Tag Archives: chasing the surge

Charm Pays in a Cab: The Taxi vs. Uber/Lyft Money Post

san-francisco-taxi-cab-tip-taximeter

Originally appeared on Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website

Ok, let’s talk about the money…

There is a common misconception that being an Uber/Lyft driver is more profitable than traditional taxi drivingThe media likes to publicize reportsusually supplied by Uber and Lyft, that taxis are on the brink of becoming obsolete as these new app-based ride services continue to grow in popularity and take a larger share of the market. But if the taxi industry is really doomed, why am I making more money behind the wheel of a cab than I ever did with Uber and Lyft?

For over a year now, I’ve been driving the streets of San Francisco for hire. During that time, I saw my income go from around $800 a week (before expenses) when I first started driving for Lyft back in March of 2014 to $600 (again, before expenses) after Lyft and Uber went to war that summer and began enacting a series of price cuts. By the fall, my earnings had dropped to $500 a week (yes, before expenses).

All the while, Uber and Lyft kept sending me emails that claimed I was making more money than ever. I’m no mathematical wiz, but isn’t there a limit to how many rides a driver can even complete in a given time period? And if I’m giving more rides per hour while my expenses stay the same and, due to all the extra five-dollar rides, the wear and tear on my car increases, aren’t I really making significantly less in the long run? (Answer: yes.)

It was like being a factory worker in some dystopian nightmare where the foreman sped up the assembly line and initiated quotas. Then denied anything had changed.

“You just need to work smarter,” the company lackeys insist. “Not harder.” But how the fuck do you do that when the game is rigged against you?

uber-referral-pyramid-scheme

Eventually, it got to the point that I only drove on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes Thursdays. The rest of the time it just wasn’t worth the effort of cleaning my car, driving across the bridge from Oakland and dealing with traffic for a bunch of five-dollar rides. I felt like I was losing money. Before the price cuts and massive recruitment campaigns, I made around $150 driving for six hours on a Wednesday. Afterwards, I was lucky to clear $50. Yes, before expenses.

The only way Uber/Lyft drivers make decent money is rider referrals (AKA, the bizarro pyramid scheme) and surge pricing. Some drivers are always trying to figure out how to hornswoggle the app to generate a false surge. It’s almost comical how devoted they are to gouging passengers, like funny little cartoon villains with pink mustaches.

As Johnny Rotten said that time he was in San Francisco, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

uber-driver-surge-game

Since I’ve been driving a cab, my earnings have increased from $700 a week when I first started to $900 a week after just three months of driving forty hours a week. That’s AFTER my gate fees, gas and greasing the palms of the window guy to get a decent cab. The only other expense I have is my annual A card permit. But get this, I’m still learning how to drive a cab. Cab driving is an entirely different beast from the Uber/Lyft experience, where fares only come from one place: the apps. In a taxi, they come from a multitude of sources: street hails, dispatch calls, voucher accounts, cab stands, the airport, regular clients and yes, even apps.

I guess I did start driving smarter and not harder: I stopped driving for Uber and Lyft!

So far, I’ve learned that a successful taxi driver does not just keep warm bodies in the seats.  They get their fares to where they’re going as efficiently as possible and avoid traffic and other hazards of the road at the same time, all the while providing a pleasant customer experience along the way. I do this with aplomb. Always have. When I was a Uber/Lyft driver, I had a 4.9 rating with both. But positive ratings—even with glowing comments—weren’t going to pay my rent. Or cover my power bill. Shit, they couldn’t even support my daily cup of Philz coffee.

Now that I’ve taken my customer service skills to taxi, though, I get something much better than five star ratings: cold hard cash.

charm-pays-in-a-taxicab

Tips make up at least 30-40% of my income. It’s not unusual to get a twenty-dollar bill for a ten-dollar ride. This happens multiple times each night. Even at standard tipping rates, a seven-dollar ride is a ten-dollar ride when the deal is done. And a ten-dollar ride easily becomes a fifteen-dollar ride. Once you get into the $30-$40 range, the bare minimum of 20% bumps up fares significantly. And there’s always the chance you’ll get a big spender who drops a C note on a $25 ride. (Yes, the lead picture is real. It happened during my third week as a cab driver.)

