I’ve started collecting all my articles about driving for hire in San Francisco on Medium.
This is the Caltrain cab stand at 4th and Townsend. I start most of my shifts here. While I wait for the 5:05 train from the peninsula to arrive, I get my shit situated, log in to my Flywheel phone, pick the Slayer CD I want to listen to that day and make sure my seat is adjusted comfortably. When the train whistle sounds, a crowd pours out of the station and all the taxis fill up and speed away. My heart always races when I get to the front of the line, hoping I get a decent fare. Cabs outside a train station makes so much sense that it’s hard to believe the MTA took half of it away this week. Taxis used to have the entire stand, including a cut-out space close to the station entrance, where passengers can easily access the cabs. But this Wednesday, when I arrived at the Caltrain cab stand, there was a Bay Area Bike Share rack in the front of the stand. Originally, the bike rack was on the sidewalk, right next to the station. There was no notice of the change to the cab drivers. At first, the cabs waited at the front of the bike rack, but later, the cabs were pushed back twenty feet. Almost immediately, Lyft and Uber cars began to pull into the area to unload their passengers. I’m all for a more bike-friendly San Francisco, but if the intention of the city is to encourage bike-sharing programs (which aren’t cheap, btw), why put the bike rack in the midst of so much vehicular activity? Wouldn’t this be more dangerous for the bicyclists trying to park the bikes?
Also, why was there a Lyft party going on across the street that day? That night, back at the cab yard, this notice was posted by the cashier window: The cab stand was already crowded, with numerous tech company shuttles and the Megabus using the area to drop off passengers as Caltrain. It’s outrageous that the MTA would give up what’s left of the cab stand to private companies like Lyft and Motivate, the company that runs the Bike Share program. But not very surprising.
As if to shade the deal in misinformation, there is this notice on the Bay Area Bike Share website. The stated reason for the “permanent” move is to avoid construction.
And the mystery of why Lyft was having a party across the street from Caltrain that day was solved by this graphic: As part of Lyft’s constant efforts to compete with the Muni, they’re offering $3 Lyft Line rides that originate at Caltrain.
And that’s how San Francisco treats its taxi drivers.
As the tech dystopia continues to unfold in the Bay Area, the day will come when the only way to get around this city other than on foot is with a credit card and/or smart phone, surrendering all your personal information and activity to a corporate third party in the process.
Google street view of the original cab stand (the first bike rack is visible next to trees):
During the recent hostage crisis in Sydney, due to increased demand, Uber’s surge pricing took effect. Understandably, people wanted to get the hell out of dodge. Fast! Since then, there have been a slew of articles lambasting Uber’s “dynamic pricing” model. Surge pricing, especially during a terrorist threat, always rubs the public the wrong way. And yet, various writers have come to Uber’s defense, arguing that surge pricing is simply an example of supply and demand.
The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi wrote:
“Uber does not have a responsibility to care about you. Uber is not a government entity, and it is not beholden to the general carless public during an unwelcome drizzle of rain or even a time of great distress.”
Matthew Feeney, with the Cato Institute, the Koch-founded libertarian think tank, wrote on their blog:
“What is great about a pricing system like Uber’s surge pricing is that it allows users who want an Uber ride the most to have it. Prices are a great way of communicating customer preferences.”
Fair enough. In Econ 101, you learn all about supply and demand. On paper, surge pricing makes total sense. But corporate boosters like Feeney are missing some major factors that obviously aren’t apparent from the exalted view of an ivory tower. Namely, Uber isn’t a $40 billion company because it’s the Grey Poupon of urban transportation. Not only do they hope to take the place of traditional taxi service, Uber wants to replace car ownership altogether. How can they do that with part-time drivers whose only incentive to drive is the opportunity to gouge people desperate enough to pay whatever it takes to get home?
The fact is, Uber drivers don’t make shit during regular, non-surge, times. I’ve been driving for Uber long enough to remember when ridesharing was somewhat profitable. Over the course of a year, in order to corner the rideshare market, Uber has maintained a protracted price war with Lyft, Sidecar and even, it would seem, the city bus. Since then, the constant price cuts have made it nearly impossible to earn a decent living as a rideshare driver. Prior to the price wars, I made $800 to $1000 a week driving thirty to thirty-five hours. (Before expenses like gas, tolls, car washes, maintenance, etc.) Now, driving for the same amount of time, it’s more like $400 or $500. If I’m lucky. (Again, before expenses.)
