To Uber or Not to Uber

An Uber/Lyft driver learns there’s nothing easy about easy money.

Lyft Car

And this whole campaign to recruit Lyft drivers is beyond unethical. Participating in it feels wrong.

Photo by Flickr/Alfredo Mendez

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I started 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 was even a pink mustache in the ads. So I knew they were legit. I didn’t click right away though. There’s nothing easy about easy money. But the ads keep popping up in my feed two or three times a day. Out of curiosity, I click the link. I’m 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 for their rideshare service UberX. 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 L.A. 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 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 furry 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 drunk 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 outside a take-out joint in SoMa for my order, I chatted with an UberX driver. He told me he used to drive for Lyft but switched to Uber. Now he’s making almost twice the money he did with Lyft. “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 30 percent in April, I’m making $200 less a week, driving the same hours. Flush with $250 million 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 20-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 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, along with low balance notifications from Bank of America. There are weeks when I can’t afford to buy gas until I get 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. 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 expected 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 with a stranger, I can’t help but start a conversation. 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.

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 22, I get a text from Uber. My account is active. They’re going to send me a phone with the Uber drive app 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 UberX 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.”

“Worth a shot ...”

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

I continue waiting for my Uber phone. It’s been almost two weeks since I signed up. The days go by fast as May 31 approaches and the end of the $500 deal looms.

On May 28, I email Uber about not receiving a phone yet. I’m told I can go to the office on Vermont in Potrero Hill and pick one up. The next day, I head into the city early.

I’m not sure what I expected the office for a rideshare start-up to look like — maybe some folding tables, Ikea desks and chairs, laptops and interns — but I wasn’t expecting a circus.

On the corner of Vermont and 16th, there is a sign twirler. I’m momentarily confused because the sign he’s twirling seems to be advertising Lyft. His shirt matches the baby blue sign and reads, “$500 and a taco.”

I wonder if Lyft and Uber have offices right next to each other.

Directly across the street, under the raised 101 freeway, hanging on a chainlink fence, is a blue banner: “Be more than a number.” In the corner is the Lyft logo. As I try to orient myself, a billboard truck rolls by, also in the Lyft colors. “Be more than a number.” On the other side: “Get $500 and a taco.”

For a second, I think I’m being set up. I knew the deal sounded too good to be true!

On the sidewalk, a group of people are milling around a crowd control barrier. I know from the endless stream of texts I’ve received from Uber since first signing up that they’re hosting referral events for Lyft drivers. Offering $500 and a free lunch.

So Lyft is making a counteroffer of $500 and a taco to any Uber drivers who want to switch to their side. I guess they figure if Uber can poach their drivers, why not play dirty too. But a taco?

Whatever. I keep my head down and stay focused on what I need to accomplish.

There’s no sign in front of the building indicating that it’s Uber HQ; just a black awning with the street number, a tinted glass door and a buzzer.

I press the button. A guy with “security” printed on a black polo shirt emerges.

“Yes?”

I tell him I signed up for Uber but I hadn’t received a phone yet.

He looks confused.

“I can get a phone here, right?” I ask.

“I think so. But you need to come back tomorrow between nine and twelve.”

“I can’t get one now?”

“No.”

I look at the crowd on the sidewalk. The security guard disappears inside the building.

Alright. I head to Philz for coffee before I start my shift. It’s a typical Thursday night Lyfting. Drive a couple to the church that’s been converted into a skating rink at Fillmore and Oak. An older couple from North Carolina who introduce themselves as the “Doug and Flo Show!” Take a punk girl to Ingleside. Before I pick her up, I can tell from her profile pic that she’s going to be a cool ride. We listen to Subhumans and Buzzcocks as we cruise down 280. Her dog climbs onto the center console to be a part of the conversation. We talk gentrification. Of course.

I call it quits around 11.

The next morning, I get out of bed as early as I can. A pathetic 10:30. Skip a shower for coffee and a few cigarettes. Then race into the city. I leave Oakland at 11:15 and reach Potrero Hill with 20 minutes to spare. The sign twirler is gone, but the banners are still up. A few people are standing around the taco truck in the parking lot behind the fence.

