I was an undercover Uber driver
I drove a hundred rides for UberX to fact-check whether a middle-of-the-pack driver can make $90,000 a year. This is what I learned.
Two good-looking young strangers are having an amazing conversation in the backseat of my car. I'm eavesdropping so hard I nearly run a red light.
Her: Then don't make me sign it. Ugh, it's like you're planning for this not to work.
Him (stammering): No, I just think that, the idea is that ...
Her: I mean, what's the benefit for me in signing one?
Him (after a long pause): I mean, that you're still going to be able to get married.
(A chilly silence.)
Him: I'm just saying there's options.
(An even chillier silence.)
Her: I just don't understand ... like.
(I can practically hear her laser glare as the light turns green.)
Her: How do I benefit from signing it, aside from the fact that I'm married?
God, sometimes I really, really love Uber.
Not always, though.
Uber's been impossible to avoid in Philly news since October, when it debuted its UberX service, staffed by drivers without commercial licenses, against the direct requests and then angry protests of everyone involved in local taxi and limousine regulation. This is how it's gone in many of the 240 cities in 40 countries that have gotten UberX — the cheaper, unlicensed spinoff of Uber's original licensed black-car limo service — since it debuted in San Francisco in 2012. Uber's refusal to obey state regulations or a cease-and-desist order prompted a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to request that Uber "abandon its anarchist ways," even as the PUC approved UberX to operate in every county but Philadelphia.
Philly was one of the last big U.S. cities to get UberX, likely because of the Philadelphia Parking Authority's (PPA) ferocious reputation. Even though it's popular and widespread (in April, Uber celebrated its millionth Philly UberX ride), UberX is still not legal here. PPA executive director Vince Fenerty Jr. sent over a statement:
UberX and competitor Lyft are both illegal taxi services that use an app to connect people looking for rides with private citizens willing to use their own vehicle as a commercial taxi. Unlike the 1,600 licensed medallion cabs in the city, there is no guarantee these cars are clean, safe, inspected or insured.
Their drivers have no training and have not gone through extensive driving or criminal background checks.
Drivers providing illegal taxi service in Philadelphia will be fined $1,000, as well as having their cars impounded and be required to pay all associated towing, storage and court costs. Drivers are also committing a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of $2,500 and/or a one-year jail sentence.
Despite this, in late January, City Council unanimously approved a James Kenney-sponsored resolution supporting UberX and Lyft in Philly.
Uber often defends itself against angry regulators by protesting that it's creating good-paying jobs. They made a much-circulated and now-debunked claim that the median UberX driver in New York City made $90,000 a year, but I couldn't find a trustworthy number for how much UberX drivers actually took home, in Philly or anywhere else.
Until the week this article published, the only numbers Uber would discuss were gross fares — that's the total amount drivers bring in, not the lower amount they end up with after expenses and Uber takes its percentage. On top of that, Uber employs different rates in different areas. Taking an UberX in the Hamptons is vastly more expensive than in the lowest-rate areas like Nashville, Providence and L.A. Philly started out on the higher end of the rates spectrum in October. But as the PPA stings died off and more drivers felt safe picking up passengers within the city limits, fares were cut in January to somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Uber spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh declined to discuss how the Philly rate cuts affected driver take-home pay — well, she didn't decline, exactly, she just answered a different question: "What we've seen from lower UberX prices in Philly, is that there is greater demand for rides. In the four weeks since the price cut, weekly request [sic] are up 47 percent."
I talked to lots of drivers. But few kept a meticulous enough log of hours worked, miles driven and expenses paid that I felt comfortable using their data alone. Many drivers worried about getting in trouble, too — Uber can "deactivate" a driver for any reason. I needed someone on the record, someone whose data I knew I could trust.
So, in January, I applied to be an UberX driver myself.
I honestly didn't expect to be approved. The ethics of doing something like this are clear: You can't lie about who you are. And Uber knew who I was. Earlier, I'd posted on Twitter trying to dig up some Philly-area UberX drivers; spookily, within a couple of hours, Durkosh emailed asking how she could be involved. But nobody noticed my distinctive last name, and nobody asked for my job history — the application was just uploading my car's information, banking details and my Social Security number for a background check.
