“After My Very First Night, I Knew I Would Never Drive a Taxi Again”
Switching from taxi driver to rideshare risked plenty: My reputation, my livelihood, my friends. But it made so much sense, I couldn’t say no.
Whenever someone claims that it’s not about the money, you know the chances are that really, it is. And I’d be lying if I said my decision to switch away from driving a taxi and start driving for Lyft had nothing to do with the amount I was earning. But money was only part of my decision—and probably not in the way you might think.
Instead it was one part of a culmination of events that led me to renounce everything I’d said before, to become a traitor, a scab, and to betray many people I’d come to know in the cab business.
I wasn’t the first, and I surely wouldn’t be the last. But that didn’t make me feel any better about it. There were people who I’d come to care about, good people, people that I counted among my genuine friends, who would be deeply disappointed by my treachery. Perhaps it had simply taken me way too long — and even a stint in rehab — to finally accept that I couldn’t spend my life trying to live up to other people’s expectations. And after all, isn’t that what loyalty is really all about?
When I first started driving a taxi, Saturday nights were the most coveted shift of the week. Typically, only medallion owners and drivers with the most seniority got them. Once in a while, if you were lucky or willing to wait around for several hours, then a driver like me — with only a few years under his belt — could get a cab to drive on a Saturday night, and the chance to make $400, or even $500, in a single shift.
Nowadays, however, with Uber and Lyft cars flooding the streets, it’s become the hardest shift to fill. It’s not uncommon for a Saturday night taxi to go one, or even two hours at a stretch without a single fare. What used to be exciting is now something drivers dread: I certainly know that driving around empty in a sea of vacant taxis, while watching people all around me hop into their Uber and Lyft rides, left me feeling desperate and frustrated.
It used to be that late at night, and not just on Saturdays, I could park my cab right outside the door of the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco — a nightclub just off the beaten path. Excited to see an available taxi waiting, people exiting the club would jump right in, one fare after the other, it was my spot. But soon, people leaving the club began waving me off. “No thanks,” they’d say, as they pulled out their iPhones and waited five or 10 minutes, sometimes even in the rain, until a car with one of those ridiculous pink moustaches, or a glowing blue “U” on it would pull up and drive them off into the night.
I didn’t get it.
I’m right here.
I’m ready to go.
All I got was “No thanks,” from person after person after person. I felt dejected. It made no sense to me.
I got a reprieve from my frustrations when I was offered a part-time job in the cab company’s operations office. Back then, the phones were still constantly ringing, and dispatch was busy with customers calling for cabs. The money was good, and the shifts were shorter than on the road. Best of all though, a job in the office usually came with the ability to get a cab — a good cab — immediately, whenever I wanted. My days of waiting around for hours just so that I could go to work were finally over. Or so I thought.
As it turned out, drivers with better or more longstanding connections were getting put out in taxis ahead of me, and I was still being made to wait. Except now the wait was even longer because more and more drivers were fighting for shifts, and for good cabs to drive. Meanwhile, the day drivers were making things even worse by keeping their cabs out longer, attempting to make up for their falling incomes. Every hour, hell, every minute that I waited, I could feel the crisp $20s just slipping through my grasp.
The topic being discussed among the various huddles of angry cabbies waiting there with me was always the same: Uber and Lyft. One driver heard that the mayor’s daughter had invested in Lyft. Another had heard that the mayor had exclaimed, “Uber has finally solved San Francisco’s taxi problem!” I didn’t know if either was true, but it was no secret that Mayor Ed Lee was a vocal supporter of “the sharing economy.” He led visiting politicos on tours through Uber’s headquarters, and had even officially declared July 13th as “Lyft Day” in San Francisco. I couldn’t think of a bigger slap in the face.
Still, as much as I hated Uber and Lyft—and as much as I hated our mayor—I knew that none of them were going away anytime soon. I continued to see Lyft, and particularly Uber, as illegal bullies that were flaunting the law. The whole rideshare premise, that these were just regular folks, “citizen drivers,” who just happened to be going your way and would give you a ride, was complete bullshit. It reminded me of the last line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” No, call it what you want, but this was deregulation.
Even so, as I looked down my nose at these intruders, and their over-reliance on GPS to find their way through the maze of my city, I found myself feeling conflicted. While they were already doing essentially the same job as me, I knew these rideshare drivers would never have considered actually becoming taxi drivers, nor did they think of themselves in this way. Things just weren’t that simple. There was something else, something other than the money, that kept them coming back out here day after day, and night after night.
So when my fellow cab drivers complained that “Uber and Lyft are stealing my passengers!” I’d reply, “They aren’t stealing anything — we’re giving them away.”
I would argue that every time they refused to accept a credit card, and every time they refused to take passengers to their homes in the Sunset, or the Richmond Districts, they were only creating more Uber customers.