I press the button at Uber HQ. A different security guard comes out.

“Yes?”

“Hey, I need to get a phone. I came yesterday and they told me to come back today before noon.”

“Who said that?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know their name?”

“No. I just need to get a phone.”

He hesitates for a moment. “Okay. Sign in with the iPad.”

I climb a flight of stairs. At the top is an iPad attached to a metal pole. I type in my name and phone number. Take a seat at one of several folding tables with nine other drivers. I sit down next to a heavyset woman. She asks if I’m a Lyft driver as well. I say yes.

“I need to get a phone before the $500 deal is up,” I tell her.

“I’m a Lyft mentor. So I get $1,000. I’m going to do my one ride and that’s it.”

“You’re not switching over to Uber?”

“Oh no!” she whispers loudly and leans in close. “I love Lyft. I just want the $1,000.” She smiles as she sits back in her seat.

The other drivers are all men. Huddled together like compatriots. They’re older. Professional. I wonder if they’re taxi drivers converting to Uber.

“How long have you been waiting?” I ask the woman.

“About half an hour. The guys over there have been here longer than me.”

A few minutes later, the door buzzer goes off. The security guard tells the person they’re closed for the day. It’s five minutes to noon. I’m the last in line.

I glance around the room as the woman chats at me about her frustrations with maintaining a high rating despite always offering her customers candy and water.

“I had five stars for the first few months. That’s how I got to be a mentor. Since then, my rating’s gone down and I don’t get as many mentor requests.”

“That sucks.”

There are five guys and one girl working for Uber. All wearing polo shirts and jeans. There seems to be a distinct look to the Uber employee: white and preppy. I can’t help but wonder if they’re bummed to be dealing with us drivers. They all have an air of indignation and fear. One guy is walking around like he’s pretending to be busy. The girl is filling Uber swag bags with paperwork and U window lights. Another guy is arranging boxed lunches on a table. He gives one to the security guard who takes a seat next to me. The meal actually looks rather substantial. A sandwich, a bag of chips, some pasta salad, and a can of soda. Not a bad spread. Better than a taco.

Slowly, the drivers are called to a desk where a guy in a yellow polo shirt meticulously inputs their information into a MacBook. The process takes forever though, as if he was working on an ancient IBM with a bad dial-up connection. Once he finishes adding the drivers to the system, or whatever he’s doing up there, he hands them an iPhone. Asks if they have any questions. Some do. He seems to cringe and roll his eyes before each explanation.

At one point, he stops calling any new drivers up to his desk and gets a boxed lunch. There are still about five of us in line. We all watch as he eats and clicks away on his laptop. Maybe checking his Facebook. Or sending a tweet.

I feel like taking abstract photographs with my phone of the empty moving boxes and scattered office furniture. It’s obvious they just moved into the space. Which is probably a former showroom or an office for a design firm. Seeing as how we’re in Showcase Square. Or what’s left of it.

Fifteen minutes later, the guy in the yellow polo starts calling up drivers again.

Just as my phone is about to die, I finally get called to his desk. I’ve barely sat down when he gets up and says, “I’ll be right back.”

At this point, it’s just me and the Uber people in the office. I watch a guy dealing with a massive stack of white iPhones. There must be a thousand phones.

“That’s a lot of phones,” I say.

“Yeah.”

I watch as he attaches them to a MacBook.

“I wipe the content and download the Uber app,” he responds to my inquiry.

Another guy looks out the window. “The sign twirler’s back.”

A few of the Uber folk snicker.

“Has this been going on for a while?” I ask.

“Since we started the recruitment campaign,” the phone guy tells me.

“Crazy ...” I say.

“What do they care anyway?” a guy wonders. “It’s not like you can’t drive for both.”

The guy in the yellow polo returns to the desk. “Nobody’s going for the tacos,” he says. “I bet they’re all green and moldy.”

I laugh along with the Uber workers.