A couple weeks later, I got a text: I was in.
My new-driver orientation consists of a 13-minute YouTube video starring a driver in a crisp suit. We don't see his face, but we do see his name in the app. It is Flavio.
Flavio gets in his sleek black Mercedes and turns on the Uber partner app. He immediately gets a ping, a popup showing the first name, rating, location and estimated distance in minutes of a customer who wants a ride.
He accepts, drives, stops, opens the rear door to let his rider in, then hits another button to officially start the trip. (I find out later that this is the moment when the driver starts getting paid.)
"The driver and the rider have a chance to leave a rating for each other," says the narrator as the trip concludes. It's on a scale of one to five stars, with optional feedback. Someone types, 5 stars! He opened the door and had bottled water! "If a client offers a tip, please remind them that tipping is not necessary," in case they're new and don't know better, says the narrator.
"Uber is very selective about the drivers we partner with. If your rating falls below rider expectations" — onscreen the five stars dwindle to a single star — "you may lose access to the Uber application. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make sure you remain a five-star driver!"
"If you open the door for a rider, provide cold water or have extra phone chargers on hand," you're more likely to get a five-star rating. "There's no formal dress code, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about your appearance." Flavio is shown selecting one of four expensive ties in a gorgeous San Francisco condo.
"Your acceptance rate is important," says the narrator. When you turn down a ride, the request pings over to the next-closest driver, and it'll take him longer to arrive, resulting in a "poor experience."
As the video ends, I'm struck by how little concrete information there was. Will I get in trouble if I turn down rides? How late can a rider be before I can give up and leave? What's the deal with surge, when high demand increases fare pricing? And how low can my rating go before I get kicked out — three stars? Four stars?
But whatever. This'll be cake.
I head out to my car, start it and cue up a driving sing-along playlist on my phone. Music: Check. Pepper spray my boss insisted on: Check. Digital recorder for making voice memos between passengers: Check. I take a deep breath, and open the Uber driver app.
My music immediately dies. Womp, womp.
I log out. The stereo works again. I log in. It dies again. I do this for a few minutes, then log out again and search for a driver tech-support line. Turns out there isn't one — weirdly, the only way drivers are allowed to get in touch with Uber is via email. So I email the Philly office saying that I think the app is screwing up my stereo's connectivity, sigh, flip over to the radio, and log back in.
My first rider's only a couple of blocks away, but the app takes me on a weird route. I cannot seem to get it to provide turn-by-turn directions aloud, which I feel sure is somehow linked to the stereo problem, so I keep having to look down at my phone more often than feels safe. I swear I am a fairly tech-competent person, but over more than 100 rides in the next month, I can only get the audio turn-by-turn directions to work about half the time. Over my time driving for Uber, I find looking at my phone while I'm actually driving — something I almost never normally do — to be an essential part of success, whether I'm keeping an eye on directions so I don't miss turns or checking the constantly updating "heat maps" showing where the surge-price fares are.
Once I make it to my first passenger, though, he's a delight. He's an older union guy who's lived within three blocks of me in our Fishtown neighborhood for his whole life. "Wow, I've never gotten a woman driver before!" he says. My neighbor says he loves Uber because, even now, you can never get a cab up here. He tells me stuff about Fishtown in the '60s. As I let him off at 30th Street Station, he waves goodbye and thanks me, and says he's rating me five stars. The fare pops up on my phone: $10.85. The price of almost two beers for 15 minutes of driving! And if my neighbor had taken a cab, with tip, it would have been an even $20.
Busy 30th Street Station seems like a promising location. No email reply about my stereo problem yet, so I decide to camp here for a while and try to Google a fix. I find Uberpeople.net, a big online forum for drivers. A lot of other people recently started having the same stereo problem as me, and though Uber hasn't really gotten back to anyone about it, the general consensus is that a deal with Spotify to let the riders be "the DJ of the car" has the side effect of screwing up the phone's Bluetooth connectivity while the app's open. Answers!
