From Uber/Lyft to Taxi: It’s the Cabbie’s Life for Me

sf-examiner-column-kelly-dessaint

My first column for the San Francisco Examiner

“So, why aren’t you driving for Uber?”

Heading down Post Street, I wait for the light to change at Jones and practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel along to the Slayer CD blasting from the stereo in my taxicab. It’s rush hour. Union Square is a sea of brake lights.

There’s something counterintuitive about driving into a traffic jam, but for a taxi driver, that’s where the fares are. After three months behind the wheel, I’ve become Zen with downtown traffic. I embrace the challenge of gridlock. So when the light turns green, I charge headlong into the congestion.

At Taylor, I kill the tunes and roll down my window. Listen for the whistles from hotel doormen that reverberate through the streets. I cruise slowly past the J.W.

Nothing.

At Powell, I check the cabstand in front of the St. Francis. Too long. Glance towards the Sir Francis Drake, but the faux Yeoman Warder is minding his own business.

Across the street, an arm goes up. Businessman heading to the W. Traffic is snarled as I creep towards Montgomery. But I’m getting paid to cross Market.

After dropping him off, I cruise Moscone. Another flag. This one back to Union Square. From there, a long fare to Monterey Heights. Nice enough guy. Works in finance. Insists on taking the 280, despite going so far out of the way. Whatever. His nickel.

We start chatting.

Eventually, he asks the million-dollar question: “So… why aren’t you driving for Uber?”

I tell him I did the Uber/Lyft thing for ten months before switching to taxi. He’s surprised. They always are.

“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” he asks.

Even though I get asked the same thing multiple times a night, I’m never sure how to respond. For me, there were more reasons not to drive for Uber and Lyft than to continue driving for Uber and Lyft. I wasn’t making enough money after the two start-ups went to war for market dominance and began slashing prices. After ten months, my bank account was overdrawn, my credit cards were maxed out, I was riddled with self-loathing and, due to the insurance risks, I constantly worried I’d have to declare bankruptcy if I got into an accident. My car was getting ragged out enough already. The backseat looked like I’d been transporting farm animals.

I was basically subsidizing multi-million — or, in Uber’s case, multi-billion — dollar companies. And for what? Empty promises and a sense of community?

What bullshit. I never felt like anything but an underpaid, untrained and unregulated cab driver.

From the beginning, I was appalled by the self-entitled culture that spawned the phenomenon of “ridesharing” and the consequences it’s had on the livelihoods of cab drivers. It wasn’t easy participating in the destruction of a blue-collar industry. After all, I’m a descendent of coal miners, janitors, store clerks and army grunts. In college, I was required to read The Communist Manifesto three times.

Being an Uber/Lyft driver is not in my nature. To be successful at it requires personality traits I will never possess: the ability to cheat and scam. And a complete lack of conscience.

Since the only time you make decent money is during surge pricing, you have to take pride in ripping people off. The rest of the time, you’re barely making minimum wage, so you need to be somewhat stupid as well. You’re basically running your personal car into the ground and hoping to luck out with a ride that’s more than five bucks.

Some drivers have figured out how to make the system work for them and earn more money referring drivers than they do actually driving themselves, but isn’t that just a bizarro take on the pyramid scheme?

Despite Uber’s political spin or Lyft’s cheerful advertising campaign, using your personal car as a taxi is not sustainable. Each time I got behind the wheel of my Jetta and turned on the apps, I had to overlook the absurdity of what I was doing. It never ceased to amaze me that people would be so willing to ride in some random dude’s car. But since my passengers acted as if the activity were perfectly normal, I went along with it.

Once I realized what I’d gotten myself into, I wanted to document the exploitative nature of this predatory business model. I wanted to expose the inherent risks associated with inadequate insurance, the lack of training and the vulnerability of not having anyone to contact in an emergency. I wanted to shed light on the reality of being a driver, dealing with constant fare cutsenforced jingoism and the tyranny of an unfair rating system. I wanted to reveal the lies. All the dirty lies. I started a blog and even published two zines about my experiences.

Naïvely, I thought reporting on these issues from the perspective of a driver would make a difference. I was wrong. People hold on to their faith in the corporate spirit even when it’s against their best interest. That’s what I figured out from all this.

Oh, and that I really like driving the streets of San Francisco.

So I signed up for taxi school and went pro. Now I make more money, feel more relaxed and no longer have to worry about declaring bankruptcy if I get into an accident.

But I don’t tell the guy any of this. Now that I’ve been a real taxi driver for three months, I try to deflect the Uber/Lyft question. I’m not proud to have driven for them as long as I did. In fact, I’m mostly ashamed of it.

So I say, “The way I figured it, people hate taxi drivers so much, they must be doing something right.”

I laugh. He doesn’t join me. Instead, he tells me how much he prefers Uber. From 101 interchange to the Monterey exit, he regales me with a litany of horror stories about the taxi industry before Uber and Lyft came to town. They wouldn’t take people to the Richmond or Sunset districts. The cabs smelled horrible. The drivers were rude. They wouldn’t accept credit cards. And when you called dispatch, they never showed up.

I listen to his jeremiad patiently. It’s all I can do. I’ve heard these complaints repeatedly since I started driving a car for hire in San Francisco. As much as I want to apologize for the past transgressions of taxi drivers, I can’t help but wonder why he’s in a cab in the first place. Oh, Uber must be surging like crazy.

“Honestly,” he says at one point, “I don’t take cabs because I don’t want to deal with fucking cabbies.”

I want to tell him I actually enjoy being a cab driver. That I feel more connected to The City than I ever did with Uber and Lyft. And I admire the veteran cab drivers, many of whom are longtime San Franciscans. They have the best stories. Becoming a cab driver was like joining a league of disgruntled gentlemen and surly ladies. The buccaneers of city streets. Taking people’s money for getting them where they need to go. By whatever means necessary. I want to tell him to fuck off. That he’s badmouthing my friends. I’ve met some amazing cab drivers since I started hanging around taxi yards.

But I keep my mouth shut. Drive. Do my job…

After a while, though, the guy’s vitriol gets to me. When I drop him off, I’m bummed beyond belief.

At least he gives me a decent tip. I turn the Slayer back on. Full blast. Take Portola down the hill. Should be plenty of fares in the Castro. Especially if Uber’s still surging.

This article is an amalgam of two articles that previously appeared in two very different versions. One on Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website and the other in the San Francisco Examiner.

 

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