As an Uber driver, you learn quickly that it doesn’t pay to pick up passengers unless prices are surging. There are blogs and even driving coaches who offer to help new drivers figure out the best driving strategies. They all say the same thing: wait for the surge.
Surge pricing is so ingrained into the Uber culture, they are even trying to patent it!
Chasing the Surge
In online forums for drivers, trying to figure out when prices will surge is a regular topic of discussion. So far, the only proven method to ensure getting a ride during a surge is to stay offline and monitor the rider app. Once a part of town lights up, you race there in hopes of getting a higher fare. This is called “chasing the surge.”
Most drivers chase the surge. On Facebook groups, drivers like to post screengrabs of high-ticket fares during price surges. Members click “like” and make comments such as, “Lucky you!” or “I wish I weren’t already in bed or I’d get in my car right now!”
Since surge pricing forces generosity from people who would otherwise not give you a penny more than what the app determines, it’s no wonder drivers revel in it and respond to high fares like they just won the lottery.
By continuing to lower rates, Uber knows the only way drivers can make money is during a surge. When demand is expected to be high or when it spikes, Uber encourages drivers to get behind the wheel by sending texts like this:
The same thing happens during music festivals, sporting events, inclement weather or just a busy Saturday night:
You can’t help but wonder if Sydney drivers received similar texts. “Siege downtown! Expect high demand! Don’t forget to give promo codes to the desperate suckers at bus stops. You’ll make an extra $5!”
From all the comments I’ve seen, most drivers don’t care if passengers have to pay more—or a LOT more—when demand is high. The extra money makes up for all the times people didn’t have to pay much for the luxury of being driven around town, oftentimes receiving water and snacks along the way.
I’ve always been ambivalent about Uber’s surge pricing model. Personally, I’d much rather let the passenger decide how much my service is worth during busier times with a tip. However, despite the extremely vocal complaints of drivers, including protests outside Uber’s offices across the country, Uber will most likely never add a tip option to the app. In fact, this December, Uber added an option for passengers to include a donation to the No Kid Hungry campaign. It was all set up through the app. No disrespect to the No Kid Hungry organization, but if Uber can easily add a feature like this, they could just as easily include a tip option. But they won’t do it because, as they have made it clear over and over, “Being Uber means there is no need to tip drivers with any of our services.”
Regardless of what Uber CEO Travis Kalanick thinks is a better model for transportation, driving is a service-based task. While passengers seem happy to go along with this no-tipping rule, I don’t imagine they would be as comfortable stiffing a bartender or food server on a tip. So why do it to rideshare drivers? It’s not like we’re making more than minimum wage. Unless, of course, the prices are surging.
Why can’t Uber just raise the fares, or lower their cut, and create an incentive for drivers to work all the time? Wouldn’t the supply and demand concept work then as well? On slow nights, when demand is low, most drivers would log out and the diehards would keep driving, thereby leveling out supply.
I may not have an advanced degree in economics, but I know that Uber’s business model is not just unfair to drivers, it’s unfair to riders as well. At some point, most people will realize they’re being exploited. Telling passengers they don’t have to tip their driver and then forcing them to pay more when it’s busy is a seesaw battle of extortion: I screw you when I can and you screw me when you can.
The no-tip aspect may seem like a good idea to the consumer during normal times, but what about when they’re looking at a $100 dollar fare to go a few miles? Suddenly, tossing a few extra bucks to your driver doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.
From the trenches of San Francisco’s sharing economy: another rideshare confessional zine
Behind the Wheel 2 includes more insight into the day-to-day travails of a rideshare driver in San Francisco, more stories about driving drunks, switching from Lyft to Uber, a visit to Uber HQ, self-entitled douchebags, talk of gentrification and displacement, the tech boom, public debauchery, emotional breakdowns, police activity and the constant threat of pukers.
56pp. | Wraparound cover | Illustrated | Staple bound | $5.00 postpaid
(For PayPal, click here.)