Intrigued, I search for newbie advice in the Philly forum. Half of what I find is along these lines:
My advice is to find a better job and don't ruin your car and waste your time this gig is over and they are screwing drivers. Read around this forum and see what others are saying.
How stupid are Philly drivers?
it doesn't Matter how desperate you are to put food on the table driving $5 locals in Philly is just plain stupid. it's a losing proposition. I understand some drivers are desperate and need the money but only a absolute idiot would take a $5.00 local in downtown Philly. drivers are losing money do you get it they're not making money destroying their cars in the process.
The Uberpeople forum exists in a state of quivering rage I usually associate with cable-news talk shows. Drivers are furious about everything. Spoiled passengers. Fare cuts. Living in fear of arbitrary ratings. The dumb Spotify thing streaming over the driver's data plan rather than the passenger's. A bunch of drivers are even using the forum as a home base to try to unionize in several cities.
But I also find some useful numbers to fill in the vagaries of the training video. For example, I should accept 90% of pings to avoid trouble. I'm also surprised to learn that Uber's cutoff for driver ratings "below rider expectations" is generally agreed to be only 4.6 stars — I'd had no idea when using Uber as a passenger that rating someone four stars was kind of a big deal.
After 15 minutes of browsing or so, I finally get another ping, so I head out, resolving to read more later.
Hours later, I get an email reply from an Uber driver services person; her cheerful-verging-on-willful failure to answer my actual question about my stereo makes me wonder whether the PR lady is pulling double-duty.
I've been using Uber since it started, and the service is good. Um. But. When I start to get, like, you know, these guys that don't speak English really well? I start to feel like I might as well take a regular cab.
I maintain a perfect five-star rating for my first few days, of which I'm weirdly proud. I do get the idea, though, that I'm benefiting from my novelty value as a female driver, natural chattiness and, most important, being from the same social caste as most of my passengers. Several mention their relief at getting a driver who's a native English-speaker, saying Uber has been going downhill lately.
These days, cab drivers and Uber drivers look a lot alike.
My earlier attempts to determine how much drivers get paid involved just taking UberX rides everywhere. I talked to maybe 20 randomly hailed UberX and Lyft drivers between November and March. All but one were male immigrants, primarily from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, and most spoke heavily accented English. It's a completely different group from the drivers I'm able to get in touch with through Uberpeople.net, the demographics of which I'd call "Reddit-ish."
All the immigrant drivers who spoke to me took a lot of pride in providing excellent service. Few had been Uber drivers for more than a month or two. Many were helping support multiple family members, most had at least one other job and all worked hours that would reduce me to a weeping wreck in a month.
City Paper: So you have how many other jobs?
CP: How many hours a week would you say you work total?
1: More than 100.
CP: Jesus! What do you do with it all?
1: Money? I'm a transgender. Female to male. So I spend money on that. ... My dad, he is in Pakistan, my brother, he is in Pakistan. But they will be here before Christmas.
CP: Are they staying with you?
1: Oh yeah. We live as a, what you call — even we have a small house, we can fit in it. So we gonna live together. My brothers they are married, my sister she is married, but we still live in the same room for, like, last eight years. My mom and my dad, they have their own room, so they no gonna bother us when my dad get here.
I've had a perfect rating for almost a week when I get a ride that I can tell is going to screw it up. I pull up, blocking a one-way street, and throw on my blinkers. After waiting the requisite few minutes, I text the guy. He opens the front door, makes a "one minute!" gesture, then shuts it again. Several more minutes tick by. I finally call, and the guy picks up, giggling. "We'll be right out!"
When the couple finally gets in, nearly 10 unpaid minutes after I showed up, a cloud of weed stank follows them into my car. I try to hide my irritation. They're headed to a restaurant in Chinatown I've been to a bunch of times, so we chat about that as I drive. Despite this, the stoned guy insists on giving me inefficient directions. When he directs me to turn the wrong way down a one-way street, I tell him not to worry, I've got this, and just drive them to the restaurant. The guy sulks.
