Originally appeared on Disinfo.com.
Hello Lyft, My Old Friend
It’s Wednesday afternoon. The sky is pissing rain. I’m swerving through the Marina on my way to pick up Tina, trying to avoid crater lakes and double-parkers. Turn onto Van Ness. With rush hour traffic from Lombard on my back, I pull into a driveway a few doors down from the pinned location. Tap the arrive bar on the Lyft app and tap again to confirm that I’ve actually arrived. Ian Dury comes on the stereo. While I wait for Tina, I bang my fingers against the steering wheel along to the beat.
Just as the song ends, a girl emerges from the high-rise apartment building and dashes through the downpour towards my car. I turn down the music as she jumps in the front seat.
“I tried to get as close as I could,” I say. “But this was the only driveway.”
“That’s alright.” She slides the seat all the way back with authority and props her Uggs on the dashboard.
“So we’re going to…?” I ask.
She doesn’t respond.
“Oh, right.” This is a Lyft. I’ve gotten so used to driving for Uber the past few months, I keep forgetting how the Lyft app works. Passengers generally input their address when requesting a ride. I close out another window. Expand the map screen to figure out her destination. “SoMa?”
“Okay then…” I reverse slowly, watching traffic through the windows of a parked car.
I’ve just started driving for the day. Tina is my second ride. Despite loading up on Philz coffee when I began my shift, I haven’t got my head into the game of moving folks around the congested city yet. As aggravating as it may be, I usually drive rush hour. The traffic is horrible, but at some point, surge pricing, or prime time, in Lyft parlance, usually kicks in, which is the only time you’re guaranteed to make more than the bare minimum.
I decide to follow the suggested route in the app. Although I can’t read the street names underneath the thick red lines on the map, I can tell the app wants me to go down Broadway to The Embarcadero. Not my preferred route to SoMa from Russian Hill during rush hour, but I follow the app’s advice anyway. Lyft passengers always seem to want you to follow the in-app navigation. Even if it’s the less efficient route. Whatever. It’s their $1.35 a mile.
Tina coughs and snorts. I glance in her direction. Yoga pants, hoodie, thick sweater and a scarf wrapped around her face like a fashion-conscious anarchist. She stares into her phone, which erupts with a woman’s voice enthusiastically describing how to melt butter for the quickest fudge recipe on the internet. Then she watches another step-by-step video recipe. In between videos, she snorts, coughs and hacks.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m sick.” Hacks. “Sorry.”
As I approach The Embarcadero, I immediately regret following the directions in the Lyft app. What was I thinking? Rush hour is bad enough. Throw some rain in the mix and it’s a clusterfuck. Traffic is completely gridlocked. We’re barely moving. At twenty-seven cents per minute, I’m wasting both my time and Tina’s time. With the Bay on my left, the only way out of this mess is to take a right on Washington. But I’d still have to traverse the Financial District, where the streets are no doubt backed up as well. Fuck! I should have known better than to follow the directions in the app. Had I taken Hyde, even if it were just as clogged, I’d at least have a few more options. Now that I’ve screwed myself, I can only push through until I get to Mission Street.
Besides her constant coughing, hacking and sneezing, Tina is silent as she continues to watch recipe videos, send texts, write emails and listen to her voicemail. She makes a few phone calls on speakerphone so I can hear every word of her inane conversations. Apparently, a coworker smells funny. Her roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink. A client doesn’t know how to use the print function on his MacBook.
I want to blow my brains out.
Why is this girl in the front seat anyway? Didn’t Lyft recently send out a press release telling users if they don’t want to interact with their drivers, they can just sit in the back seat? I guess she didn’t get the memo. It never ceases to amaze me how easily people will conform to the traditions of a gypsy cab service just to avoid taking the bus. Or paying a taxi fare.
Fuck, I hate Lyft. As I sit in suspended awkwardness next to Tina, feeling like we’re both going to explode from the tension, I begin to wonder if I really have reached my Uber breaking point. I thought I had, but now I’m not so sure… This isn’t the first time I’ve bailed on Uber. Except in the past, I’d do a couple Lyft rides, realize how exhausting it is pretending to give a shit about the people I drive for even less money and quickly flip-flop back to Uber. This time, though, I don’t have a choice.
