Spotted in Fisherman’s Wharf:
Spotted in Fisherman’s Wharf:
My last two columns for the S.F. Examiner were interconnected, published in two parts.
The first installment, published last week, describes a ride with two ladies who, when I tell them I’ve only been driving for three years, start calling me a “newb” and offering ridiculous advice on how to become a good horrible cab driver.
“You shouldn’t be so nice, newb,” one of the women says.
“You’re never going to make it as a cab driver with that attitude,” says the other.
Their joint laughter is cut short when I turn left onto Hyde.
“This is us over here on the right.”
I hit the hazards and the overhead light.
“I only have a credit card,” the second woman tells me.
“That’s perfectly fine,” I say, inserting the Square reader into my phone.
“Come on newb!” snaps the first woman. “You’re supposed to say your card reader is broken.”
Yeah, they were drunk and having a laugh, but, in part two, published this week, I write about how the old “cabbie ways,” as glorified by these ladies in jest, are what led to rise of Uber and Lyft. And how, when I actually was a “newb” – that is, a hapless Lyft driver – most of my passengers told me they’d started using these new ride-hail options because of all their bad experiences with taxis in the past…
… most of my passengers had these nightmare experiences dealing with The City’s taxi service that mirrored the ladies’ acerbic suggestions: not accepting credit cards, refusing non-airport rides, talking on the phone incessantly and freaking out if you questioned their route.
It seemed like you weren’t a real San Franciscan unless you had a handful of horror stories about taking taxis. People talked about missing flights, losing jobs, getting stuck in the rain and practically left for dead.
My Lyft passengers were so thrilled to have a ride they didn’t care that I barely knew how to get around. (Or refused to attach that hideous pink mustache to the grill of my Jetta.)
Of course, while Lyft and Uber may have solved some of these problems by busting up the taxi industry’s monopoly and in the process forcing out the bad apples who were only able to thrive in a field without competition that capitalized on the public’s desperate need for transportation, a new breed of sleazy operators was unleashed: Uber/Lyft drivers.
But more on that disreputable lot next week…
[photo by Christian Lewis]
“Honestly,” I tell him. “I’d rather deal with more than just one demographic of The City. Uber and Lyft only provide transportation for certain members of society, excluding the poor, elderly and disabled.”
“What are you talking about?” he exclaims. “Taxis are way more expensive than Uber! And if you use the ‘Pool’ option, it’s even cheaper.”
After making a bizarre argument that people who don’t own smartphones can save money on rides to the airport by acquiring a burner at Walgreens, he tells me, “Part of what I love about Uber and Lyft is that they’re affordable to everyone and not just the wealthy. Ask around. Most people could never dream of riding in a taxi regularly. Now, they’re riding in cars — nice cars, too — from their doorstep to work for only 3 to 5 bucks a pop.”
As he continues making privileged judgments about how poor people should behave, I bite my tongue. This guy has no clue what it’s like to be poor. And just because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development makes some announcement that Bay Area households earning six figures are now considered lower-class, that doesn’t mean the spoiled brats who find public transportation beneath them are actually broke. For most working-class folks, taking a cab is a luxury, not a right.
The more I think about his nonsensical ideas, the more my head feels like it’s going to explode. There’s just not enough time left in the universe to explain all the many ways his viewpoint is wrong and fucked up.
Heading down Post Street, I wait for the light to change at Jones and practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel along to the Slayer CD blasting from the stereo in my taxicab. It’s rush hour. Union Square is a sea of brake lights.
There’s something counterintuitive about driving into a traffic jam, but for a taxi driver, that’s where the fares are. After three months behind the wheel, I’ve become Zen with downtown traffic. I embrace the challenge of gridlock. So when the light turns green, I charge headlong into the congestion.
At Taylor, I kill the tunes and roll down my window. Listen for the whistles from hotel doormen that reverberate through the streets. I cruise slowly past the J.W.
At Powell, I check the cabstand in front of the St. Francis. Too long. Glance towards the Sir Francis Drake, but the faux Yeoman Warder is minding his own business.
Across the street, an arm goes up. Businessman heading to the W. Traffic is snarled as I creep towards Montgomery. But I’m getting paid to cross Market.
After dropping him off, I cruise Moscone. Another flag. This one back to Union Square. From there, a long fare to Monterey Heights. Nice enough guy. Works in finance. Insists on taking the 280, despite going so far out of the way. Whatever. His nickel.
We start chatting.
Eventually, he asks the million-dollar question: “So… why aren’t you driving for Uber?”
I tell him I did the Uber/Lyft thing for ten months before switching to taxi. He’s surprised. They always are.
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” he asks.