The next day, my five-star rating has updated to a 4.8. Infuriatingly, there's no way to tell whether it was the stoned guy or not — unless it's serious, you don't get specific feedback, much less a chance to protest.
Whatever my reservations about Uber as a driver, it really, really is better for riders. I'm actually a staunch defender of Philly cabbies — I've never met a bad one, though many vocal people have. But Uber is just ... better. The current medallion system sucks. Without getting too into the regulatory weeds, it creates an environment that screws over drivers and has no financial incentive to provide a pleasant experience for passengers. Uber can provide better service at cheaper prices with UberX because, by refusing to work within the medallion system, it has far fewer costs than a regulated taxi company — the cost of medallions, owning and maintaining a fleet of cars and paying for full commercial insurance.
It's not surprising that taxi medallion systems in cities all over the world are losing customers to Uber like crazy. I speak with cabbies who say they try to only do airport runs now — they can't make a profit anywhere else.
City Paper: How many hours do you drive a cab a week?
1: I work like 12 hours a day for six day.
CP: How much do you pay to lease a taxi medallion for a week?
1: Medallion, it's, like, depend on the person who lease. Sometimes they make it 420 for you, sometimes make it, like, 450, 460.
CP: What do you think of Uber?
1: Uber, I think it is a good business. For them. I don't know. I heard they do good because the most driver, the Uber, they was taxi driver before. The taxi business, it's going down — probably, maybe 50 percent the last six month? The taxi business now busy only the weekend. The rest of the days, we don't make too much money.
One way Uber has fewer costs than the taxi companies is that its drivers use their personal insurance policies as their primary coverage. Uber assures drivers that their personal insurance policies are sufficient, but many big insurance companies have been very clear that they disagree.
"Private passenger auto policy isn't intended to cover livery services," Nicole Mahrt Ganley, a spokeswoman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told the San Francisco Chronicle in November. "There is little question that engaging in livery services is a material change in the nature of the risk being insured, and most states would allow companies to cancel coverage."
Uber reassures drivers that they've got them covered, but their vaunted $1 million policy is secondary for collision — that is, drivers must try to get their own insurance companies to pay the claims first. If the claim is rejected because the insurer figures out it's Uber-related, then Uber's policy kicks in — but the driver's almost certainly going to have his personal insurance policy cancelled, and in some cases be investigated for fraud.
On top of that, there's periods where it's unclear if anyone's insuring the driver.
"Technically, Uber's insurance covers you from the time you pick your passenger up until the time you drop them off," says Jason Fidishun of Yardley-based Fidishun Insurance, an independent agency representing Progressive, which he says offers the only hybrid personal-commercial policy available in Pennsylvania developed with Uber and Lyft drivers in mind. The driver's personal insurance, according to Uber, covers him when he doesn't have a passenger in the car. "The problem is some insurance companies are saying, 'As soon as you log on with your app, you're using your car commercially'" — that is, if you're hurrying to pick someone up but don't have a passenger yet, there's a possibility that the driver will be covered by neither policy in an accident.
City Paper: You know people who bought new cars to drive UberX?
1: I did! I'm one of them. This is 2015, zero mileage from the dealer. ... I bought it because I want to provide good presentation, because I take my life seriously, and how you present yourself, that's how the customer welcome you in the market. So I went and bought the car, and after a couple weeks, they dropped the price, and then I was going home almost empty pocket. So. This is why I switch.
I gonna pass your card for the people I know, but unfortunate, most of those guys, I guess they are kind of afraid from something? Probably they will be worried about Uber sue them. Because I don't think anybody went through that terms and conditions when you sign with partner Uber? So I guess there is some point where if the driver he does something or says something about corporate, they can, like, go after him?
CP: Oh, serious? OK, a lot of conversations I've had with drivers just started making a lot more sense.