As much as I’d like to say I quit driving for Uber because of their lies, the inability to protect passengers from physical and sexual assault while insisting that their background checks are superior to taxis (a claim that is being challenged by prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco), the false promises to be a kinder Uber, the threats to journalists, the disdain for the disabled, the mistreatment of drivers or the general douchebaggery of their libertarian, cut-throat business practices, Uber made it easy for me to stick to my convictions by charging me $200 for a cracked iPhone 4S.
Back when I first signed up, Uber didn’t allow drivers to use the “partner” app on our personal phones. Instead, they issued us iPhones that ran the app (and only the app). And charged us $10 a week in rental fees. Whether we drove that week or not. Eventually they released a version we could download. Most drivers quickly returned the Uber-issued phones to avoid the rental fees. I was ready to send my phone back too, but I’d accidentally cracked the screen. One night, when I got home from driving, I left the phone on the bed and somehow managed to shatter the screen between my ass and the pillow top mattress. It was mind-boggling. I mean, I’ve dropped phones on concrete before and only ended up with a few scratches. Yet this one couldn’t withstand a little pressure?
Fucking Uber and their janky ass phones!
I posted a few queries on Facebook groups for drivers and emailed Uber asking what to do about the damaged phone. But as with all emails to Uber support, the response was as vague and uninformative as the opinions of other drivers on Facebook. I didn’t know what to do: take the chance and return the useless phone or spend eighty bucks and get it fixed myself?
With those ten-dollar charges rapidly adding up, the Wife was pissed to no end. She hates Uber. She hates their entire predatory business model. She hates worrying that we’ll have to declare bankruptcy if I get into an accident. She hates their exploitation of foreigners (which is rarely, if ever, discussed in the media — journalists prefer to focus on the part-time, middle class workers of the on-demand economy). She hates the Uber passengers who scuff up the interior of our car as they drunkenly climb in and out. She hates the plastic sleeve on the windshield that holds the Uber placard. And she especially hates their crappy phones.
Whenever she saw the thing with its screen smashed into a splintered web of disappointment gathering dust on my nightstand, she reminded me, with increasing annoyance, that I shouldn’t be paying $10 a week for something I didn’t use. “Fix the damn thing or send it back already!” When the nagging got to be too much—Er, I mean, when I realized she was right, as always—I returned the phone to Uber. Cracked screen and all. Fuck it.
That weekend, disgusted by how Uber is handling the Sophia Liu case, now that the driver has been charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, I made one of my many grand declarations to never drive for Uber again. I was done! How could I affiliate myself with a company that refused to accept even a shred of responsibility for the death of a six-year-old child? With all those billions and billions, they can’t break off some for a little girl’s life? Yeah, I know it would set a precedent and they’d be on the hook for all the other misdeeds perpetrated by Uber drivers. And yeah, the guy fucked up. He wasn’t paying attention to where he was going. On those congested Tenderloin streets, you need to keep your eyes on the road. But the way an Uber spokesperson said the driver had no business even looking at his phone when the accident occurred, since he was in between fares, rubbed me the wrong way. As any Uber or Lyft driver knows, the entire process is about looking at a phone. You look at the screen for requests. You look at the heat maps to see where it’s surging. You look at the phone to make sure you’re online when you go a few minutes without a ride.
As devastating as the situation is, Uber makes it worse by doing everything they can to distance themselves from what they created: an app-based taxi service for non-professional, unregulated and underinsured drivers. It’s obvious Uber doesn’t care about anything but world domination at the expense of whatever or whoever gets in their way. Whether it be state and local laws, protesting drivers or small children. They are barely concerned with their passengers, much less the public at large. And they don’t give one iota of a shit about the drivers.
I just couldn’t be a part of their rapacious practices anymore. After putting off the inevitable for too long already, it was time to implement my exit strategy and move on to driving a taxi. As soon as I earned enough money for taxi school, I would finally be done with Lyft and Uber. Then it’s the cabbie’s life for me!
In the meantime, I started driving for Lyft again. Which wasn’t an easy sacrifice to make. At least with Uber there’s no expectation of conviviality. The Lyft experience is so pedestrian. Lyft tries to hold your hand the whole time. It’s excruciating when you know what you’re doing and just want to get the job done. That’s why Uber is killing Lyft in the ride-hail wars. They are the bridge between taxis and limos. A premium service at a cut-rate price.