Occasionally, there are some passengers who don’t tip at all. Foreign tourists are notorious for not understanding American tipping culture. But over the past three months, I’ve only been stiffed a few times. The most egregious case was an older guy from the Midwest who gave me a twenty-dollar bill and a dime on a $10.10 fare. Confused, I asked how much he wanted back and he replied indignantly, “Ten dollars.” It didn’t occur to me until I drove away that I should have returned the dime with a snotty comment like, “You probably need this more than me.” But that’s not my style. Although, to be honest, I wish I could be more of an asshole sometimes.

When it comes to Uber and Lyft, it doesn’t matter how well you drive, how friendly you are or how accommodating you are to passengers, there is no expectation of a tip. Since Uber doesn’t allow tipping through the app, unless somebody hands you cash—which is extremely rare—you don’t get anything beyond the price of the ride. Lyft, on the other hand, has the option to tip, but very few people actually tip. And those who do tip maybe give you a dollar or two. You certainly never get enough to cover Lyft’s 20% commission. Never.

Out of desperation, some Uber drivers have been experimenting with putting tip jars in the backseat. Or taping signs to their cars. Or starting online petitions.

uber-drivers-beg-for-tips

Without a doubt, most people who take Lyft and Uber are cheapskates. They only use these ride services because they don’t want to take the bus or pay for a real cab. (Or they just really hate taxis.) So what if they have to wait ten minutes for a driver to show up? Who cares if the driver has no clue how to get from the Mission to the Castro? It’s all about cheap rides. And if they’re using Lyft Line or Uber Pool, they’re only paying a few dollars more than the bus. Unless it surges. And then they just get in a cab.

“But my drivers tell me they’re happy all the time!” you might exclaim when confronted with the reality that Uber/Lyft drivers actually have needs too.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but they only say that because they don’t want a bad rating. Uber/Lyft drivers live in constant fear of deactivation. No matter what you tell yourself to feel better about supporting an exploitative business model, when you ride with Uber and Lyft, you are encouraging a system that takes advantage of people so desperate for money they are willing to use their personal vehicles as taxicabs. At half the price! And no tip!

tweet-uber-drivers-are-happy

When I was an Uber/Lyft driver, I joined all the Facebook groups for drivers. I’m still a member of most, although I had to unfollow them after a while because I got tired of practicing my gag reflexes as the posts showed up on my wall. I still occasionally drop in to see what’s going on in Uber/Lyft land. Not much ever changes. Ratings are always on the top of drivers’ minds. Drivers seek sympathy for low ratings and post screengrabs of the positive comments they get in an email from Lyft each week. It’s kinda pathetic.

scared-happy-lyft-drivers-bad-good-ratings

Money is the second biggest topic. And how to make it. Few seem to know what they’re doing. They just turn on the app and hope for the best. But there are some drivers who like to brag about making the big bucks. They claim to earn $1000 a week in 40 hours. This figure, of course, doesn’t factor in expenses, particularly unforeseen costs like major car repairs that not only require money but also time, during which they aren’t earning money. They also assume major insurance risks that could cost them thousands of dollars, and they deal with an unfair rating system that could end their ability to use the system. It takes just one self-entitled asshole on a power trip. And let’s not forget about Uncle Sam. He’s gonna want a cut too.

Meanwhile, a beginning taxi driver like myself who also works forty hours a week is making $900. Which is straight profit. Money in my pocket. (Minus taxes, of course… though with all that cash floating around, it’s hard to keep track of it all…) And as I get better at driving a cab, I expect my income to continue rising. Hell, baseball season just started this week. Summer is on the way. Tourists! Oh, bless the tourists and their cab-taking ways!

