Tag Archives: uber driver stories

My Uber Breaking Point

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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?”

Still nothing.

“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 Uberthe threats to journaliststhe disdain for the disabledthe 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 lawsprotesting 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.

Yet.

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 ratesclaiming this tactic will lead to more ridesdrivers 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. 

Behind the Wheel 2: Notes from an Uber/Lyft – The New Zine

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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.

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The print version is available through Etsy or PayPal.

56pp. | Wraparound cover | Illustrated | Staple bound | $5.00 postpaid

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A PDF or ePub Download is available for 99 cents through Etsy!

(For PayPal, click here.)

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EXCERPTS:

To Uber Or Not To Uber

A Day in the Life of a Rideshare Driver

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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:
Emperor Caveat
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
Infinite Douchebaggery
The Polk Gulch Vortex
Another Wasted Night
The Leather Man

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What is a zine?

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

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Behind the Wheel 2 debuted at the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest:

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Poor George: The Other Uber Driver

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While cruising through the Duboce Triangle, I get a request on Market Street. Pick up a middle-aged tourist guy and his twenty-something daughter. They’re in town from Texas. Ron and Lisa. They ask if I know George.

“Who?”

“George was our other Uber driver before you,” Ron tells me.

“I don’t really know any other drivers,” I say. “We basically stay in our cars.”

“George drives for Uber to support his wife and three kids,” Lisa says. “He never has time to even see them because he drives all the time. Not like you. You’re probably just doing this to support your marijuana habit.”

“What’d you say?” I ask with an uncomfortable laugh.

She doesn’t reply.

“Poor George,” Ron goes on. “He probably saw us together, father and daughter, and felt jealous of our close relationship.”

Lisa scoffs. “Well, looks can be deceiving.

Ron keeps making small talk with me. They’re Airbnbing a place in Telegraph Hill. Spent the day going around town drinking and shopping. I’m taking them to the Macy’s on Union Square where Lisa saw a purse she liked earlier but didn’t buy.

“It’s a tote!” she clarifies.

Traffic around Union Square is always the perfect example of a clusterfuck. On Saturdays, it’s the epitome of a clusterfuck.

I point out the traffic when we’re two blocks away.

“Don’t worry about it,” Ron tells me. “We’re in no hurry. Long as the purse is still there.”

“It’s a tote!”

Five minutes later, about a block away from Macy’s, I tell him, “It’s gonna take forever to get there with all this traffic. Macy’s is right there.”

I point at the giant sign looming over the street.

“I suppose we can walk one block,” Ron says. “Maybe hit up this place over here… Johnny Foley’s.” He reads the sign on the Irish pub across the street.

I take a left on Powell and a right on Ellis. Go offline and drive away from downtown as quickly as possible. I’ve made the mistake of trying to get rides downtown on a Saturday before. Never again. Let the cab drivers have the business. They can take all of downtown as far as I’m concerned. Since all the one-way streets are split into taxi and bus lanes, it’s designed for cabs anyway, not regular cars.

I go back online after I cross Van Ness. Pick up a guy going to the Haight. Drop him off and track down a woman with an accent and her gentleman friend.

“Oh, is this your bag on the seat?” she asks.

“Bag?”

I reach around. It’s a paper shopping bag from a boutique. Look inside. See a scarf and a flask. Instantly realize that girl Lisa must have left it behind. I remember she had several bags when she got in.

“I know who this belongs to,” I say.

“What’s in the bag?” asks the gentleman. “Lingerie?”

“No, a scarf.”

“Boring. ”

I drop them off in the Mission and email Uber. Parked on 24th, I look through the bag for the receipts to see if it has her name on them. There’s a stuffed porcupine and a swimsuit bottom as well as the scarf and flask. About $100 worth of stuff. I feel bad. She must be freaking out. She seemed too uptight not to have a cow over losing her hard-earned purchases.

Oh well. There’s a link on the confirmation email from Uber to click if you think you might have lost something in a car. Perhaps she’ll notice it when she realizes she’s one bag short.

I put the bag in my trunk. Smoke a cigarette. I’m about to go back online when my phone rings. The generic Uber number.

“Is this Kelly?”

“Yeah, Lauren?”

“Lisa.”

“Right. I have your bag.”

“Oh, thank god!”

I get her address in Telegraph Hill and her phone number, just in case. “I’m in the Mission, so it’ll take a little while to get there. I have to drive all the way across town.”

“That’s fine.”

I take Cesar Chavez to Guerrero, cruise to Market Street, down to Franklin, up and over Pac Heights to Broadway, through the tunnel and into Chinatown. I forget to turn on Powell, so I have to circle around on Kearney to Columbus. My phone rings. It’s Lisa.

“Just checking to make sure you didn’t get lost.”

Uhmmm… Is that another stoner crack?

“Sorry. It took a while to get to North Beach from the Mission. I’m just a few minutes away.”

Slowly, I head up the hills, dodging several rambunctious taxis and maneuvering around lost tourists.

Lisa meets me outside the apartment building.

“Nice view you got here,” I say. Take the bag out of my trunk.

Lisa thanks me and hands me a folded ten dollar bill.

I acknowledge the tip. “Happy to help.”

Ten’s alright, I think as I make a five point conversion out of the dead end. A twenty would have been even better…

My Rating Weighs A Ton

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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 always keep my cool. No matter how long a passenger makes me wait, jerks me around or acts self-entitled. I don’t let it get to me.

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.”

Fair enough?

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.