With Uber, there are no illusions. Unless you’re an idiot — or believe corporate shills like The Rideshare Guy — you enter the life of an Uber driver knowing damn well you’re going to get fucked up the ass. Lyft, on the other hand, is all about a false sense of community and inclusiveness. As long as you play by their rules. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more jingoistic, flag-waving group of kool-aid drinking cheerleaders before I discovered the loyal drivers in Lyft’s Facebook driver lounges. These private groups have since been disbanded, as if John Zimmer, the CEO, happened upon them one night and, after perusing the infinite flow of asinine comments by a chorus of gossip hounds and glad-handers, murmured into the glow of his computer screen, “Exterminate the brutes.”
Lyft may portray themselves as fun and quirky and the “friendly” alternative, but they’re just like Uber. Except when they cut rates and tell drivers it’s for their own good, they never fail to mention how we’re part of a a community. Which makes their version of ass-rape so appalling.
I like my evil pure and uncut, thank you very much.
Of course, community comes in handy when you get in an accident and you’re forced to crowdsource the $2,500 deductible to get your car fixed. Cause you know, in the “sharing” economy, money if just another underutilized resource. (Seriously, search “Lyft” on GoFundMe and be prepared to feel disgusted by what “ridesharing” has wrought.)
GoFundMe might as well be a subsidiary of Lyft. Since you don’t get as many rides as you do with Uber, you don’t make as much money. Yeah, it’s great passengers can leave a tip through the app—unlike Uber, which strictly forbids tipping. But hardly anybody tips. And those who do tip maybe add a buck or two to their total. At the most. Occasionally, you get somebody who leaves more than twenty percent. But that’s rare. It’s demoralizing to receive my Lyft totals the next morning and see how little I’ve made and how much more I could have made if I got at least twenty percent in tips to offset Lyft’s twenty percent cut of my meager profits.
Each time I get into my car to drive for Lyft, I have to suspend the disbelief that it’s a viable occupation. I never feel like I’m really doing something productive. More like participating in a newfangled pyramid scheme.
Sure, there are some great moments with cool and interesting passengers, but that happens with Uber too. The majority of my passengers talk to me. I think my long hair, tattoos and glasses put people at ease. I’m chill and articulate. Everybody assumes I’m a student. I love to bullshit and discuss San Francisco history and lore. I’ve had some great conversations while driving for Uber and Lyft. Unfortunately, confabulation doesn’t translate to a living wage.
When it comes to Uber and Lyft, charm doesn’t pay. But I hope that once I get behind the wheel of a bonafide taxi, a charismatic personality will be an asset. And I can unshackle the reins of a tyrranical rating system. It’s exhausting trying to make people happy so you can get those five stars.
Based on what I’ve noticed at the Whole Foods on California, despite the strain of losing fares to these apps, taxi drivers seem more relaxed. Unlike ride-hail drivers, who always look squirrelly and overworked. Maybe all that flexibility isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. As Uber and Lyft lower their rates, claiming this tactic will lead to more rides, drivers are working harder than ever to make up the difference.
And compared to Uber, Lyft is way more labor intensive. It’s all about Lyft Line these days, the cheaper service where different passengers share the same ride going in similar directions. About seventy-five percent of my rides are Lyft Lines. Which means I’m driving more, doing more pick-ups and more drop-offs, all the while making less than if I were just giving one decent Uber ride. While Uber wants to compete with taxis, Lyft seems to be competing with the bus. It’s a race to the bottom. And drivers are rats on a sinking ship.
After a few days of doing non-stop Lyft Lines, I began to feel like a soccer mom: Pick up one passenger here. Pick up the second over there. Drop off one. Then the other. Repeat. Over and over… The process is rarely easy. The algorithms that determine who gets dropped off first don’t always make sense. And despite choosing to use Lyft Line, riders can be impatient with the procedure. I had one woman tell me when she got in my car that she was running late to catch the Caltrain. As she sweated me about it all the way to pick up the next passenger, I pointed out that she really shouldn’t be using Lyft Line when she’s in a hurry. Another night, this bossy girl insisted I pull over on Kearney and call the guy I was supposed to pick up next and ask him to walk three blocks to meet us because she didn’t want to drive into Union Square. Granted, it would have been a nightmare — this was during Christmas — but while on the phone with him, I got the sense he didn’t know his way around the city very well. Sure enough, he got lost. While we idled in a tow-away zone for twenty minutes waiting for him to find us, the girl kept saying, “Why doesn’t he just use the navigation in his phone?”