The way I figure it, if I can make $900 a week during the off-season, despite the alleged dominance of Uber, the future is looking bright for me in a cab. Plus, no insurance risks, no rating system and no car maintenance. And I get to use taxi lanes and cab stands, I can make left turns where it’s most strategic and I can cruise straight down Market Street like I’m a la-di-fucking-da…

So yeah… go ahead and believe the hype that Uber and Lyft are destroying the taxi industry. The propagation of lies is the only sustainable component of their business model. And they need all the suckers they can get.

uber-x-driver-on-the-skids

Advertisements

Outside Lands and The Uber/Lyft Feeding Frenzy

eccmwjlhehordtozi0m9

Before the Outside Lands festival was even over, numerous articles started popping up on sites like ValleyWag, SF Weekly and SFist about ridiculously high fares due to Uber’s surge pricing. Each night after the event let out surge pricing got up to 5 times the normal rate. Online, everybody freaked out over a couple pics of some pretty high fares. Uber was portrayed as the bad guy, ripping off decent festivalgoers that just wanted to get home.

Yeah, it’s easy to hate on Uber. And plenty of commenters lambasted the spoiled passengers who couldn’t be bothered to take public transportation. Or walk. Or ride a bike. Though if they’d seen the mobs around the bus stops on Geary, they might have held back on some of that criticism. Those poor saps weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Still, is it better to be a sucker? No. But another factor that’s being overlooked in all this brouhaha is that these high fares were not just the direct result of surge pricing. They are also a consequence of drivers coming into the city to work the event and not knowing how to navigate the streets.

I know that drivers are supposed to stick up for fellow drivers, but if fares are surging even two times the normal rate, do you want somebody behind the wheel who knows how to get you where you’re going in the most efficient, least expensive way possible or a driver who would be completely lost without Waze or Google Maps?

I don’t deny that navigation apps can be useful. But they can only help so much during major traffic jams. Even an app like Waze that updates itself in real time with user input is dependent on the users’ familiarity with the streets they are driving. You don’t need an app to tell you traffic sucks when you can just look outside your window. There are many options when driving through a city. Not just the fastest and the shortest. Experienced drivers know alternate routes and how to avoid traffic from driving the streets regularly.

I had several passengers over the weekend tell me they’d gotten the runaround from out-of-town drivers. One guy told me his previous driver didn’t even know how to get to Golden Gate Park! He tried to direct her but she insisted on using navigation, so they had to find an address that corresponded with the park. Locals know when their drivers are lost, but what about all those thousands of passengers who flew into San Francisco for Outside Lands? They had no clue where they were going and were just as disoriented as their drivers.

In the example above, a driver used the Great Hwy and Sloat to get from the Richmond to Castro/Upper Market. That driver turned a four mile ride into eleven miles. Even if they were trying to avoid traffic, there’s no reason to go that far out of your way. Personally, I’d go through Laurel Heights, Nopa or Anza Vista. I drove all over those areas during Outside Lands and the streets were not that congested. Sure, there are more stop signs on side streets. But is it better to stop and drive or stop and stop and go a few feet then stop again, over and over, all the way out of the Richmond District? Geary, Lincoln, Fulton and the other major boulevards were a sea of red lights. During an event of this caliber, avoiding the major streets and using alternate routes is a no-brainer. But, hey, if drivers are in the city just to squeeze as much out of price surging as possible, then why bother making the rides shorter?

While those drivers taking home hundreds of dollars from this event should be ashamed of themselves if those fares were jacked up due to their own ineptitude as a driver, another important part of the story left out of these articles about price surging is that these inflated fares during Outside Lands were from rides in UberBlack towncars or UberXL SUVs.

Face it: if you want to feel money, you have to pay the price.

Bukvr93IEAArwgq

But many UberX drivers saw fares in the $90 range. From what I witnessed during the event, these drivers must have been picking up passengers deep in the mess of traffic, during the highest surges. And like UberBlack and UberXL users, those passengers deserve to pay more because they know they’re requesting a car at the worst possible moment. The app tells them as much. It’s stupid for them to complain. The savvy rideshare users were the ones who walked out of the congestion, waited for the surge to go down, or just used Lyft, whose Prime Time never seemed to go past 75%.

I had one group of passengers walk towards me as I drove to their location, making it easier to pick them up without getting too caught up in the traffic near the festival entrance/exit, where the madness had to have been nuts. I have no idea what it was like there because I never ventured close enough. I’m sure it was a clusterfuck of towncars, Uber sedans and mustachioed Lyft cars. Only inexperienced and greedy drivers would attempt to participate in a feeding frenzy like that.

