The pickup is way up in the back jungles of Ross, but Waze, my GPS of choice, gets me there straightaway. A young guy, well dressed, gets in without a word and goes right for his cellphone.
When he comes up for air, I ask the standard question: “What do you do?”
“I’m a tech entrepreneur.”
“My company creates an online experience for people to talk about their problems with complete strangers without fear that it will come back to haunt them.”
I’m thinking, Why would anyone go online and pay money to look at a screen image, talk to a complete stranger, and not at least get a fare out of it?
He continues his spiel: “Ninety percent of my friends in the tech world are in therapy. Where in today’s world can people get things off their chest — in a bar? I don’t think so. In the office? Nope, huge risk of backlash. At home? Not with all the screens and other distractions. So then where can people talk? So our company gives them someplace to really connect in a safe environment.”
I listen to him patiently and then interject, “Just like being an Uber driver.”
IS IT SAFE?
So it is with being a driver — hundreds of thousands of drivers worldwide, and most of us amateur shrinks. In the car, we’ve just got a few moments to establish a rapport. Even so, connections can happen — instantaneously, even with no words exchanged. People instinctively know when they’re in the company of someone who makes them feel comfortable. That’s my goal, to make people feel safe, and I’m not just talking about physical safety; I’m talking about emotional safety, about psychological safety. When people feel safe, they’re willing to take risks, to risk the sharing of what’s most dear to them, to shed the skin — to bring down the walls that separate human beings from each other. When that happens, that’s the magic of being an Uber / Lyft driver … but it ain’t always like that.
Driving for Uber and Lyft is a lot more demanding than it seems and a lot less lucrative than Uber and Lyft lead you to believe. After gas, taxes, and maintenance, you’re lucky if you make $12 an hour. Uber recognizes this and now offers various bonuses and hourly guarantees, but they come with conditions attached that are designed to get you out on the road more. Why? Uber’s got a huge driver churn problem — half of all drivers go inactive within a year. As a result, they need the drivers they do have to spend a lot of time working — and they need to always keep new ones coming into the pipeline.
Why so much driver churn? First, some drivers are deactivated by the company. An undisclosed number of these fall below the 4.6 passenger ratings cut and receive the email of death. A much larger percentage of drivers go AWOL simply because they did the math and realized after expenses they weren’t making anywhere near what Uber had suggested they would.
UP AGAINST THE APP
Uber collects all the data, sends you reports, and deposits the funds in your bank account (as a part-timer, driving mostly on weekends, I typically will make between $100 and $400 a week, before expenses, by the way), and that’s that. It’s you against the system. I’ve never even met somebody from Uber corporate, other than a few stray passengers in my car. If it wasn’t for the passenger interactions, it would be a thoroughly dehumanizing experience. If you’re driving for the money, expect to be disappointed. But if you’ve got a curiosity about people, you can’t beat it. Quite simply, driving for Uber and Lyft gives you an amazing peek into the back crevices of our society.
Like all passengers in life, Uber drivers learn to bow down to circumstance. Drivers recognize in each passenger the power to sentence you by tapping one to five stars at the end of the ride. It’s passengers’ power to pass judgment on you — digitally transmitting their feelings through the automated systems — that control your fate. Uber and Lyft’s fully automated rating system is the faceless dictator in a driver’s life. Yes, it’s useful, but it’s not well-conceived. To penetrate markets, Uber must ensure that ratings are seen as reliable, because it’s the basis of the “trust and safety” that they use as their calling card with passengers, drivers, and regulators. Ratings are anything but fair. They’re doled out by passengers who all bring their own standards and biases to the transaction. That is the bane of being a driver, because you know that some passengers are so upset about something else that nothing you can do will satisfy them — and you’ll be dinged.
Bonuses and rate guarantees are the carrot Uber uses to get you out on the road. Sometimes you think you met all the requirements, but you didn’t. It’s usually a waste of time to plead your case to some customer service representative halfway around the world, because “the system” knows all. Case in point from two weeks ago: I’ve been driving six hours on a Saturday evening expecting to make a guaranteed $35 an hour. A few minutes before midnight — after a drop-off in downtown Tiburon — I get a ride request 25 minutes away in Fairfax. No way I’m driving all the way to Fairfax. It’s in the opposite direction from my home. I wait 15 seconds and let the request expire.
Oh damn. What did I just do? My passenger acceptance rate just dropped below 90 percent. I just lost more than $100 because I no longer qualify for the hourly guarantee. So it goes.
About one in five of my ride requests in Marin comes from a teen. I get the most teenage requests from Redwood, Tam, and Drake high schools. Just one problem with this: it’s illegal. Yep, this comes as a shock, especially to parents who just assume that giving their kid an Uber account is the responsible thing to do these days. Sorry — it’s expressly against Uber and Lyft terms of service and California Public Utilities Commission laws to give a ride to a teen unless an adult is present. I have no idea what the legal ramifications are if something bad does happen, but I have to believe Uber and Lyft have intentionally been lax about education and enforcement. It’s just business. Why turn away paying customers if you don’t have to? Meanwhile, the driver is caught in an awkward situation.