1: Wow, a woman who speaks English! That, like, double never happens.
City Paper: Yup.
1: So what's Uber like? I hear you can make a ton of money!
CP: Yeah, not really — when they take UberX into a new market like Philly, they start off by paying drivers a lot. So in the beginning, you get a lot of drivers who look like the drivers in Uber ads, like, suits and bottled water and no accents. And everyone gets the idea that Uber drivers have suits and make a ton of money. Then after a while, usually when a competitor comes in — you know Lyft just started up a couple weeks ago, right?
1: Yeah ...
CP: So then Uber cuts fares down by, like, a lot. Like, here, they just cut fares almost in half. So most of those initial drivers quit and are replaced by people willing to work for the lower amount, who are the same people who used to drive cabs. They're just doing it for a new boss, for less money and no tips, and they're carrying most of the liability themselves. But most riders never change that first impression that drivers make a lot of money.
1: ... Oh, uh, OK.
Unwittingly, I'd started driving just days after Uber cut fare rates in Philly to their current levels. It had done the same thing in a bunch of cities earlier in January, reassuring drivers:
The upside for the rider is obvious, but also important is that with the increased demand, drivers' income goes up as well. More demand turns into significantly more efficiency for the driver, more trips for every hour, and more earnings for every hour on the road.
Posts from Philly drivers on Uberpeople suggested they weren't buying that argument:
Just received the new Philly rates. Probably will stop driving. There is no (honest and accurate) way to crunch the numbers to make this worthwhile anymore.
base fare: 3.00 to 1.25
mileage: 2.25 to 1.10
time: 0.30 per min. to 0.18 per minute
minimum fare: 7.00 to 5.00
cancellation fee: 10.00 to 5.00
One driver observed: "The sad thing is those rates are still high compared to other cities that recently got slashed from about $1.10 to between 70 and 90 cents a mile," like L.A. and Nashville. "Still higher than plenty of other markets. Lots of room for future rate reductions," posted another. "Stay tuned." Uber currently offers Philly drivers hourly guarantees during busy times, but based on what's happened in other cities, those are likely to be phased out.
I run into one driver, "Muhammad," who bought a new car to drive for UberX nine months ago and understands the math behind the cuts perfectly. He says it's still worth it to him to drive on weekends when there's surge pricing, but not at other, non-surge times:
MUHAMMAD, UBERX DRIVER
Uber, the concept is very, very good. But the people who are running the show is very greedy. (Laughs.) If you really analyze what Uber has done in last six months, to make more and more profit, they have killed the drivers. I give you a practical example:
If there's a $10 ride, $1 Uber will keep it, for insurance or safety or whatever they want to call it. [This dollar is technically called the "safe rides fee," but yeah.] And then from $9, they will take 20 percent, that would be $1.80. So after, the driver will take home $7.20.
If they cut the rate in half, the same ride is now $5. Just example, OK? So Uber takes $1, and then out of $4, Uber takes 80 cents, so the driver will make $3.20. And if the demand is double, then another driver will also make $3.20. So the total driver pay is $6.40 vs. $7.20 before, but customer paid same $10 — means Uber's taking extra money.
Overall, demand has increased. But as a human being, we can only drive maybe three trips in one hour. If you give me 300 trips, that won't do me any good. That demand is for other people, not for me. So cutting the rate is increasing the total business, but the driver is worse off than before.
In my own data, I find two comparable hours from my first week: In the first, I spent nearly the whole hour driving one passenger a long way. In the second, I drove five very short-distance trips. The total fares were almost the same amount total — $25. But Uber itself only made $5.82 off my one long trip, compared to $9 total from the five short trips.
With the lower fares, drivers need to drive more to make the same amount. Anybody at any job would be pissed if their boss declared that they would now be working longer hours for no extra money. But for Uber drivers, who bear the entire cost of maintaining the cars, more driving also means more expenses.
