As an Uber/Lyft driver, you live and die by the rating system, which is, at best, dysfunctional. We are constantly at the whim of passengers who may or may not be in their right minds when asked to select a number of stars. When it comes to the late night drunkies, we can only hope they wait until morning to finish the transaction. But in the middle of the day, somebody pissed off at the world could easily shift frustration to a driver. Bad day at work? That’s a star. Not getting along with the girlfriend/boyfriend? Another star. Lost the high score on the that new video game? Sayonara star. Boss being a jerk? One star for you!
I usually know when I’m about to get hit with a bad rating. Like this Thursday night a few weeks ago…
I pick up a guy from a burger joint in the Marina. He’s carrying a take-out bag. Drive him to Pac Heights. Nice dude. But the smell of his crappy fast food is nauseating. I love a cheap, greasy burger, except trapped inside a car the smell seems to metastasize until my head is swimming in a toxic stew. I have these Febreeze air freshener cartridges that clip onto the vents. I hit recirculate to help mask the odor.
After dropping him off, I roll down the windows. Immediately, I get another request. Drive back towards the Marina worrying about the stench lodged in my olfactory nerves like an act of shame. I’m certain my next passengers will think I’m the one who reeked up the car.
To my surprise, the pinned location is Roam, an artisan burger restaurant on Union. What luck!
Two girls get in the back. I tell the one who requested the ride, “I just picked up this guy from another burger joint and was trying to air my car out. I’m so relieved you’re at a burger place too!”
“Sorry,” she says snidely.
Uhhh… “No, it’s a good thing.”
She grunts. Obviously wasted. The stench of secondhand alcohol merges with the lingering cheap burger stink to create a noxious miasma of putridness. And it’s only 9:30! I stopped driving the late shift a month ago because I was sick of dealing with the drunkie shit show. And the subsequent hits to my rating.
“Alhambra and Pierce. Take Fillmore.”
“Alright.” I take off but hesitate before starting the ride on the app. Sometimes I wait until I’m sure the passenger is not going to be a problem. I’d rather lose a fare than risk a low rating.
During the short drive, she talks to her friend about some interpersonal bullshit that makes no sense to me. Drunken advice. The worst kind of advice. How the girl should do this and not do that. But the girl doesn’t take too kindly to the counseling. They start arguing. When I pull up to the apartment building at Alhambra and Pierce, they’re calling each other bitches.
I try to be cool and end the ride with my usual, “Have a good night.” And then, in the most sincere tone I can muster, “Take care now.”
That “take care now” is my standard closer. It’s proven to be an effective way to leave things with passengers. Especially the silent ones. My way of exuding respect and bonhomie. But I can tell from her repugnant snort that it misses its mark this time. She chases after her friend who is careening down the street.
“Where the fuck are you going, bitch?”
I get out of there fast. Wonder what I could have done differently… I know she was in a foul mood when I first interacted with her. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but how could I have known? There’s just no telling with people…
An hour later, just as I suspected, my rating goes down a hundredth of a decimal point. Yeah, not that big of a deal, but those four star ratings can really add up fast. It sucks. I performed my job without a glitch and yet I’m penalized because this girl was having a bad night?
I do a lot to keep my rating high. I clean my Jetta weekly and spot clean it the rest of the time. I use Armor-All on the leather seats. Before the price cuts, I went to a hand wash place here in Oakland. After that, I did it myself at a self-serve. Then I found a drive-thru car wash that only charges eight bucks. They have a parking area with vacuums. There are usually plenty of towncars and taxis around.
One thing I’ve learned about ridesharing is to always look for the cab drivers. They know the best spots to get gas, where to piss late at night and which streets to drive. If I’m on a street and there are no cabs, I’m on the wrong street. I have nothing but respect for cab drivers. All drivers should respect cab drivers. Just don’t drive like one. That’s not what the rideshare passenger wants. They want to feel baller. And there’s nothing baller about recklessly turning corners and laying on the horn whenever another car is going too slow.
