Who are the Uber & Lyft drivers?

“Because it’s software,” says an Uber executive to me in a light monotone, emphasizing this clear but under-appreciated quality in the infrastructure of app-mediated work: changes to the app can be deployed instantly across a workforce of 450,000 U.S.-based Uber drivers in a way that changes to physical infrastructure in traditional workplaces, like buildings, can’t scale as efficiently.

Just because software is universally deployable, though, doesn’t mean that work is experienced the same way everywhere, for everyone. The app works pretty much the same way in different places, and produces a workforce that behaves relatively homogeneously to give passengers a reliable experience — it’s easy to come away with the impression that the work experience is standardized, too.

A slightly out of date map I made of Uber operations.

For months, I’ve been running around the U.S. and Canada, interviewing drivers from Uber, Lyft, other ridehail services, and some taxi drivers, to find out more about who the drivers are and how they manage their work across a diverse set of regional contexts. I’ve heard some stories over and over again, like driver dissatisfaction with unfair ratings, or driver appreciation for being able to set their own schedules. There are fascinating edge cases too, like anxieties around information privacy, that might anticipate other services companies can offer to help drivers. I’m going to start writing out some of my early findings (all the names are changed to protect driver privacy).

ESL

Some drivers are using Uber and Lyft to improve their English language skills. This is one of the amazing things about ridehail work — you can be instantly employed with limited or no dominant language skills. One driver in Palo Alto spoke no English, and the app instructed him in (what I think was) Mandarin.

André, a Québécois Uber driver with a low-key demeanor, smiles from beneath his grey newsboy cap when he arrives to pick me up, nudging open the front passenger door as soon as his car slows down in front of the pick-up spot. In Montreal, Uber’s illegal, so drivers strategize around passing for non-Uber drivers as they go about their work, such as getting passengers to sit in the front seat. André’s main exposure to English is from movies and music, and he explains how everyone in Montreal speaks French and English, and they immediately switch to the dominant language of their interlocutor when they begin a conversation (a dynamic I’m familiar with), so almost all his social interactions are in French. With Uber, he gets a lot of tourists who speak English.

Youssef, a recent immigrant to Montreal from French-speaking Morocco, drives part-time (30h/week) while he studies engineering at a French university. When he drives for Uber, he gets to practice English with passengers. Although he sees driving as a short-term plan, not a career, he recently leased a car for $10k to be eligible for Uber because his old car didn’t fit the company’s requirements (Uber has a list of eligible cars of specific makes and years in each city).

A driver (thanks, Flickr).

Juan, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic, is married with two young children. He’s cheerful while we chat about driving for Lyft and Uber. Chatting while driving helps him improve his English: when he arrived 6 years ago from the DR, he knew almost none. I haven’t been there, but in Bogotá, Colombia, Uber sends drivers out with duolingo English skills after completing a course. I’m told by passengers that drivers describe learning English as a secondary benefit of using the app.

Duolingo

Information Privacy

Miguel, a taxi driver in a suburb of Orlando, says his passengers use taxis because they don’t want to give their private information, like their credit cards, to an internet company. He uses Square (which tracks identifiable contact information with payment information) to process my credit card payment, and volunteers to send me my receipt by text.

Jonathan, who is in his fifties and originally from the Midwest, works part-time in the medical field and is driving part-time in Orlando, on the weekends. He hesitated to sign up for Lyft and Uber because he was worried about uploading his private information, like his driver’s license, to the internet.

“It’s a little nerve wracking putting all your vital information on a computer like that,” Jonathan offers nervously.

Hobbyists

The spectrum of Uber and Lyft drivers includes hobbyists, part-time earners, and full-time earners, and within that spectrum is a salient divide between drivers who rely on their income as a primary source of support to sustain their families, and those who do it part-time, such as for extra cash, but do not rely on it as they would a full-time job. In Charleston, South Carolina, Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Ontario, I’ve met retirees who drive either because they have spare time or they want to keep busy and they enjoy meeting new people, or because they also need to subsidize their retirement incomes. Carol, a middle-aged woman with a grown son and daughter, started driving for Uber because she had a brand-new SUV sitting in the driveway of her suburban home outside of Charleston, and her son made fun of her because she never goes anywhere with it.

Charleston (thanks flickr).

She drives people to restaurants and events in the evenings, and she likes picking up all the info/tips about the best places to eat or the best shows to see. Like other women drivers I’ve met, she avoids the late-night vomit shift for pick-ups, although she’s never had a real problem with the flirtatious young men on the late shift, when she tried it.

Carol fits the profile of other hobbyist drivers who already have assets built up — a house, savings, an underused car — who aren’t necessarily motivated to work for financial reasons. Drivers who need the money, by contrast, are more likely to take issue with many of the business practices Uber and Lyft have, such as rate cuts, because it directly impacts their ability to pay the bills.

This divide between hobbyists and full-time earners has parallels in journalism, where journalism is a primary occupation for some, and for others, like with the advent of bloggers, it can be more of a hobby. It’s worth noting that the social retirees/hobbyists are unlikely to care about labor rights actions organized on behalf of ridehail drivers; the drivers who stand to gain the most in those areas are the full-time drivers who rely on it for primary income.

City Narratives

The way drivers describe their jobs often incorporates something of the city they operate in. For drivers who have a relatively long tenure in the Orlando area, the narrative of a city recovering from the downturn was a common context they gave to describe their job opportunities in connection with driving for Uber or Lyft. By contrast, drivers in Dallas, Texas commonly described that there were jobs available for anyone who wanted one, and some emphasized a booming tech industry.

When I asked drivers in Charleston about their work, they described a city that is undergoing a revival, with a continuous flood of newcomers moving there from around the country. They incorporated Uber’s arrival, with its new technology, into that story of civic revival.

Invoking the Company Rhetoric

In Dallas, Texas, Tanisha, a young woman in her 20s, had been working at a call center, and she decided to drive for Uber to get away from the stifling, heavily managed environment of call center work, a sentiment echoed by another driver I interviewed who also preferred driving to working at a call center.

There’s always the cattle run at Ft.Worth, TX if you don’t want to Uber or Lyft..

She enjoyed the opportunity to “be her own boss,” an Uber slogan she used to articulate her experience. When I asked her what she could earn per hour, she said $30/h. Maria, a Lyft driver in New Jersey, also said she earned $30/h. Both Tanisha and Maria were new to driving, and had no idea what their expenses were or which expenses to consider accounting for in estimating their net earnings, such as gas, insurance, car washes, taxes, wear and tear, etc.. This is a common feature in the early stages of being an Uber/Lyft driver: they use the company’s rhetoric to describe their own experience, including what their earnings are, until later on, when they have a better accounting of the expenses they incur and the pros and cons of the job.

Stay tuned for more…