This is often overlooked, because driving a car you own feels like it has no cost. But it's not free — there's gas, but also the less visible cost of just owning a car and driving it to death. I'm surprised to find, after running the numbers (you can check my math online), that the cost of driving my car for Uber came to a surprising 51 cents per paid mile. My expenses and depreciation ate 19 percent of my pay.
And I was significantly better off than the drivers who shared their data, or who contacted me to just share their average expenses per mile. For example, one driver's new Camry hybrid got great gas mileage, but his high lease payments took his expenses up to 70 cents per paid mile. Another had reasonable car payments but bad gas mileage, and was also at 70 cents. Expenses ate about 20 percent of each's gross fares, which was news to them — both said they didn't really keep track of their expenses aside from gas.
So it's no wonder the taxi industry is having so much trouble competing with Uber — taxi companies have to pay to maintain, acquire and insure all the cars in a taxi fleet. Uber's drivers shoulder that burden themselves, with expenses eating around 20 percent of total gross fares. And Uber's gross fares, according to a Business Insider tipster, are expected to hit $10 billion in 2015.
And it makes complete sense for Uber to continue cutting fares to as cheap as possible while flooding the market with more and more drivers and encouraging people to use Uber for shorter and shorter distances — all of which correlate with reduced take-home pay for each individual driver.
City Paper: OK, where to, ladies?
1: OK, this is so embarrassing...
2: We're going, like, literally four blocks. (Giggles.)
1: We walked out of class and were, like, 'OH MY GOD, IT'S SO COLD!' Let's just take an Uber home, it's only $5.
But I already said that I didn't like the idea of using other people's data — all that was secondary to my own. And after 100 rides, I felt like I had enough to work with. Over that duration, during which I maintained a 4.83 adjusted rating, high enough to qualify me for Uber's VIP program, Uber would say I "earned" $17 an hour in gross fares. But subtract the 28 percent that went to Uber and the 19 percent that went to expenses, and I actually made $9.34 an hour (plus a grand total of $16 in tips, $10 of which were for meeting up with a guy who left his Porsche keys in my backseat).
Driving for UberX isn't the worst-paying job I've ever had. I made less scooping ice cream as a 15-year-old, if you don't adjust for inflation. If I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with one week off, I'd net almost $30,000 a year before taxes.
But if I wanted to net that $90,000 a year figure that so many passengers asked about, I would only have to work, let's see ...
27 hours a day, 365 days a year.
As far as I can tell, most of Uber's "seasonal fare cuts" have become permanent, and there's no sign that springtime means the end of the winter price cut in Philly or other cities. Pittsburgh is one of few cities that escaped the winter cuts — rates there are now the same as they were when the service debuted there in 2014. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was a leading proponent of ride-hailing services in last summer's statewide Uber debate, raging in a statement:
I will not let the Governor and the Public Utility Commission shut down innovation without a fight. ... Technologies like ride-sharing evolve with the times and state regulators must too. While the commission may wish for Pennsylvania to cling to a Jurassic Age of transportation options, people in Pittsburgh and other communities know our state must adapt or die in the global marketplace. ... I will not let Pittsburgh's emerging status as a 21st Century technological hub be sacrificed by unaccountable bureaucrats clinging to the past.
Six months later, in February, his words were given new context as TechCrunch broke the news that Uber was building a huge robotics lab in Pittsburgh, partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to "kickstart autonomous taxi fleet development," according to a company source.
Travis Kalanick, the CEO and founder of Uber, said at a conference last year that he'd replace human Uber drivers with a fleet of self-driving cars in a second. "You're not just paying for the car — you're paying for the other dude in the car," he said. "When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle." That, he said, will "bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away."
You can get a glimpse of his vision in a fascinating paper from Columbia University, which did several case studies on what a future with driverless cars would look like — apparently, like Uber crossed with Minority Report. And this could be coming as soon as 2020, according to both Tesla and Google, both of which are also heavily invested in the race to be a player in this huge future market.