Despite it being against Uber’s terms of service, I’ve yet to refuse a ride to a teen, nor have I even mentioned having given one. Why? Simple practicality. Most of my pickups in Marin involve some travel time just to get there — frequently more than 15 minutes. If you get there, discover the PAX (passenger) is underage and refuse to give a ride, you’ve just wasted your time — and the potential passenger’s. Also, there’s this thing about the tyranny of ratings. After that ride, you’re at the mercy of the passenger ratings. It doesn’t take much to set some people off. If a teen thinks you’re dissing him and gives you a one- or two-star rating, it can take a long time to recover. To maintain my 4.8 rating, I need four fives for every four-star rating I get. A one star rating is devastating for a driver — it takes a long time to recover from that.
The most compelling reason I drive teens is that by and large, they’re a delight. They’re honest, mostly respectful, and full of great gab. I’m like a sponge up there in the driver’s seat — soaking it all up. The experience gives you a peek into their lives that even their parents don’t have. Some of what I’ve learned is revealing. I’ve had teens so drunk their friends had to stuff them in the backseat. Another teen needed a ride to and from a parked car two miles away to pick up his pot stash. Occasionally you get a hothead. Three guys didn’t like my music selections and ordered me to “just put on the radio.” I can smell attitude when I hear it, so I demurred. Things quickly got tense. “Do I get a say in this matter?” I ask. “Since this is my car?” There followed a long silence until we reached their home in Tiburon. As they got out, they started banging on my car. One guy opened the back hatch and slammed it shut. He got a one-star rating (passengers get rated, just like drivers). I suspect I got the same.
Monday evening and the sun has just ducked behind Mount Tamalpais in the west. I’m hanging out at the Town Park in Corte Madera as I watch a softball game, while I wait for my next Uber request. The ping comes from Jake and I start walking toward my car when the phone rings. “We’ve got an emergency. My friend’s mother in Mill Valley has just cut her wrist and she needs to get to the hospital — right away,” Jake says. “I’m on it.” The adrenaline kicks in. “Looks like I’m about 12 minutes away from her. I’ll be there — pronto.” “Hurry,” he says. “Her wrist is bleeding profusely.” I race to my car, fire up the Brown Bullet (my trusty 2002 Volvo V70 XC AWD with 250,000 miles) and screech to a halt at the light. I speed down Tamalpais Avenue toward 101. Traffic is light so I make good time. When I arrive a woman comes sprinting down the driveway, holding her right arm up high. It’s soaking red, wrapped in a makeshift tourniquet. She’s out of breath. Trailing behind is her daughter, who is freaking out.
“Which hospital?” I ask.
“Kaiser in Terra Linda.”
“Mom, call me when you get there.” The daughter screams as she sprints down the long driveway.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I was taking an old aquarium out to the trash. The glass broke. Somehow, it sliced my wrist. Blood was spurting out all over.”
“That’s not good.” I say. “How long ago?”
“About 20 minutes.”
“Otherwise, how do you feel?” I’m pretending to do triage.
“Dizzy,” she says, “but I always get dizzy at the sight of blood.”
She smiles through the obvious pain. We’re out on East Blithedale now.
“What do you do when you’re not slitting your wrist?” I ask. Slowly the joke registers and she smiles. A breakthrough. She starts to relax — and breathe. “I’m a massage therapist and an assistant to a chiropractor,” she says. “You’ll have to come in for a massage. It’s on me. I have a studio in our house.”
“I’ll do that,” I say, deadpanning, “Just one of the many perks of being an Uber driver.” What a gig. Thirty minutes ago I was casually watching a softball game. Now I’m an ambulance driver racing to the hospital with somebody’s life at stake.
The pickup was on Magnolia in Larkspur at 9 a.m. Friday.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I own restaurants around the Bay Area,” Sam says from the backseat.
“I understand Yelp ratings are key for restaurants? How do you feel about ratings?” I ask.
“We live and die by the ratings, but they’re highly imperfect. Some people are chronic complainers,” he says.
“And some people give you low ratings because of something completely unrelated to what you did. I remember getting a low rating from a woman just because her boyfriend just ditched her. I happened to be the target for her misdirected anger. How are your restaurants doing on Yelp?” I ask.
“Some are 4 on Yelp and they’re doing really well. Some others are 3.5 and they’re struggling. It makes the system unfair because there are different standards applied.”
“You’re right about different people applying different standards,” I say. “On Uber a four rating is a failing grade, yet on Yelp it’s great. I wonder how many passengers give drivers a 4 rating and do it using the standards of Yelp.”
“Lots,” he answers, as my GPS announces, “You have arrived at your destination.”
I rate Sam five stars. I can only hope he reciprocates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR John F. Ince is a former Fortune reporter, author, filmmaker and video producer living in Mill Valley. In the last two years, he’s given more than 1,000 rides driving part-time for Uber and Lyft, while working on a book about the experience. This article has been adapted from that book, Travels With Vanessa: An Uber and Lyft Driver Tries to Make Sense of It All.
Illustrations by Peter and Maria Hoey
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Driving Marin”.