“They’re so desperate, it’s hilarious.”

Hahahaha.

“Lyft is so stupid.”

“Why don’t they just die already!”

Hahahaha.

We’re all having a jolly ole time ripping on Lyft.

“And that pink mustache is hideous,” I add.

Hahahaha.

“It’s so ugly, I’ve never even put it on my car.”

“I don’t blame you,” says the guy at the window.

By the time he hands me the phone so I can enter my phone number into the Uber app, we’re all good buds.

“Now you have to take a photo.”

“Right now?”

“You can do it later, but … here, let me take one with the iPad. It’ll come out better.”

He has me stand against a wall. I take off my glasses. Slouch down a little since he’s shorter than me.

“Did it come out alright?” I ask. “In my Lyft photo, I look like a girl.”

“It’s fine.”

“As long as I don’t look like a girl ...”

“You don’t look like a girl.” He shows it to me.

I kind of look like a girl.

“You want some lunch?” He gestures at the table covered with box lunches.

“Nah, I’m cool.”

Outside, the line of drivers waiting to sign up is longer. The sign twirler is doing back flips as he throws the sign up into the air and catches it between his legs. Lyft really hired a professional. Not just some street person in a costume. I walk past and he smiles at me.

Holding the Uber swag bag, I feel like apologizing.

Across the street, a couple more people are lined up around the taco truck.

I head across the bridge to get ready for a Friday night driving in the city.

That evening, after getting coffee, I turn on the Uber app in SoMa. The interface is entirely different from Lyft. It takes me a few minutes to get a handle on how the process works when a request comes in. Lyft’s interface is square. Uber’s is round. I touch the screen like I do with Lyft. But the Uber app only gives me a name in a very small font and an address with an icon on the map. The screen of the Lyft app is much bigger. Easier to read. The passenger is designated with a blue pin and the driver’s avatar is the silhouette of the front of a car. On the Uber app, the passenger looks like a chess piece. There’s no Facebook profile pic. So I don’t know what the person I’m picking up looks like. There are also no turn-by-turn directions to the pinned location. I have to zoom in to see where I need to go.

While I’m trying to figure out the app, my personal phone rings. Some weird number in Ohio. I ignore it.

I finally see my passenger is on Townsend. I’m only half a block away. As I cruise down the street slowly, a man and woman wave me down.

“You drove past us twice,” she says. “I tried calling you.”

“Oh, that was you? Sorry. This is my first Uber ride,” I tell them.

They are nice. They sit in the back, as expected. But they’re chatty. I tell them about the $500 deal.

“So this ride just made me five-hundred bucks.”

We talk about the two different services. The guy only uses Uber but the girl takes both, depending on how she feels.

“Are you from Ohio?” I ask.

“No, we’re from New York.”

“Oh.” The number that came through … that must be Uber’s generic number. But why is the area code set in Ohio? That’s weird. Lyft’s is 415. Which makes more sense.

I drop them off. They congratulate me on becoming an Uber driver and making $500.

I do a few more Uber rides. It’s hard not to keep going. The requests come in one after another. It’s obvious Uber is much busier that Lyft. But the disconnect is palpable. Everybody sits in back. After that first couple, nobody else says a word to me. They tell me where they’re going and stare at their phones. I even pull my passenger seat forward to give them more legroom. Turn off the stereo.

Unlike the Lyft app, when I end a ride, I can see how much it costs. I’m impressed by the numbers. I know I have to subtract Uber’s 20-percent cut, but still … I like what I’m seeing.

After awhile, the silent treatment gets to me and I switch back to Lyft. I’m actually relieved when the next passenger sits up front. We have a lively conversation about my Uber experience, going to the office, the stack of phones, the sign twirlers, the tacos and how I just earned $500.

“I wouldn’t say it was an easy five hundred bucks,” I tell him.

“Well, there’s nothing easy about easy money,” he says.

“Ain’t that the truth …”


Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver and writes about his experiences for the San Francisco Examiner. Reprinted from his zine (2015).