In this world, the paper projects, fewer and fewer people own private cars, because it doesn’t make financial sense. Cars run on electricty, and most are much smaller, designed to carry only one or two people. The auto industry experiences a temporary boom, but then demand drops off a cliff. By around 2040, driverless cars are a majority on American roads. The number of cars drops by more than 90%, as do fuel consumption and emissions. Car accidents and traffic are nearly nonexistent.
Several hundred thousand Americans who have jobs involving driving, selling or manufacturing vehicles no longer have those jobs — including all Uber drivers.
Which may explain why Uber appears to care so little about keeping them happy.
Regulations haven’t even caught up with Uber’s current business model, and Washington is light-years away from being able to regulate driverless cars. Uber’s hiring David Plouffe out of Obama’s inner circle, along with a K Street block’s worth of lobbyists, suggest a future vision that involves some big political campaigns.
Asked what he’d say to current Uber drivers who would be be put out of a job by robo-cars, Kalanick responded, "I'd say, 'Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn't always great.' We all have to find ways to change with the world."
No, you're actually the fourth woman driver I've had — but I use Uber, like, all the time. I found if I bartended five days a week and took it home every night, it was actually cheaper than a car payment.
Data in hand, I finally arrived at the part of this project I'd most been looking forward to — finding out what it takes to drop your rating so low that you get deactivated. Several people volunteer to sit silent shotgun in a Sweetums Muppet costume. An opera singer is excited to serenade passengers at obnoxiously high volumes. Others suggest the Fifty Shades of Grey book on tape, offering complimentary soup from a thermos, pretending I'm filming a Cash Cab-like TV show, or insisting on communicating via sock puppet.
But then my husband is suddenly hospitalized, and I don't have time for Uber for a while.
Late one snowy night, I leave Temple University Hospital at Broad and Ontario on foot. I'd popped a tire on a huge pothole the previous day — eventual cost, $100. I'd taken the train over, but don't feel great about chilling at Broad and Erie alone after midnight. Even Broad Street is deserted and unplowed this far north, and the snow is still really coming down; in the unlikely event that a cabbie is willing to drive up here, it'll take forever. I check Uber, and the closest car is in Bala Cynwyd, more than 20 minutes away on clear roads. My heart sinks — no sensible driver would travel this far for a pickup.
I try anyway: "No cars available." I try a second, third, and fourth time, contemplating my options. Amazingly, the driver in Bala Cynwyd finally accepts. Half an hour later, I'm on my way home.
My driver is a man in his 20s with a heavy African accent; I'll call him Morake. We've been driving for UberX for about the same amount of time. I thank him fervently for picking me up. I tell him I'm a driver myself, and I probably would have left me stranded.
Morake says he doesn't usually accept requests more than 10 minutes away, because customers tend to get impatient and cancel when he's halfway there. He finally accepted mine because it was coming from a hospital and seemed desperate. "So it called one time, two times, three times — I said, 'Maybe this person don't have nobody else.'"
The contrast is so striking — Morake, who accepted a ride against his own best interests out of human kindness, and Uber, which treats him and so many other drivers as utterly disposable numbers in an equation.
Morake is happy to chat about the annoyances of being an Uber driver — his rating is near the cutoff for being deactivated, which he thinks might be because he recently refused to drive a late-night pickup to New York. "It's good though — because with Uber, if you drive 12 hours, 16 hours a day, you make good money!" He is heartbreakingly sincere. If he didn't have another job, Morake says, he'd work for Uber 16 hours a day. I think of my effortlessly excellent rating, and my plans to torpedo it for a punchline, and I'm suddenly, cripplingly ashamed.
Twenty chatty minutes and a couple scary wheel-spinning moments later, Morake drops me off. When I try to tip him, he demurs, following Uber's rules to the letter. He says it was fun just talking to another driver. He finally accepts a thoroughly deserved 10 bucks. As Morake drives off through the snow, I check my phone. Even though it was a surge fare, after expenses, Morake will only net about $10 for about an hour of dangerous driving. I rate the dude in the car five stars. And then I quit Uber.
(For more Uber reading, check out some extras from this article — rules, tips and tricks I picked up as a driver.)