To Uber Or Not To Uber, Part One

(An Excerpt from Behind the Wheel 2: Notes from an Uber/Lyft.)

I start seeing the ads on Facebook around the first of May:

Drive away with $500 — Exclusively for Lyft Drivers

Drive for Lyft? Make $500 for trying UberX — All it takes is one trip.

Sign up today!

There’s even a pink mustache in the ads. That’s how I know they’re legit. I don’t click right away though. There’s nothing easy about easy money. But the ads keep popping up in my feed regardless of how car videos I “like,” so one day, out of curiosity, I click the link…

I’m immediately redirected to the UberX sign-up page. I check to see if my car qualifies. I’ve always assumed Uber is more selective than Lyft about what models and years qualify. Before I signed up for Lyft, I’d checked out Uber’s site. I remember seeing something about them only taking Priuses. Either I was mistaken or things have changed, because my Jetta totally qualifies.

Still, I don’t sign up. The offer is valid through May 31. Since I’m going to LA for my mother-in-law’s birthday in the middle of the month, I figure I have enough time before the deal ends. Besides, with how many ads are popping up on my feed, they seem desperate for drivers.

I’ve always been curious about driving for Uber. Mainly because I hate Lyft’s pink fluffy mustache. Even though I never attached the thing to the grill of my car or placed it on my dashboard like so many drivers, where it looks like what you’d find on the floor after a fluffy convention, I generally feel it would be helpful to have something on my car to indicate that I work for a rideshare. Especially when trying to find passengers on crowded streets at night. Uber drivers use a subtle neon blue “U” that illuminates elegantly from their windshields. They look classy as fuck. I wouldn’t mind putting that symbol on my car.

I’ve also heard they make more money. One night, while waiting in the alley outside the Box in SoMa, I chatted with an UberX driver. He told me he used to drive for Lyft but switched to Uber. Now he’s been making almost twice as much money. “I get so many requests,” he said, “I had to go offline in the Mission to get here before they close.”

Since Lyft lowered their rates thirty percent in April, I haven’t been making as much money as when I started in March. Flush with 250 million dollars in venture capital, Lyft is trying to compete with Uber for a larger cut of the rideshare market. To offset the price cut, they waived the twenty percent commission. At first, demand increased and Prime Time surge pricing made up the difference. But that didn’t last long. Since then, the price cuts are having a serious impact on my bottom line. I figure I’m making $200 less a week, driving the same hours. I try to work more to make up the difference, but I can only go so long before exhaustion sets in and I no longer feel safe behind the wheel.

Around the first of the month, when rent is due, things are especially hard. At one point, before the price wars, I stopped getting emails from my credit card company warning me that I was approaching my credit limit. These days, I receive those messages daily. There are weeks when I can’t afford to buy gas until I got my weekly deposit from Lyft on Wednesdays. I go through about $35 of gas during a normal six-hour shift. On Friday and Saturday nights, I used to make around $200 to $250 dollars. Now it’s about $150. If there’s an event going on, I can hit $200. Weeknights, I make around $100. Tops. Since I spend about the same on gas, I stopped driving during the week to focus on the weekends instead, when there’s generally more demand and surge pricing.

As appealing as Uber sounds, I still have reservations about signing up. Based on numerous articles I’ve read, Uber seems like an unscrupulous company, along the lines of Wal-Mart or Amazon. And Travis Kalanick, the CEO, comes across as an antisocial, libertarian scumbag who’d stab his own mother in the back to get ahead. He probably has a cum-stained paperback of The Fountainhead under his pillow that he strokes gently as he falls asleep at night. The name of the company itself, Uber, implies more about the megalomania of Kalanick than the service they provide. And this whole campaign to recruit Lyft drivers is beyond unethical. Participating in it feels wrong. I keep asking myself, Do I really want to associate myself with a company run by a guy who longs for the days of driverless cars so he can get rid of the “middle man,” i.e., drivers?

My other concern is the Uber gestalt. Even though they perform the exact same service, Lyft and Uber offer different experiences. Lyft promotes their drivers as “Your Friend with a Car.” Passengers ride up front. Like a friend. Drivers are supposed to greet passengers with a fist bump. Like they would, conceivably, with a friend. Drivers play music and engage the passenger in conversation. Since that’s what friends do.

In contrast, Uber’s motto is “Your Personal Driver.” Passengers ride in the back. They tell you where to go and, after that, there’s no implied interaction. Unless the passenger wants to talk, Uber drivers are supposed to maintain that invisible barrier between them and the “client.”

My Lyft passengers talk to me about Uber all the time. Most people in San Francisco use both apps, depending on price surging, availability or the kind of experience they’re in the mood for. I’ve had numerous passengers tell me that if they’re going to work, or in work mode, they take Uber so they don’t have to deal with any annoying conversations. But on the weekends, when they’re going out, they take Lyft because it’s more fun.

I imagine I’ve talked to, or at least tried to talk to, every cab driver I’ve ever had. Unless I was unconscious. If I’m confined in a small space for longer than a minute, I can’t help but start a conversation, however brief. I can usually make it through an elevator ride, but at stores, I talk to cashiers. At restaurants, I chat with waiters. At bars, if things are quiet, bartenders. On buses and trains, my fellow passengers. I’m a compulsive talker. So as I contemplate the move to Uber, I’m more than a little nervous about whether I can contain my incessant need to gab.

“Incuneandosi nell’ abitato” Trullio Crali

A few weeks before the end of the month, I complete the Uber application.

The next day, I receive an email directing me to upload my documents to the Uber website. I scan my license and registration. Send them in. Fill out my background check. Wait. Get a message about emailing a screenshot of my most recent pay statement from Lyft. Send that in. Wait. On May 22nd, I get a text from Uber. My account is active. They’re going to send me a phone in the mail. I provide my address.

While I wait for my phone, I continue driving for Lyft. One night, in the Richmond, I get a request for an address off Geary. As I idle in front of the pinned location, an Uber car pulls up next to me. He nods in my direction. Both our windows are down.

“What’s up?” I ask. “You here for Cathy as well?”

He looks at his phone and absently says, “Yeah.”

“Maybe there’s a party and they need more than one car,” I say, hoping there wasn’t a mistake and Cathy hadn’t accidentally ordered two cars from different platforms. I’ve had that happen before.

“Do you drive for Uber as well?” the guy asks me.

“I signed up for that $500 deal. Just waiting for the phone.”

“Oh.” He seems disappointed. “I get $500 for referring drivers. Maybe I can check and see if you still qualify for my referral.”

At that moment, Cathy cancels the ride. I go offline. “Sure.”

He gets out of his car. Hands me his phone. I type in my number and hand it back.

“That’s cool Uber gives you an iPhone,” I say.

“You can’t do anything with it besides run the Uber app though.” He shows me the error message on his phone. “The referral didn’t work.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s cool.”

“Well, Cathy seems to have cancelled,” I tell him. “Gonna see if I can get another ride before heading back downtown. Good luck!”

“You too.”

—— read Part Two here ——

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