Even though I get asked the same thing multiple times a night, I’m never sure how to respond. For me, there were more reasons not to drive for Uber and Lyft than to continue driving for Uber and Lyft. I wasn’t making enough money after the two start-ups went to war for market dominance and began slashing prices. After ten months, my bank account was overdrawn, my credit cards were maxed out, I was riddled with self-loathing and, due to the insurance risks, I constantly worried I’d have to declare bankruptcy if I got into an accident. My car was getting ragged out enough already. The backseat looked like I’d been transporting farm animals.
I was basically subsidizing multi-million — or, in Uber’s case, multi-billion — dollar companies. And for what? Empty promises and a sense of community?
What bullshit. I never felt like anything but an underpaid, untrained and unregulated cab driver.
From the beginning, I was appalled by the self-entitled culture that spawned the phenomenon of “ridesharing” and the consequences it’s had on the livelihoods of cab drivers. It wasn’t easy participating in the destruction of a blue-collar industry. After all, I’m a descendent of coal miners, janitors, store clerks and army grunts. In college, I was required to read The Communist Manifesto three times.
Being an Uber/Lyft driver is not in my nature. To be successful at it requires personality traits I will never possess: the ability to cheat and scam. And a complete lack of conscience.
Since the only time you make decent money is during surge pricing, you have to take pride in ripping people off. The rest of the time, you’re barely making minimum wage, so you need to be somewhat stupid as well. You’re basically running your personal car into the ground and hoping to luck out with a ride that’s more than five bucks.
Some drivers have figured out how to make the system work for them and earn more money referring drivers than they do actually driving themselves, but isn’t that just a bizarro take on the pyramid scheme?
Despite Uber’s political spin or Lyft’s cheerful advertising campaign, using your personal car as a taxi is not sustainable. Each time I got behind the wheel of my Jetta and turned on the apps, I had to overlook the absurdity of what I was doing. It never ceased to amaze me that people would be so willing to ride in some random dude’s car. But since my passengers acted as if the activity were perfectly normal, I went along with it.
Once I realized what I’d gotten myself into, I wanted to document the exploitative nature of this predatory business model. I wanted to expose the inherent risks associated with inadequate insurance, the lack of training and the vulnerability of not having anyone to contact in an emergency. I wanted to shed light on the reality of being a driver, dealing with constant fare cuts, enforced jingoism and the tyranny of an unfair rating system. I wanted to reveal the lies. All the dirty lies. I started a blog and even published two zines about my experiences.
Naïvely, I thought reporting on these issues from the perspective of a driver would make a difference. I was wrong. People hold on to their faith in the corporate spirit even when it’s against their best interest. That’s what I figured out from all this.
Oh, and that I really like driving the streets of San Francisco.
So I signed up for taxi school and went pro. Now I make more money, feel more relaxed and no longer have to worry about declaring bankruptcy if I get into an accident.
But I don’t tell the guy any of this. Now that I’ve been a real taxi driver for three months, I try to deflect the Uber/Lyft question. I’m not proud to have driven for them as long as I did. In fact, I’m mostly ashamed of it.
So I say, “The way I figured it, people hate taxi drivers so much, they must be doing something right.”
I laugh. He doesn’t join me. Instead, he tells me how much he prefers Uber. From 101 interchange to the Monterey exit, he regales me with a litany of horror stories about the taxi industry before Uber and Lyft came to town. They wouldn’t take people to the Richmond or Sunset districts. The cabs smelled horrible. The drivers were rude. They wouldn’t accept credit cards. And when you called dispatch, they never showed up.
I listen to his jeremiad patiently. It’s all I can do. I’ve heard these complaints repeatedly since I started driving a car for hire in San Francisco. As much as I want to apologize for the past transgressions of taxi drivers, I can’t help but wonder why he’s in a cab in the first place. Oh, Uber must be surging like crazy.
“Honestly,” he says at one point, “I don’t take cabs because I don’t want to deal with fucking cabbies.”
I want to tell him I actually enjoy being a cab driver. That I feel more connected to The City than I ever did with Uber and Lyft. And I admire the veteran cab drivers, many of whom are longtime San Franciscans. They have the best stories. Becoming a cab driver was like joining a league of disgruntled gentlemen and surly ladies. The buccaneers of city streets. Taking people’s money for getting them where they need to go. By whatever means necessary. I want to tell him to fuck off. That he’s badmouthing my friends. I’ve met some amazing cab drivers since I started hanging around taxi yards.
But I keep my mouth shut. Drive. Do my job…
After a while, though, the guy’s vitriol gets to me. When I drop him off, I’m bummed beyond belief.
At least he gives me a decent tip. I turn the Slayer back on. Full blast. Take Portola down the hill. Should be plenty of fares in the Castro. Especially if Uber’s still surging.
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.