But they just looked at me like there was something growing out of my head.
I began to sense a chasm widening between us. Even while they could feel everything slipping away, they continued behaving as though there would always be more customers, more tourists, more conventioneers, to replace the ones we were losing. In their eyes—in their cab driver’s eyes—the passengers were there for them, and not the other way around. It had always been that way. Why should anything change now?
I remember imagining the person who decided to chop down the last remaining tree on Easter Island, and in doing so cued the collapse of an entire civilization. I became convinced; it had to have been a cab driver.
My earnings from driving were steadily declining, and I was soon making about 30 percent less than I used to. The really bad nights —the ones when I’d go home with maybe only $50, or $70 after working an 11 hour shift ? They were becoming more frequent. There were drivers I knew who were now driving for Lyft or Uber on the side, or who had quit the taxi business altogether to drive rideshares it full-time. They bragged about the money they made, as did the occasional rideshare driver I’d run into at a gas station, or at a coffee shop. I knew that their claims had to be inflated, either to impress, or because they failed to consider all their expenses; such as maintenance, depreciation, gas, insurance, car payments, and the like. But even when taking that into account, the money had to be at least close to what I was making, if not more.
Even if that was true, however, they didn’t have the same protections I enjoyed in a regulated industry. There was nothing stopping Uber and Lyft from further saturating the city with more and more cars, or from engaging in a price war, either of which would make it impossible to for their drivers to maintain those income levels.
Still, my growing discontent told me something had to give — that I needed to make a change.
Even my dwindling stream of taxi passengers had regularly started asking me why I wasn’t doing Uber or Lyft instead. They wanted to know what was preventing all of the city’s cab drivers from making the switch. Clearly, the drivers with taxi medallions — especially those who’d taken out a $250,000 loan to buy one — couldn’t just walk away from the business. Some drivers may have simply not had the wherewithal to get a loan and buy a car, while others still might have had driving records, or criminal records, that would preclude them from being accepted as an Uber or Lyft driver. (While taxi companies insist that their drivers face more thorough background checks, and have even filed a lawsuit in California against Uber for claiming otherwise, it’s no secret that a felony conviction does not necessarily disqualify someone from driving a taxicab, at least not in San Francisco anyway).
Plus, of course, driving a taxi has historically been one of the few employment options for people lacking in certain life skills. I’ve known cab drivers who were illiterate, or who spoke virtually no English at all, drivers without a bank account (let alone a credit card), and even drivers who were homeless, and who lived in vans parked outside the cab yard. These were people who just wouldn’t have the tools to survive in the “new economy.”
In fact, being a cab driver sometimes felt as though I lived on The Island of Misfit Toys. There were a lot of broken souls that I’d come to know; guys who’d suffered tragic lives, or who had serious social impairments. There was the grotesquely obese driver, who smelled so bad that he literally cleared the waiting room every time he showed up for work. There were guys like me when I first started driving, who were fighting to stay clean, and to overcome their addictions. Then there was the obsessive compulsive driver, who lost hours out of each shift carefully cleaning every last inch of his cab, over and over again, and who one night finally just parked his cab, got out, and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. For some guys, driving a cab was pretty much all that they had, or about all they could muster.
Lastly though, there were the diehards — the cab drivers who refused to believe that someone, or something, wouldn’t swoop in to rescue the taxi business, and them along with it. Many of these guys had been driving for decades. They may have felt like they were just too old, or too heavily invested in the taxi business, to start something new. They simply couldn’t accept the possibility that Lyft and Uber might offer something better. These diehards talked about starting a union, and organized protests at the airport, at city hall, and outside Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco. All of which had about as much effect as throwing bricks into the Grand Canyon. The cab drivers in this last group reminded me of Japanese soldiers left behind on some uninhabited island after World War II, who still believed they were fighting a war.
The customers we’d lost weren’t coming back and, by now, most of the drivers who were going to get out had already done so. Occasionally, I’d spot one of them on the road driving past me in a Prius — a telltale sign that they’d gone over to the dark side — and there really didn’t seem to be any reason left for me not to join them.
If I had to pinpoint the one thing that made me finally realize I had to do something else, though, the exact moment when I knew that I couldn’t drive a cab for even just one more night, it would probably be the very last fare that I ever drove in a taxi.
My dispatcher had encouraged me to go pick up the order. “It’s a really good fare,” he reassured me over the radio. “Finally,” I thought. “My job in operations is paying off.”
It was around midnight, on the sort of busy night that was becoming less and less frequent in San Francisco. When I found the caller, he was alone, walking along the Embarcadero, close by nothing but the cold black waters of the San Francisco Bay. He was young, no older than 20 or 21, and he wanted me to drive him to Hayward — far across the Bay Bridge — a juicy, meter-and-a-half fare. My training in cab driver school taught me to get the money up front in cases like this, but I didn’t. I just wanted things to work out, so I headed straight for the bridge before my young passenger had time to change his mind.