I drive with purpose. I keep a close watch on my blind spots, errant pedestrians and speeding bicyclists. I take my corners easy. Use my lower gears to get up hills. Maintain the speed limit. Come to full and complete stops. And when faced with an idiot behind the wheel, I use my high beams. Way more annoying than a horn, I think. I flash them real fast, like strobe lights. Freaks the tourists out. Big time.
I try to be accommodating to my passengers, but I don’t open doors. I don’t give out candy or water. And I don’t try to come off as anything I am not. I wear short sleeve t-shirts that expose my tattoos. I keep my hair down. I play punk, post-punk and hard rock with the speakers faded to the front. I have a built-in iPod jack and no auxiliary port. If passengers want to listen to the radio, I’ll fiddle with the dial a little.
Although I never force an interaction, I refuse to be treated like an invisible servant. I talk to myself while I drive. I tap the steering wheel. I make comments about traffic. If passengers are chatting to each other about a topic and I feel like interjecting, I don’t hesitate to make my presence known. I may look like a stoner metalhead, but if somebody needs advice or an opinion, I’m not afraid to offer my services.
When it comes to high ratings, what matters most is how you drive. And I drive like a motherfucker. I know the streets. I know short cuts and alternate routes. I don’t rely on navigation and only use Waze if traffic is really bad or I’m going to the suburbs. Though I usually just make passengers direct me.
I keep my eyes on the road at all times. Even when my passengers talk to me. At stoplights I’ll glance in the rear view, but I’ve had full-on conversations with people I only looked in the eye when I said goodbye.
I know the city. Its history. Hot spots. I know the hotels and how to access their driveways so the valets can open the doors for my passengers. I know most of the bars and as many restaurants as I can remember with what’s left of my feeble mind. Sometimes I need my memory jogged, but that just gives me an opportunity to crack a joke about being old and feeble minded. Maybe start a conversation.
I make a point of letting my passengers know right away that I’m one of the good guys.
I accept all requests. Even if the passenger’s rating is 4.4. I believe in second chances.
I cancel requests all the time. If I don’t like where somebody wants to be picked up, I cancel. If they request again, I accept and cancel a second time. If I’m not fighting traffic, I’ll text them, “Bad pick-up location.” And then cancel. Eventually they’ll figure it out.
Rideshare passengers are not dumb. They tend to be assholes, but they’re not dumb.
The trick is maintaining authority. From the moment I start dealing with a passenger I exert control. Otherwise they walk all over you. But I also know that exerting control sometimes means letting the passenger think they are the ones in control.
I learn from my rides. I try to never make the same mistake twice.
What I don’t know I pretend to know.
Every day I figure out more about the city streets. I suggest routes to passengers. I tell them how the app wants me to go and offer an alternative. Most of the time, when asked, they tell me which way they prefer to go. Even if they give me bad directions, I go where they want. The passenger is always right. Especially when they’re wrong. The way I figure it, I’m going to be driving no matter what way we go.
I never chase the surge. And when I have a passenger who has been hit with a higher rate, I’ll end the ride a few blocks from their destination. To “offset the surge a little,” I tell them. It’s not much, but it makes the passenger feel better about being gouged.
I know which side of the street has even numbers and which side has the odd numbers. Or at least I think I do.
I know I don’t know enough.
I yield to pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists, jaywalkers, taxis, town cars, Ubers, Lyfts, buses, raccoons and suicidal pigeons. But confused tourists are fair game.
I refer to the turn by turn in the app, but I tend to deviate. The passenger can see that blue line on the screen of your iPhone. And if they’re going home or to work, every driver before me has used the same route. So I switch it up, based on what I’ve learned about the neighborhood.
My attitude is always the same: sit down, relax and leave the driving to me.
I never take the freeway unless I’m going to the airport or the southern quadrants. I stick to the streets. Particularly the brightly like ones.
When I drive a girl alone, I suggest the most illuminated direction and let her decide how she wants to get there.