Bookstores in San Francisco that carry Behind the Wheel:
Adobe Bookshop 3130 24th St
Alley Cat Books 3036 24th St
Bound Together 1369 Haight St
City Lights 261 Columbus Ave
Dog Eared Books 900 Valencia St
Modern Times 2919 24th St
Needles & Pens 1173 Valencia St
Press 3108 24th St
Table of Contents:
To Uber or Not to Uber
A Day in the Life of a Rideshare Driver (PDF)
The Wrong Bush and Mason
Gun on the Street
The Polk Gulch Vortex
Another Wasted Night
The Leather Man
A zine (/ˈziːn/ zeen; an abbreviation of fanzine, or magazine) is most commonly a small circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier. — via Wikipedia
Behind the Wheel 2 debuted at the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest:
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.
Friends with Benefits
Uber must think Lyft drivers are all BFFs. It’s an understandable assumption, seeing as how Lyft promotes their brand of ridesharing as a community where drivers and passengers fistbump their way to everlasting friendship. Every day I get texts and emails from Uber telling me to bring my Lyft friends down to the office on Vermont street so they can sign up to drive for Uber. As always, it seems, they’re offering a $500 sign-up bonus and a $500 referral bonus. Plus lunch. And, as an added incentive, during the first month, new drivers are guaranteed to make either forty bucks an hour or $1000 a week, depending on the market.
If I had any Lyft friends, I’d tell them to take the money and run. $500 is a nice chunk of change. And I’ve seen the meals they give out at the Uber office. You get a sandwich, a bag of chips, some pasta salad and a soda. Not a bad spread. But alas, I have no friends in the Lyft “community.” I was removed from the Pacific Driver Lounge, Lyft’s official Facebook group for drivers, months ago for writing a blog post called The Cult of Lyft that poked fun of the jingoistic tendencies of the Lyft faithful. After that, I got kicked out of a group set up by Lyft drivers in the Bay Area. And then some Lyfters on a group for Uber Drivers had me kicked out of there. I guess what they say is true: “I am the most hated person in the world of Lyft.”
I’m actually surprised Lyft hasn’t deactivated me yet. I guess they’re afraid I’d make too much a stink if they sent me packing. Not that I’d be upset about it or anything. If you want to be part of the Lyft community, you need to drink a lot of Kool-Aid. Otherwise, you’re not welcome. And I’ve never felt welcome.
Still, it’s too bad I don’t know any Lyfters who aren’t already driving for Uber. I could definitely use the $500 referral bonus. After seven months of driving mostly fulltime for Lyft and Uber, I’m broke as hell. My credit cards are all maxed out, my bank account is overdrawn, I have a painful toothache I can’t afford to fix and the Wife’s always pissed cause I’m out driving late every weekend. As it is, I figure I have about two months until my car needs new brakes and tires. And when that day comes, my rideshare days are over. I just don’t make enough from driving for Uber and Lyft to afford to fix my car so I can keep driving for Uber and Lyft.
Now, I know it’s my own damn fault. I bought into the empty promise of ridesharing as an alternative source of income with a good amount of freedom. The ability to set your own hours can’t be overestimated for a creative type like myself. In fact, on Uber’s sign-up page, there are numerous quotes from drivers extolling the greatness of Uber because you can be your own boss. And who doesn’t want to be their own boss? I know I do. That’s one of the reasons I signed up in the first place. I was in between jobs and had an underutilized car. But as the harsh realities of being a rideshare driver became clearer, I should have moved on before the price wars went nuclear. Because all that freedom they talk about doesn’t come cheap.
Uber and Lyft have always been desperate for new drivers. But these days, they need them more than ever. As ridesharing becomes more popular, drivers will be quitting due to expensive car repairs or getting into accidents and not being able to afford the $2,500 deductible from the insurance companies that Uber and Lyft rely on to keep us safe. Or they’ll just bail after coming to the inevitable conclusion that ridesharing is not sustainable as anything more than a part-time gig.
The Long Con
In its current configuration, ridesharing, à la Uber and Lyft, is a conveyor belt to oblivion. Their goal is to take down “Big Taxi” with an endless stream of drivers using their personal cars as unregulated cabs. Uber and Lyft like to portray cab companies as monopolies that are bad for the public. They claim that government regulation will strangle innovation. But it’s all a smokescreen to disguise their true motives: replacing cab companies and their fleets of cars with tech start-ups who con regular folks into thinking they’re part of some “disruption” of a failed transportation system. And then rake in the cash.
Hey, it’s the American way!