Ten Consequences of Driving for Uber and Lyft

After seven months of driving full time for Lyft and Uber, these are ten things that make me dread going into driver mode:

1. Vehicle Depreciation

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Besides passengers slamming my doors, which has caused a mysterious rattle, scuffing my interior, leaving behind trash and generally making the kinds of messes you’d expect from a two year old, there is also mechanical wear and tear. The more I drive, the more things go wrong with my car. I figure I have about two more months until I need new brakes and tires. And then my rideshare days are over. I just don’t make enough from driving for Uber and Lyft to afford to keep driving for Uber and Lyft.

2. Boot Malfunction

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My right boot is more worn than the left. To be fair, this may have more to do with my bony heels, but it’s not something I ever noticed until I had to keep my foot on the gas and brake pedals for hours at a time.

3. Physical Discomfort

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My neck is like an open wound. No doubt from glancing over my shoulder as I switch lanes in traffic all night long, always diligent to keep an eye on my blind spots, as well as the other cars on the road, speeding bicyclists, impatient cab drivers and cavalier pedestrians. As a result, the muscles that run along my jaw are steel rods. I have very little radius when I turn my head left or right. The tension never goes away. There is a real possibility that I may have some dislocated vertebrae. My joints hurt. My right ankle has a creak in it. And I have a chronic case of hemorrhoids. No matter how much ointment I apply, they remain perpetually enflamed. I noticed once, when I was a Lyft passenger, that my driver had a hemorrhoid pillow on his seat. I may need to acquire one of those in the near future…

4. Spousal Neglect

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Since I’m out late driving on the weekends, the Wife’s home alone. And she’s not happy about it. I’ve tried driving during the weekdays, but the gridlocked traffic makes getting anywhere in the city a chore. It’s not worth the frustration. I spend more time driving to the pinned locations than I do taking passengers where they need to go. And the only time you can get surge pricing is on weekend nights. And holidays. Or special events. So…

5. Fear of Deactivation

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Nobody enjoys being judged. But constantly feeling threatened with “deactivation” is downright humiliating. The rating system employed by Lyft and Uber focuses on only one aspect of a driver’s performance: passenger satisfaction. And it’s not easy making people happy. Even when the ride has gone perfectly, there’s never a guarantee the passenger is satisfied. All it takes is one drunk passenger on a power trip and you’re deactivated.

6. Erratic Sleep

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I work late and come home late. But I can’t sleep late because my head is filled with dreams about my Lyft summary, which is the only way to find out what I made the day before and what’s happened to my rating. Sometimes the summary is in my inbox before I wake up. Other days the email doesn’t arrive until the afternoon. With Uber you know, for the most part, what you’ve made at the end of each ride. And your rating is updated in the app as feedback is left. So at least you’re disappointed in real time.

7. Misanthropic Tendencies

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After a while, you really start to hate people. I’ve met some really great folks in my car, but I’ve also encountered a lot of stinkers. People that I’d rather see under my front tire than in my front seat. But I have to maintain a sunny disposition and be accommodating to my passengers or risk a negative rating. Not an easy task when some passengers are just straight up assholes. They input the wrong location. They make you wait. They ignore you. They talk down to you. They say racist and sexist things in your car. Your only retaliation is to rate THEM low. Which doesn’t amount to much since it’s unlikely Uber or Lyft would ever deactivate a passenger’s account. I guess we should just be grateful our passengers act like self-entitled douchebags rather than punching us or holding guns to our heads.

8. Paranoia

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Every time I go out to drive, I say a prayer that nothing bad happens. I can’t shake the nagging sensation that if something goes wrong, I’ll be fucked. Uber and Lyft tells us to use our personal insurance in the event of an accident. But our insurance won’t cover any damages since we’re engaged in commercial activity. So what’s the point of having personal insurance to do rideshare? Not that things would be better with the insurance companies Uber and Lyft use. I’ve read numerous reports from drivers who’ve been in accidents and had to crowd source funds to get their cars fixed. Or just being left in the lurch. We are hardly protected under normal circumstances, but what if we’re at fault? Oh, the horror… And with Uber, there’s no support number. We can only email them afterwards. On top of all that, both Uber and Lyft charge us a deductible. So if we are covered, we still pay out of pocket, even if we aren’t at fault.

9. Monetary Deficiencies

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Because of the price wars, as Uber and Lyft fight it out to determine who will be the preeminent rideshare platform, drivers are getting squeezed more and more. The rates just keep going down. As it is, I’m broke as hell. My credit cards are all maxed out, most of the time my bank account is overdrawn and I have a painful toothache I can’t afford to fix. Not to mention taxes… I don’t want to even think about what I’m going to do when it’s time to pay taxes.

10. Self-loathing

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If you’ve made it this far on my list of rideshare consequences, you might be wondering why I don’t just quit. I know it’s stupid to complain about something you can’t control. And I know it’s my own damn fault. I bought into the promise of ridesharing as an alternative source of income with a good amount of freedom and it turned out to be a lie. I fell for the classic switcheroo. I’m an idiot. So why don’t I just get on with my life? Well, that day is coming. Without a doubt. For now, the hell I know is better than the one I don’t. And I like driving. I like meeting people. I like exploring the streets of San Francisco. But there’s no future in ridesharing for drivers. Hell, the way things are going, there won’t be a future for taxi drivers either.

Why I Uber On: The Reality of a Rideshare Driver

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Ridesharing is a racket.

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.

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I also do zines about driving for Uber and Lyft.