We arrived at his destination — a seedy hotel — almost an hour later, and that’s when everything began to crumble. The moment my passenger told me he needed to get the money to pay the fare from his friend, I knew that my night was over. To this day, I still believe his intentions were good. But, after repeated knocks on the friend’s hotel room door, and unanswered calls to his room, it became clear that I wasn’t getting paid. I’d just lost two crucial hours out of my night, something I simply couldn’t afford to do, and by the time I got back to the city, the busy night I’d left behind would be over. The entire drive back to San Francisco I remember thinking to myself; “This just wouldn’t happen to an Uber or a Lyft driver.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten stiffed, but I swore it’d be the last.
The next day, I gave up my driving schedule completely.
I didn’t leave the industry completely, though. I kept one foot in the door by holding onto my job in operations. Sure, if and when they found out about what I was doing, I’d be fired—but I went right out and began looking for a decent used car.
First, however, I had to qualify for a car loan. That was relatively easy, since I have excellent credit, and still had the regular paying job in operations. But since Uber and Lyft were well-established by this time, most of the banks had gotten wise. Before making the loan, some asked me to sign a sworn statement that I wouldn’t use the car as a livery — they didn’t want to get stuck with a worn-out vehicle if I defaulted on the loan. Luckily, the bank that offered the most attractive loan didn’t ask this question.
As I signed all the documents, I couldn’t help but think about how difficult this might be for some of the other drivers I knew — drivers whose finances were stretched thin from trying to raise a family on their meager earnings, or whose credit was tied up in a mortgage, or worse, in a $250,000 loan for a taxi medallion that the city was now preventing them from selling. The fortuitousness of being born into a middle-class American family was never more apparent to me. I was lucky not to have been born in some fucked-up, war-torn, country on the other side of the world, and I knew it.
The next challenge was the one that concerned me the most: insurance. There had already been a few high-profile accidents involving rideshare drivers in San Francisco, and in almost all of these initial accidents, the rideshare companies attempted to shift liability onto the drivers’ personal auto insurance.
Those insurance companies, however, refused to accept liability since their policies were never intended to cover personal autos being used as taxis. This ultimately left the driver holding the bag. By this time, cab drivers in San Francisco had even begun photographing the license plates of Uber and Lyft drivers, and posting them online for their insurers to find in the hope that they would cancel their policies. News stories often quoted drivers who, unwilling to provide their names, said they had withheld the fact that they were driving for Lyft or Uber when they bought their policies, and were knowingly committing insurance fraud. But jobs were scarce… what choice did they have?
Committing insurance fraud and exposing myself to the potential for financial ruin was a line I simply wasn’t willing to cross. There had been a lot of conjecture that the insurance industry would catch up with the rideshare model, but there didn’t seem to be a solution currently available.
It took hours of persistent searching, but eventually I stumbled on one insurance company’s blog and learned that they were willing to insure California drivers who intended to use their cars for rideshares. When I called them, the person I spoke with—who I think was located in Idaho—had no idea of what I was talking about. “Uber? Lyft? What’s that?” But, after finding someone higher up the ladder, they confirmed that, yes, they would be willing to insure me. This was the biggest obstacle preventing me from moving forward, and it was now out of the way. The policy wasn’t the cheapest, but it was the only one that would let me sleep at night.
Altogether, things wouldn’t be the same as having the commercial insurance coverage I’d enjoyed when I was a cabbie, but it probably made me a more cautious driver as a result.
With the car purchased, and the insurance secured, I decided to start by signing up with Lyft. They were paying more in new-driver bonus money than Uber, and I knew I’d get an even bigger bonus from Uber if I signed up with them later, since they were desperate to poach active Lyft drivers.
The Lyft application process was easy—almost a joke, really, at least in comparison to the bureaucratic hopscotch required to become a taxi driver. Lyft’s background check, though, seemed to take forever. In the end I was approved. The final steps — a car inspection and a ride with a mentor — took all of about 10 minutes, and were perfunctory at best. It didn’t seem that anyone with a used car and a clean background check would have been turned away.
Does any of this make you safer in a taxi, or in a Lyft? I wonder if that could only be determined on an individual, case by case, basis. To me, the taxi companies’ claims of superior driver screening were sheer hypocrisy — what good was that if the results were often ignored? — and if anything nefarious were to occur, it would certainly be easier to track down a rideshare driver anyway. My car was in better shape than most any taxicab I’d ever driven, but the rideshares’ insurance was not as certain. And, while many Uber and Lyft drivers were unfamiliar with the city — something that I’d hoped might give me an edge — I reminded myself that every cab driver had their first week on the job too.