As annoying as Lyft Line is, the Lyft app is the worst aspect of driving for Lyft. I can’t believe some commenters think the Uber and Lyft apps function the same. They do not! Uber has the superior app. If there’s one thing Uber is willing to spend their billions on other than marketing and lawyers, it’s app development.
When it comes to interacting with the app, Lyft is like a needy child. You have to tap when you arrive at the pinged location, tap again to confirm you’ve arrived, tap when the passenger gets in the car, tap to find out the destination, tap once you’ve reached their destination, tap to end the ride, tap to rate the passenger, tap to go back into driver mode… Tap, tap, tap… All the while dealing with passengers and traffic. The Uber app is a little more intuitive. There’s still a lot of tapping, but the process feels simpler.
During my second week driving exclusively for Lyft, I complained about the app to a passenger who happened to work as a software engineer for Lyft. He seemed to be soliciting a critique, so I pointed out all the things I found problematic. His defensive response was typical of how most people who work at Lyft respond to criticism. If anybody wonders how Lyft manages to stay in the ride-hail game, despite Uber’s dominance, it’s their cult-like stubbornness to admit they are doing anything but the “Lord’s Work.”
Later that night, when I finally got sick of the Lyft Lines and the shitty app, I switched over to Uber. It was like putting my aching feet into a pair of worn-in slippers. I was able to see where I needed to go easily on the map, which is larger and has translucent lines over the boldly labeled streets. The passengers sit in back. Interaction is minimal and mostly respectful. Hardly anybody uses UberPool, their version of shared rides. And when people do request a ride through UberPool, nine times out of ten, they aren’t matched with another rider.
I only gave a few rides with Uber that night, including one to SFO, but the following week I didn’t get a payment summary. I went onto their website and blanched when I noticed my account was negative $168.00. I emailed support and, after five or six exchanges, was finally informed I was being charged a “deposit” on the cracked phone. Plus a few rental charges from the weeks I didn’t drive before I returned the phone.
That was the deal breaker.
At the current rates, it would take me several days to pay off the debt. All the while, shelling out what little cash I have left for gas, car washes and bridge tolls. There was just no way I could justify the expense. I kept thinking of all the things I could buy with $200. Like a couple used tires to replace my bald Michelins. Or a cheap break job before I have to fix the rotors as well. Both of which I desperately need. The squeaking is getting louder each day. And I’m one particularly sharp rock away from a blowout on the rugged streets of San Francisco. What I make from driving for Uber and Lyft, with the constantly diminishing rates, barely covers my bills, much less necessary maintenance on my car so I can keep driving for Uber and Lyft.
When the Wife found out Uber was charging me $200 for a piece of shit iPhone 4 (which goes for about $80 on eBay), she was livid. Absolutely forbade me from driving for Uber again. I swore up and down that I wasn’t that stupid. But stuck in the car on The Embarcadero during a torrential downpour with Tight-Lipped Tina sulking in my passenger seat, I have to admit the thought crossed my mind.
After a grueling fifteen minutes, I’m $3.20 richer, but no closer to her destination. I notice a few taxis go by in the far right lane. I get behind a Yellow cab like a running back following a linesman towards a first down and hope for the best. I learned long ago to always follow cab drivers. If I’m on a street and there are no taxis, I know I’m on the wrong street.
Eventually other cars get hip to the possibility of escape and we continue crawling past Market. As soon as I can, I weave into the right turn lane and head down Mission. Fight my way onto Beale Street, trying not to get stuck in the middle of the intersection. In my infinite list of grievances with Bay Area drivers, the tendency to block intersections should be a crime punishable by public flogging in Union Square. And yet, here I am, my front end past the crosswalk as the light turns yellow and the car in front of me has nowhere to go. Not to be a hypocritical asshole, I drive straight and flip a bitch in the middle of the block. Crowd my way back to the corner. After four green lights, I finally make the turn. I get into the left lane so I can bypass the freeway traffic.