I tell passengers, when they ask, that I like to drive. And I’m not lying. If they ask whether I like Uber or Lyft, I tell them, “I like driving.”
I can’t count how many times passengers have told me, “You’re the best Uber/Lyft driver I’ve ever had!”
Or, “You’re like a New York cab driver!”
Or, “I can’t believe you know where to go with just the cross streets.”
Or, they get out of my car and mention to their companions, “Now that was a five star driver.”
You get the point…
I wish I didn’t have such a high rating. It’s too much pressure. A high rating is untenable. One day I will inevitably deal with a passenger who rates me low for no particular reason. Maybe even one-stars me, sending my rating down more than a hundredth of a decimal point. And it’ll bum me out to no end. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
Until then, all I can do is keep driving like I always do.
Like a motherfucker.
Let’s be real. There’s nothing “disruptive” about taking an idea that already exists, like taxies, and figuring out how to become a cab company without owning a single car. In their current configurations, Uber and Lyft are entirely dependent on their drivers, who are currently in open revolt and quitting in disgust over the latest price cuts as Uber and Lyft fight it out to see who will win the rideshare wars. Despite constantly recruiting new drivers and offering incentives like wage guarantees and bonuses during the first month, after that initial trial run, the cold, hard reality of driving for hire in your own vehicle becomes painfully apparent.
Just like a traditional taxi company, ridesharing is built on the backs of drivers. But for full time drivers, ridesharing is becoming less and less viable. The money just doesn’t add up anymore. And the associated risks with ridesharing only make things worse.
Drivers all across the country are coming to this realization. They’re pissed beyond belief. They’ve taken to Facebook to voice their anger and organize protests, strikes, class action lawsuits and to form a union. They’ve even joined forces with the Teamsters.
The rideshare wars are getting ugly.
Not all drivers are unhappy though. There are still plenty of folks who tell the complainers to stop whining and get another job if they don’t like the way things are with Lyft and Uber. These drivers, who mostly work part time, like to point out that ridesharing is a great second job that offers them flexibility and a decent source of extra income.
I’m always amazed at this attitude, not because of its insensitivity, which is repulsive in and of itself, but it shows a complete ignorance of what ridesharing really is.
These companies are trying to destroy traditional taxi services and the only way they’re going to do that is with full time drivers who are out there twenty-four hours a day accepting requests and keeping the system online. The CEOs of Lyft and Uber know that if prospective passengers request a ride and there are no cars available, those prospective passengers will move on to another service, i.e., a taxi or the bus, and probably won’t try ridesharing again. Consumers are fickle as hell.
Ridesharing is not sustainable with part time drivers looking for something fun to do on a Saturday night.
However, at the current prices, ridesharing doesn’t really make sense for full time drivers. If you’re really going to survive as a full time rideshare driver, you’re looking at driving your car sixty hours a week. Which is no cakewalk. Not just anybody can do that. After an eight hour shift, I’m usually dead to the world and struggle to get back out there the next day.
But there are drivers who do sixty hours a week. Or more. And that’s what makes ridesharing sustainable: the drivers who bust their ass and run their cars into the ground.
Of course, the media only ever seems to focus on the retirees and students looking to make some extra bucks and get out of the house. Because it looks good. It puts a positive spin on ridesharing. But full time drivers and anybody who’s trying to make a decent wage driving a car know what the real cost of ridesharing is. We face serious risks with insurance gaps, troublesome passengers, potential health problems, damage to our vehicles and the financial hardships of constant repair and maintenance, we are denied tips and, with the rating system, we don’t even have job security.
So why keep driving for Uber?
If I’m making less and less money each month while I continue to rack up miles and wear and tear on my car, which isn’t even paid for yet, why do I continue?
Well, I like driving. And I enjoy dealing with people. Sure, there are a lot of stinkers who get in my car and treat me like a servant. The drunks are particularly annoying. But I’ve had some amazing interactions with folks and, after awhile, it gets addictive. You never know who’s going to get into your car.
