Tag Archives: uber surge

The Scourge of Outside Lands

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Part One

It never fails.

Whenever I work large events like Outside Lands, I always end up with a pack of drunken millennials in my taxi who are so accustomed to geographically-challenged Uber/Lyft drivers that they will try, despite the haze of alcohol, weed and molly, to micromanage my attempt to navigate the congestion.

Of all the tragedies that have resulted from the rise of Uber and Lyft, this assumption that a driver for hire has no clue how to reach the simplest destinations is really, as our commander-in-chief would put it, sad.

The other day, I pick up this guy at the Grand Hyatt. As he tips the doorman for flagging him a cab, I hear the guy say his phone had died and he wasn’t able to order an Uber.

“Where to?” I ask.

“Pac Heights.”

Okay. “Where in Pac Heights?”

“Geary and Laguna.”

“What?” I respond, somewhat confused.

“Lower Pac Heights. Close to Japantown.”

Brother, there is no Lower Pac Heights, I want to say. Geary and Laguna is Japantown. But I let it go. He’s either a tourist or has just moved here.

As I’m about to cross Van Ness, I ask where he’s going at Laguna and Geary.

He leans forward and says, “Oh, uhh, keep going two more blocks.”

“I know where Laguna is,” I reply. “Where are you going at Geary and Laguna? Are you on Geary? Laguna? Am I going right or left? It’s a big street with lots of turn restrictions.”

“Left on Laguna,” he says. “You’ll uhhh… probably have to make a U-turn.”

“Yeah, at Webster,” I mumble. So his cross streets are actually Ellis and Laguna, which would enable me to access the street he actually lives on: Cleary Court.

And regardless of what his real estate agent told him, he lives in motherfucking Western Addition!

It’s always the clueless passengers who tell you how to get somewhere, and they usually end up lost or going the longest route possible…

Anyway, this is my fourth year working Outside Lands. And even though I’m steeling myself for the inevitable shit show, I am hopeful this year might be different…

An unforeseen benefit of Uber and Lyft is that the number of millennials I pick up has dwindled to the point that, when they do end up in my cab, it’s usually memorable.

Like the four bros who surprised me at Davies Symphony Hall a few months back…

Drunk off their asses and wearing white tuxedos, they pile into my cab and demand to be taken to Emperor Norton’s.

“Do you know where that is?” one asks.

I respond affirmatively several times over the next few blocks, while the three guys in back continue to question whether I’m going the right way since I didn’t put the location into my phone and the guy up front incessantly nags me about playing the radio.

“Look!” I finally snap. “The bar is only five blocks away. I think you can go that long without music. Don’t you?”

*

On Friday, the first night of Outside Lands, things were astonishingly calm and uneventful.

That is, free of millennials.

I take two guys to Brass Tacks.

“Do you mind if we do garbage cocaine?” the one on the right asks me.

After several key bumps, the guy spends the rest of the ride complaining about the shitty blow in San Francisco.

My second ride is a young couple who’d just met. They spend the ride to Club Deluxe bonding over their pets. When I pull up to the bar, the guy hands me a $20 bill and refuses change on the $12.30 fare.

“For going out of your way to pick us up,” he says, exiting curbside.

Day two starts out smooth enough.

Since I stopped working Saturday nights, I don’t have my regular cab. So I’m driving Veterans 327. Late Night Larry’s cab.

As I venture out to the park on Fulton while the sun is still in the sky, I’m impressed with how the PCOs are controlling the streets and making sure all vehicles are able to get through the area. That same is true on Lincoln. Even though the SFMTA had promised us taxi stands, there are no designated staging areas. But it isn’t that much of a hassle.

When Metallica stops playing later that night, though, there’s little chance for any kind order in the ensuing chaos…

Read Part Two here.

[photo by Jessica Christian]

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A Good Night in a Taxi Comes at a Price

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“You know it’s a slow night,” Juneaux once joked, “when you’re hoping somebody pukes in your taxi so you can collect that $100 cleaning fee.”

This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about another puker… except this time I got the cleaning fee. And a funny story… maybe? 

Read the column here.

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Photo by Christian Lewis.

The Risks and the Rewards of Working Outside Lands

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It’s Monday morning. While the rest of the world is waking up and getting ready to go to work, I’m drinking vodka and eating leftover red beans and rice, thanks to Ben, who took it upon himself to feed me before I started my shift yesterday.

I don’t usually drive on Sundays. But at the barbeque the night before, Ben and several other drivers assured me that the third day of Outsides Lands would be the most profitable night of the festival.

Even though I really need the money, I waffled a bit. I was still exhausted from the previous two days of Outside Lands. I wasn’t even sure I’d have the wherewithal to drive a fourth shift that week. But Late Night Larry made it official.

“You’re working Sunday!” he snarled. “And that’s final!”

Ben picked me up at 4pm. On the way to the yard, we stopped at Hard Knox for lunch. I had a few bites of my vegetable plate and saved the rest for later. I was ready to hit the streets.

After doing the tourist trade for a couple hours, I head to the park. Since I did Outside Lands last year with Uber and Lyft, I know it’s a strategic nightmare to match drivers with riders and all the major thoroughfares get clogged with lost and confused drivers from out of town. A perfect scenario for street hails.

Each night, as the headliners take the stage, people begin to leave the park and wander through the avenues and the streets in a frenzy, desperate for a way out. There are so many exiting festivalgoers clamoring to get in my cab, I could institute my own twist on surge pricing and auction off seats to the highest bidders. But that would be unethical, right?

After I drop off a fare, I deadhead, i.e., drive empty, back to the park. The demand for cars is insatiable. Strangers share rides and get to know each other in the backseat. One fare has three stops, the last one in Ingleside Heights. When I stop the meter, it reads $45. With a $10 tip, that’s an inside the park homerun.

It’s obvious most of my fares are regular Lyft and Uber users. They approach my window and ask permission to get into my cab.

Like this young couple at 25th and Cabrillo.

“C-c-c-an you take us to the Caltrain?” the girl asks timidly from the curb.

“I drive a taxi,” I say, feigning joviality. “That’s what I do.”

They need to catch the last train to San Jose that leaves at 9:15.

It’s 8:50.

“I don’t know if we’ll make it in this traffic,” I warn them, thinking about their options if they miss the train. A cab ride to San Jose is around $200, and that’s still cheaper than a hotel room.

“You’d be our hero if we do.”

Always up for a challenge, I take off down Cabrillo, head up to Turk and race over the hill and down to Golden Gate. I start hitting lights in Civic Center so I make a right on Polk and cross Market onto 10th. I head down Folsom to 8th. I take a left on Brannan, a right on 5th, through the sign onto Townsend, and come to a dramatic stop in front of Caltrain with five minutes to spare.

“I may have just broken a record,” I gasp.

The meter reads $22. The guy gives me $25. I’m so shocked I forget to say thanks as they get out. A $3 tip on a run like that? Is that how you reward a hero? I even yelled at this poor pizza delivery guy for making me miss the light at Masonic.

Feeling less like a hero and more like a chump, I get on the Central Freeway and work the park for the rest of the evening. It’s early. There’s still a long road ahead of me before I get back to my red beans and rice.

Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on August 14, 2015…

Outside Lands and The Uber/Lyft Feeding Frenzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outside Lands Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing The Surge

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

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

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

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

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

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