In between phone calls, tweets and Facebook updates, Tina keeps coughing and hacking. As I head down a glorified alley under the Bay Bridge, she starts making groaning sounds.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I haven’t eaten today. I’m a little nauseous.”
“Sorry. I’ll try not to drive so fast.” But what can I do? I cut through Bayside Village to Brannan. Then down a side street to Townsend. I take the turns easy, but all the other cars on the road are being aggressive. A dickhead in a BMW rides my ass. I have no choice but to fight to make it through the lights. I just want to get this girl out of my car!
When I finally reach her destination and she dashes out into the drizzle, I take a deep breath. End the ride. But Lyft’s having server problems. The ride won’t close out.
Fucking Lyft! I curse the app as I keep clicking the “wait” button until the command finally goes through. Certain I’ll get a low rating from Tina, since I didn’t have the Moses-like ability to part traffic, I rate her three stars. Go back into driver mode. Instantly, I get another request. 5th and Townsend. Postmates HQ, the delivery startup that used to be in a second floor walk-up on Valencia before moving to a slick new office space across from Caltrain. As bad as it is to be an Uber or Lyft driver, from what I’ve read, driving for Postmates is worse. There seems to be no end in sight to the exploitative business models of the emerging peer-to-peer economy. Or suckers to participate in their mercenary schemes.
Tom is just as reticent as Tina. He sits up front too.
Kudos to Lyft for effectively brainwashing these kids into acting like they’re really supposed to be friends with their drivers. But they’re all just so… awkward. I wonder if they even have friends in the real world. Maybe if we were communicating through FaceTime it would be easier.
In my never-ending plight to neutralize awkward situations, I fancy myself a bit of a techie whisperer. I ease Tom into a conversation.
“My company has a deal with Lyft,” he tells me, in response to my query about whether he also uses Uber. “We get a certain amount of free rides each week.”
Lyft emailed me about this new program called Lyft for Work when it launched, in case I worked for a company that would benefit from the service. Oh sure… Like I would drive for Lyft if I had a real job to fall back on! But I guess in the so-called “sharing” economy, we’re all supposed to be rubbing each other’s backs. Only problem is, these days, I’m steady rubbing backs and there’s nobody to rub mine.
Traffic through SoMa is as bad as it was on The Embarcadero. But the rain is letting up. I weave my way over to 7th Street. Cross Market and head through the Tenderloin. Tom lives in Nob Hill. Stopped at the light on Bush and Taylor, a block and a half from his destination, I suggest he might want to walk the rest of the way.
“That’s alright,” he mumbles
Whatever. Twenty-seven cents a minute is better than nothing, I guess.
I ask Tom about the pizza place on the corner. I’ve always wondered about Uncle Vito’s. “It looks legit,” I say. “Do you order from there?”
“No,” he tells me. “They’re not on Eat24 or Postmates.”
“But the number’s right there on the window. It says, ‘For delivery call.’ You should just put it in your phone.”
“Yeah. I guess.” He makes no effort to take his phone out.
“Man, that’s the kind of place you don’t even look up on Yelp first,” I declare after a few minutes of silence.
Tom grunts. Between us, there is only a gear shifter and a center console. But the distance is wider than the San Francisco Bay.
Several green lights later, he finally says, “I think I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Might as well,” I say with a slight chuckle. “I’m not going anywhere any time soon.”
I end the ride. Fortunately, Lyft isn’t having server issues this time. And hey, I scored 25% prime time on top of the regular fare! I give Tom five stars. Now I just have to hope he doesn’t rate me low because of the added charge… or the traffic… or talking… or the weather… or for any of the other reasons Lyft passengers rate their drivers low.
I stay out of driver mode since I’m stuck in traffic. No point in trying to pick up a passenger until I can actually move.
At least the rain has let up.
For the next several green lights, parked in front of Uncle Vito’s, I watch the pie maker toss dough and bang my fingers on the steering wheel along to the Cramps. Turn up the volume and hope there’ll still be some prime time left once I get out of this traffic jam.
Top photo by the author, taken on my way to the Bart station after passing the New Taxi Driver exam. Since Uber HQ is next door to the SFMTA, I couldn’t resist a little homage to Ai Wei Wei.