Still, that’s not going to pay my bills. I can satisfy this need for human interaction in many different ways.
No, the real reason that I keep driving for Uber is because I feel stuck. I’m broke as shit and I’m not sure yet how to get out of the financial hole I’ve gotten myself into. I have an enormous amount of debt. Yes, I could quit driving and get a job at Trader Joe’s. But I can’t wait two to three weeks for a paycheck. I’ll be homeless by then.
Plus, I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I bought into the promise of ridesharing. It’s my own damn fault I didn’t get while the getting was good.
I started driving for Lyft and Uber in March 2014, after I lost my job working in print media. Since nobody really needs editors and layout designers anymore, it’s been difficult to find gainful employment. Especially in San Francisco, where everything evolves around apps and the development, marketing and selling of apps.
So I’ve been doing whatever I can to make a buck: selling stuff on eBay, looking for freelance work, hawking my self-published zines and using my car to drive for Lyft and Uber.
At first, I made decent money with ridesharing. I could drive thirty hours a week and make enough to survive. But then Lyft lowered their rates. Then Uber lowered their rates. Then they both lowered the rates some more. And then some more. They are literally nickel-and-diming their drivers in their attempt to dominate the ridesharing market. Because at the end of the day, these arrogant assholes have to be the top dog. Like evil scientists overcompensating for being such nerds, their ambitions seem to know no bounds.
It’s a goddamn shame. Passengers weren’t even complaining about the prices. They were happy to have a better service.
Now it seems like Lyft and Uber are not just competing with each other but with the bus as well. It costs $2.25 to ride the Muni. A minimum fare for take a car is five dollars. So why not request an Uber for a few bucks more when you don’t feel like walking a couple blocks?
It’s dehumanizing to pick somebody up and be told, “Oh, I’m not going far.” Like that’s a good thing. Occasionally, a passenger will apologize for requesting a car to go a short distance, but saying sorry doesn’t ameliorate the crushing blow of ending the ride at their destination and seeing that $5.21 on the screen of my cracked iPhone. Of which I only see eighty percent, obviously, before factoring in gas and taxes, at the very least.
This has become the reality of ridesharing: slave wages.
And the problem with slave wages is that you can easily wind up in a vicious cycle of poverty.
Each week it gets more and more difficult to climb out of that hole.
So yeah… I keep driving for Uber because I’m hoping eventually I’ll make enough money to take a breath and figure out how to get myself out of this mess. But that day has yet to come. And as the prices keep going down, it may never come and I’ll just continue sinking deeper into poverty.
I should probably start playing the lottery. I’d certainly have better odds.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on my blogger site.
For more nitty gritty details on my time as an Uber/Lyft driver, check out my blog Behind the Wheel.
These days, I write about my life as a bonafide cab driver for the San Francisco Examiner.
Follow me on twitter.
I also do zines about driving for Uber and Lyft.
A Modest Proposal
Last night, I had dinner with a friend and her sister, whom I’d never met before. The topic of Uber came up when I mentioned I drive for Lyft and Uber. My friend’s sister said she really likes taking Uber. She’s a performance artist and often needs to get around the city at night. Before Uber, she was regularly stranded by cabs, which would invariably pick up a street hail on the way to her location, leaving her in the lurch and forced to seek other options. With Uber, she’s never had this problem. She just requests a ride and the car shows up.
Awesome. The only problem is, well… Uber. And the way they’re treating drivers. As I mentioned to her the struggles drivers face when dealing with the lowered fares, the lack of tips and the general unpleasantness of Uber as a company, I began to feel like a dick. There I was, shitting on something that fulfilled a need in her life both personally and professionally. Without Uber, she, like a lot of people in the city, would once again be at a disadvantage. It seems the only thing everybody can agree on when it comes to this new trend in transportation is that cabs suck.