Nevertheless, the time had come, and I was about to embark on my first night as a Lyft driver. Because of my job at the cab company, I was nervous about being recognized by the many taxi drivers I knew, and who would be out on the street with me. So, I didn’t attach any of the required Lyft placards to my car. And the furry pink mustache? Well, there was just no way that was gonna happen.
After my very first night, I knew I would never drive a taxi again. Something shifted in my mind. The switch flipped, and I suddenly got it. Looking through a cab driver’s eyes, I didn’t understand that it’s not about us, the taxi drivers, it’s about you. Now, when I stopped seeing the world through a cab driver’s eyes, I immediately recognized that this was a better system; not just for the passengers, but for me too.
For one, there would be no more mind-numbing waiting around to go to work. In fact, I often got my first ride as I pulled out of my driveway. No longer did I have to apologize for, or worry about, a dirty, smelly, mechanically unsound vehicle. This was my car; it was clean, everything worked as it should, and people were far more likely to treat it that way. If they didn’t, they knew they’d be charged for the cleaning, or for the repairs. There was accountability now, which kept everyone on their best behavior, even me. My passengers were inquisitive, not standoffish, nor suspicious of every turn that I made, and they usually felt more like friends than customers. Best of all, it was fun.
With the rideshare model, each night stopped being a gamble; it ended the prospect that I might actually owe money at the end of my shift. Instead, my compensation — for every fare — was now assured. There were no dispatchers, nor anyone else, to tip out at the end of the night, and the first $40 I made each shift would no longer be going to some faceless old cab driver who had been lucky enough to have had a free taxi medallion handed to him by the city years ago. The days of nervously waiting for some sketchy looking character to emerge from the shadows and climb into my backseat, of wondering if this would be the guy who finally robbed me, or who ended up murdering me, and leaving my lifeless body slumped over the wheel of a still running taxicab, were now all behind me.
When I was a taxi driver, I believed that the city had enough taxis, and that adding more would only hurt drivers’ incomes and enrich the taxi companies.
The success of the rideshare model quickly proved me wrong — at least to an extent. There are currently 1,900 taxicabs operating in San Francisco, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Meanwhile, last January, Uber claimed to have over 11,000 active drivers in the city — 11,000!
Lyft hasn’t publicly released similar information, but you could reasonably estimate that they have at least half as many drivers — say 5,000. Even if these numbers are wildly exaggerated, halving them would mean that there are around 8,000 rideshare vehicles operating in San Francisco.
Conservatively, that equates to four Lyft or Uber vehicles for every one taxicab. In that light, it’s pretty hard to maintain the argument that we didn’t need any more taxis.
There are some caveats to that, of course. Given their low cost, it seems likely that people aren’t just choosing them over taxis, but that the rideshares are siphoning passengers from public transportation as well, or opting out of driving their personal cars.
Another area in which Lyft and Uber had surpassed the taxi model was efficiency. Immediately, I found that they almost always kept me busy. If they didn’t, I could simply call it a night and go home. I never had to keep working — driving around in an empty cab — because I hadn’t made my gas and gate money yet. It was liberating. Now, more than 60 percent of the miles I drove were with passengers in my car, instead of the other way around when I drove a taxicab.
Something else I liked was that the rideshare model was color blind. It would be near impossible for a customer to be passed over due to their race, ethnicity, or sexuality — at least not without repercussions. In fact, everyone was now able to get where they needed to go without rolling the dice, and without not knowing when, or even if their ride would come and pick them up. They no longer needed workarounds, such as calling multiple cab companies, or making sure to have enough cash on them — just in case the credit card machine was “broken.” People no longer had to worry about their ride being poached by someone else before it got to them, or about the driver simply refusing to take them where they needed to go — all of which made me feel better about the service I was now providing.
Oddly, I’ve been told that taxi service has actually improved here since the arrival of Lyft and Uber. Maybe a little competition really is a good thing? Maybe, as the mayor supposedly said, Uber really did “solve San Francisco’s taxi problem,” even if it wasn’t in the way you’d think.
I always said that there was no ambiguity in taxi driving — you pick someone up at point A, and you drop them off at point B. That’s it. But San Francisco’s taxi system failed to provide that basic service, and someone else finally figured out how to accomplish that simple task. And me? I was hooked, converted, and I knew I could never go back.
I started chronicling my journey while still working in the cab company’s operations office. That’s why I wrote under the name of Driver 8. However, just days before completing this final entry, my job was eliminated, and I was laid off — a result of the ever-increasing financial toll on the city’s taxi business brought about by the growing popularity of Uber and Lyft. In fact, according to the SFMTA, by the time that I began driving for Lyft in 2014, rides completed by taxis in San Francisco had already plummeted by 65% over the previous 15 months. Soon perhaps there won’t even be anything left to go back to, even If wanted to.
I’m Driver 8, my name is Jon Kessler, and I’ll be your Lyft tonight. Where can I take you?