The Outside Lands Gambit

I don’t usually deal with the hassle of festivals in the city, but I thought I’d give Outside Lands a chance. I did Friday and Saturday. I started in the early afternoon and drove until one AM. Financially, it was the worst weekend I’ve had in a while. Even though I never once got stuck in traffic, despite circumventing other rideshare drivers maneuvering the streets like chickens with their heads cut off, the most expensive ride I gave was $37. From mid-Richmond to North Beach.

While the festival was in full-swing, there was very little business in the city. It was only when the festival let out that the requests started coming in. I was in the Richmond during the infamous 5x surge. I waited five minutes with the Uber app open, but I got no requests. I’ve adhered to a simple rule since I started driving for both platforms. If I wait longer than five minutes for a request with only one app open, I turn on the other and take the first request one I get. Seconds after turning on Lyft, I got a request. I drove to the location but nobody was there looking for me. I clicked the “arrive” notification but the app told me I wasn’t at the location. I zoomed in on the map. My GPS blue dot was on top of the passenger icon. I could not have gotten any closer to the pinged location. I clicked arrive again. Still, the app told me I wasn’t there. I started getting service problem alerts. I tried calling the passenger. The app crashed. I opened it back up and canceled the request. As soon I did, I got another request. I tried to accept it but the app kept telling me to wait. I tried to get out of driver mode but the app wouldn’t let me. Another request came in for a location on the other side of the park. There was no way I could get there in a reasonable time so I let it time out and tried to go out of driver mode again. The app still wouldn’t cooperate. So I shut off my phone, did a hard restart and left the area. Drove north, away from the park. After restarting my phone, I opened the app and a request was already coming in. On Lake and 25th. I accepted it and was able to complete the $27.00 ride.

That was about all I could take of Outside Lands for one day.

The second night, during what I thought was a 3x surge, I drove a couple from mid-Richmond to Japantown. I easily avoided traffic jams, I got them to their hotel quickly with a few suggestions for where to grab a decent breakfast in the morning. Turned out the surge was actually 1.25x and the fare was just $13.07.

I spent the rest of the night moving passengers around downtown and the Mission. I’m sure I could have made more money if I’d kept going back to the Richmond or Sunset districts, but the potential higher fares just weren’t worth the headache.

Chasing The Surge

I’ve always been ambivalent about Uber’s surge pricing and Lyft’s prime time. I get the concept of supply and demand, but I’d much rather let the passenger decide how much my service is worth during busy times with a tip. Most drivers chase the surge. There are driver groups on Facebook devoted to posting screengrabs of high-ticket fares during price surges. Posters click “like” and make comments like, “Lucky you!” or “I wish I weren’t already in bed or I’d get in my car right now!”

10378921_10202391708502677_424282169277337062_nSurge pricing forces generosity from people who would otherwise not give you a penny more than what is required. And since Uber discourages tipping, that amount is whatever comes up on the app. Surge pricing is the only time drivers get more than what the app determines. So it’s no wonder they revel in it and respond to high fares like they just won the lottery.

While Lyft at least has the option to tip in the app, Uber is sticking to the no-tip rule. They even discourage drivers from accepting cash tips when passengers offer them. There are even some drivers who follow that rule.

Regardless of what Travis Kalanick thinks is a better model for transportation, driving is a service-based task. Only assholes stiff service workers on tips. So who cares if they have to pay more—or a LOT more—when demand is high? Doesn’t the extra money make up for all the times they didn’t have to pay extra for the luxury of being driven around town, oftentimes receiving water and snacks along the way?

Perhaps, but telling riders they don’t have to tip and then forcing them to tip when it’s busy is ass backwards. Why did Uber take tipping out of the equation anyway? It’s not like we’re getting paid more than taxi drivers. You wouldn’t stiff a cab driver on a tip, so why do it to Uber and Lyft drivers?

The no-tip rule is an absurd aspect of Uber’s business model. It may seem like a good idea to the consumer during normal times, but what about when they’re looking at a $400 dollar fare? Tossing a few extra bucks to your driver doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.