This got me thinking… If I owned a business that made a product people loved — one they loved so much they would be disappointed not to have anymore — why would I lower the price? I’m not business-minded in the least, but it just stands to reason that if somebody really wants your product, you could charge whatever price you wanted for it. So why is Uber continuously lowering fares?
Then it hit me. Fucking Lyft. Lyft is the problem. After all, they are the ones who crafted this insidious brand of transportation, dubbed by the state of California as TNC, or as it’s commonly referred to: “ridesharing,” “ride-hailing,” or “e-hailing.” At some point, maybe everybody will agree on a term before it dissipates in a cloud of litigation. But this idea of regular folks driving other regular folks in their own regular cars for money appealed to Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO, so much that he ran with it and created UberX, a pimped out version of ridehsaring without the fuzzy mustaches, the fist bumps or the false sense of community. What Lyft created, Uber perfected and refined. And then charged a rate that was significantly less.
Instead of remaining true to their vision of community and friendship, or focusing on providing a premium experience at a reasonable price that benefited both the consumer and the driver, Lyft took the bait. They had to have heard the rumors that Kalanick isn’t somebody to be trifled with. And yet, Lyft, the quirky kid with bad acne, thick glasses and a pepertual cowlick, walked across the playground and challenged the biggest bully in school by lowering their rates too.
It’s not much a shock that Lyft ended up getting pummeled in the rideshare wars. It’s almost embarrassing how badly Lyft is still losing this David and Goliath showdown. But you can’t feel too badly for them. They asked for it. Unfortunately, the drivers on both platforms are suffering because of Lyft’s feeble attempt to seize more of the rideshare market.
The price wars have been going on for a while. It’s hard to imagine a time when the minimum fare for an UberX ride was $10. But back in 2013, that what the going rate for a ride. Nowadays, in San Francisco, it’s $5. In LA, it’s $4. That’s highway robbery at its very essence. Not to mention how drivers face serious risks with insurance gaps, troublesome passengers, potential health problems, damage to our vehicles and the financial hardships of constant repair and maintenance. On top of all that, with the rating system, we don’t even have job security. Any passenger on a power trip could easily have us deactivated.
I started driving for Lyft in March of 2014. I made decent money. A few months later, to combat Uber’s growing domination of the rideshare market with UberX, Lyft lowered their fares and stopped taking a commission. The price cut was supposed to be a test, like their Happy Hour promotion, where rides where cheaper when demand was lower. Except, around the time they planned to return to the original rates, Uber lowered their rates, forcing Lyft to make their temporary price cut permanent and start collecting commission again, pissing off all but their most loyal drivers.
The Rideshare Wars of 2014
In their calculated, underhanded assault on Lyft, Uber shows no restraint. They even announced UberPool, a carpooling feature that wasn’t active, the day before Lyft announced their own carpooling service, LyftLine, which was ready to launch, effectively stealing their thunder.
Even without public support, Uber is racking up victories. A month ago, when Uber’s Operation Slog was exposed, everybody felt bad for Lyft. But then Lyft lowered prices again and drivers started burning their mustaches.
Before this happened, Uber had started poaching Lyft drivers. I was one. I joined Uber during their $500 sign-up bonus. $500 to take one ride? Where do I sign?! The gimmick was that newly recruited drivers would see how much better Uber was compared to Lyft and switch sides. It worked. As a regular Lyft driver, I was blown away by how much more business I got from driving for Uber. (Lyft tried to get Uber drivers to switch sides, or double down, by making a counteroffer of $500 plus a taco, but just came off looking silly, as usual.)
These are the kinds of tactics that show who is really in charge when it comes to ridesharing: Uber. They may have stolen the idea of ridesharing from Lyft, but at this point, they can easily sell the idea back to Lyft and make a healthy profit. That’s how stupid all this has become. It’s like a Monty Python skit gone awry.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think Uber, with Kalanick at the helm, is an evil, unscrupulous company along the lines of Wal-Mart or Halliburton. Fuck Uber! Seriously, Kalanick comes across as an antisocial, libertarian scumbag who’d stab his own mother in the back to get ahead. He probably has a cum-stained paperback of The Fountainhead under his pillow that he strokes gently as he falls asleep at night. But he’s not stupid. He knows how to run a business. Even if it is at the expense of workers.
