in other people’s cars. There are the bus lines like Bauer’s, who bill themselves as “intelligent transportation.”
And there’s Chariot, the private shuttle service who uses the tagline: “Your commute, solved.” Apparently, Chariot offers riders the ability to crowd source the routes you want. And who doesn’t love crowdsourcing?
Since Driver 8 and I had so much fun discussing the pros and cons of driving Lyft and taxis at the Next:Economy conference last month, we went to Medium’s offices and did a live debate on their Backchannel site.
The hardest part of driving a cab in San Francisco is dealing with all the Uber/Lyft cars clogging the streets. I’m willing to venture at least ninety percent of these freshly minted drivers don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They double-park with reckless abandon, jamming up arterial thoroughfares and high traffic streets like Polk, Valencia and Castro. They rely on navigation to get around, which means they’re staring at their phones when they should be watching the road. They turn left off Market, take rights from left lanes and flip U-turns wherever they feel the need. They infringe on taxi lanes and stands. And when you try to correct them, they become violent.
At the front of almost any traffic clusterfuck is an Uber/Lyft car. It doesn’t matter what time of day or which part of the city, if there’s a backup of cars, chances are, an Uber/Lyft driver is to blame.
Willie Brown recently brought up the proliferation of Uber/Lyft cars in his column as he related a conversation with Dianne Feinstein:
Feinstein brought up all the “ride-share” services from buses to cars that have flooded the city, all without much of anything in the way of rules or regulations. She’s seen the numbers showing there are 4,000 to 6,000 ride-share cars operating in San Francisco, most of which seem to be tooling around in the core of the city.
It’s clear that City Hall is not paying attention to what’s happening on the streets. It doesn’t even seem to care. There are no attempts at better traffic control, no crackdowns on double-parked service cars dropping off and picking up fares.
Remember when Lyft and Uber kept telling us they were helping take cars off the road? That was one of their selling points. Along with safety, reliability and all the other claims we now know are bullshit. In the year that I’ve been driving the streets of San Francisco, I’ve seen traffic get worse each month. In fact, the Bay Area now has the second worst traffic in the country.
To further solidify this correlation, Uber just announced they have 20,000 active “partners” in the Bay Area. And while a huge majority of Uber drivers also run the Lyft app, there are plenty of Lyft drivers who don’t drive for Uber, which jacks up the number of private vehicles for hire in the region.
Sometimes it seems like every four-door sedan on the road has a U placard in their window or a glowing pink mustache on their dashboard. Or both. And yet, Uber still emails me every day, reminding me of their bonuses for referring new drivers. Lyft continues to recruit drivers as well, including a recent campaign that offered a thousand dollars to existing drivers and their friends who signed up to drive. As you can imagine, it set off a feeding frenzy that comically blew up in everybody’s face.
Since Uber and Lyft seem committed to flooding the city’s streets with even more untrained and underinsured drivers to satisfy San Franciscans unquenchable need for frictionless transportation, you can’t help but ponder the unforeseen consequences. Beyond the traffic jams. Beyond the gridlock. Beyond the pyramid schemes. Beyond the tragedy of the commons.