You can’t blame Uber and Lyft for their eagerness to exploit the underemployed. It’s an effective business model that’s benefited countless fast-food joints and made the Walton family filthy rich. Low paid workers cycle through crap jobs all the time without much concern from the general public. But it’s one thing to have a stoned, pimply kid flip your burgers or ring up your discounted housewares. It’s quite another to trust them to transport you and your loved ones through city traffic in their own car for a few dollars. Chances are, they don’t even know how to get around the city without a navigation system. And even background checks can’t prevent bad seeds from easily finding their way onto the platform.
Not that it matters. Rideshare users, the very people who should be alarmed by these safety concerns, are absolutely clueless. They pay next to nothing for a ride and expect to be treated like royalty. Uber tells them they don’t need to tip and they accept that lie without hesitation. They just want the convenience and they want it for the lowest possible price. They blindly go along with the exploitative model of the gig economy without a second thought.
Unlike flipping burgers or running a register, though, Uber and Lyft drivers are supposed to perform a luxury service that’s superior to cabs. Despite getting paid less than cab drivers. Uber and Lyft are able to keep lowing the rates, of course, because they don’t have to own or maintain a single vehicle. They pass that discount onto to the drivers by forcing us to work for less and less each month.
I would much rather drive a cab. At least taxi drivers who lease their cars from a company don’t have to pay to fix them. If something goes wrong with their vehicle, they get a new one. A rideshare driver, on the other hand, shoulders all the risk and responsibility for their cars, as well as insurance and their health. We are subsidizing the entire industry so people can have an alternative to cabs. And what do we get in return? A few lousy bucks and a four-star rating at best.
As more drivers eventually realize they’re being exploited, Uber and Lyft will have to recruit new drivers to replace the ones who wise up. And these new drivers might make it a month or two before wandering off to another dead-end job. Some post comments in Facebook groups as they leave. But very few drivers will ever make a stink about how unfair the rideshare system is for drivers. Because the underemployed are used to being exploited.
Meet the new boss (and no, he’s not the same as the old boss)
I’ve had countless shitty jobs in my life. And each one came with a shitty boss. If I had ever had a boss that hired me at, say, $25 an hour and then a month later told me they were now going to pay me $15 an hour, I would tell that boss to fuck the fucking fuck off. Who wouldn’t, right? And yet, as a rideshare driver, I went along with a thirty percent pay cut. It happened so suddenly, I didn’t know how to react. And I didn’t feel like I had much a choice. Jobs don’t grow on job trees anymore. Those drivers who did have options dropped off like flies. The rest of us plodded along at the reduced wage. And then Uber and Lyft lowered the rates again. Sure, they claim that the new rates increase rides. But I was plenty busy before the price cuts. And I can only do so many rides an hour. Especially when passengers make me wait ten minutes to come outside or input the wrong location and I have to drive around looking for them. Then there’s traffic, unforeseen circumstances, driving to far off locations where you’re not likely to get a ride… the list goes on and on. It’s another lie. But we go along with it because we’re desperate. Or stupid. I don’t know which. Maybe both? (Of course, there are still Lyfters who are loyal to the brand. Bless their hearts.)
So how is not having a boss working out for us? Personally, I’d rather have the old boss. I don’t like the new boss. It’s like having a girlfriend or boyfriend who doesn’t want to put a “label” on things. You kind of suspect they’re two-timing you, but they’re just so cute. You can’t meet their friends. They always come to your house. Eat your food. Hog the comforter at night. And you can’t call them anytime you want. Oh, no. You have to wait for them to call you. And if you ever say, Hey, I need a commitment, they give you a million reasons why this relationship works best for YOU. And it sounds so convincing and you begin to think that maybe they do have your best interests at heart. They’re trying to protect you. So you go along with it because every once in a while, they’re just so fantastic. And you feel so loved. But deep down, you know the desperation has turned you blind to your own best interests. And one day, you’ll wake up and realize they don’t actually give two shits about you. You’re just one fool in a long line of fools who fall for their crap. You’re just somebody to keep them from being lonely on a Saturday night.
The day will come when all rideshare drivers have a similar revelation. And like that guy with the thick black book, Uber and Lyft need to keep enough irons in the fire so they never have to spend a Saturday night alone.
That’s the new boss.
I miss the old boss.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ridesharing is a racket. There’s no way to win. Unless you want to join a cult or run your car into the ground. Then it’s a great way to make a few extra bucks a week. Just don’t think about what might happen if you get in an accident or need new brakes or what you’re going to do when it comes time to pay Uncle Sam. Whatever you do, do not think about that.