Lyft, on the other hand, has yet to display any business acumen. Their entire platform lends itself to mockery.
Look at their signature branding: the pink mustache. While it’s proven to be an effective symbol to get attention, it’s so ugly and goofy and alienating and … shit, the list goes on and on. Most people don’t like the stupid thing and very few drivers have them on their cars anymore. Lyft, realizing this, developed what they call a “cuddlestache,” a smaller version that goes on the dash instead of the grill. But from a distance, it just looks like a pink turd. Another Lyft fail! [UPDATE: Lyft is ditching the ‘stache.]
Where Lyft supposedly excels is through creating a sense of community. I prefer the social aspect of driving for Lyft. It makes for better stories. Driving is more fun when you are free to chat with the passengers. The time goes by so much faster. And Lyft encourages tipping, which is awesome. Uber tells their users the tip is included in the fare. (It’s not.) But the whole “Cult of Lyft” mindset is a niche market at best. In order to fall for it, you have to drink the Kool-Aid. Lyft fanatics are a brutal lot of mustache-waving zealots who will try to stifle any dissent in order to protect the brand. Still, there’s no way they can corner the entire rideshare market based on jingoism alone. In fact, I’m willing to venture that the community aspect hurts Lyft more that it helps. Some people just want to get from point A to point B without making a friend along the way.
Nevertheless, there are folks to whom Lyft’s transportation model is appealing and Lyft needs to cultivate those users. Not the market as a whole. They will never be able to compete with Uber, financially or logistically. Lyft is fighting with a ruthless bully. Their only move at this point is to beg for mercy. Even their cries of “that’s not fair” have fallen on deaf ears. If this were a schoolyard fight, we’d all be standing there with out arms folded going, “Dude, you asked for it.”
Yeah, I know, Uber started the price wars, but that doesn’t even matter anymore. Even if Lyft were out of the picture, it’s not likely the prices go back to what they were at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t even matter that, except for surge pricing, passengers weren’t complaining about the prices before the price war started. What’s done is done. At this point, Uber could charge as much as cabs and still be profitable and control the market.
The Writing on the Wall
Oh sure, there are plenty of problems with ridesharing. Killing Lyft might not fix them all, but the only way to end the price wars is for Lyft to be better than Uber. Or die.
I’m not the only rideshare blogger who’s come to the conclusion that Lyft isn’t going to win. They are perpetuating the price wars in a futile attempt to compete with Uber and yet they’ve lost each battle.
Somebody needs to put a stop to the price wars. Despite what their computers tell them, raising prices would benefit the company and improve the rideshare experience for passengers.
Of course, if Uber and Lyft did raise the prices, the users who take advantage of the five-dollar rides would drop off. And while those short rides are fine for a computer to just add to the ultimate tally, earning those five-dollar rides as a driver is no easy task. The five-dollar rides need to end anyway. The minimum fare for an on-demand ride should be ten dollars. If you can’t afford ten bucks to get from one neighborhood to another, you really shouldn’t be using an on-demand car service. Take the fucking bus like normal people. Why waste an Uber driver’s time by having them spend several minutes driving to you just to take you a few blocks? That’s plain lazy and a waste of everybody’s time. What makes you so special?
It’s time for passengers who want quality transportation options provided by drivers paid a fair wage to expect more than a race to the bottom.
As a driver, the end of Lyft cannot come soon enough. There are very few drivers who are even loyal to Lyft anymore. Lyft is the losing team. All roads lead to Uber. Whether we like it or not, they are going to win the rideshare wars. Anybody who can’t see that is obviously drinking too much Lyft Kool-Aid.
FOLLOW UP: Should We Really Kill Lyft?