Rules and tricks for being an Uber driver
Or: How not to pee your pants.
I learned a bunch of stuff from my stint as an undercover UberX driver. There was a lot of dumb, specific, silly stuff that I found really interesting, but couldn't find a place for it in the main piece. But since Uber offers so little specific guidance to new drivers, I thought I'd compile some of the extras and put em online.
So, here you go: My accumulated rules of Uber driving.
1. Start considering where has free parking AND public bathrooms before the situation gets dire. The month I drove for Uber was the most times I have nearly peed my pants since preschool. In the city, I highly recommend the Whole Foods at 20th and Callowhill, the Fresh Grocers at Second and Girard and Broad and Oxford. Starbucks in the suburbs generally don't lock their bathrooms.
2. Keep snacks and water in the car. For you, not them.
3. Ignore Uber’s texts. Uber is prone to texting its drivers with the high frequency and enthusiastic punctuation of an embarrassing hookup from three weeks ago who can't take a hint. As in:
I initially followed their advice for getting those $$$$, but after getting burned several times, I found it was actually better for me to avoid any area Uber texted about. Surge fares pop into effect whenever there’s more demand for drivers than drivers available; when Uber sends out a text, drivers tend to flood that area, leading to no surge. You want to be in Center City, not South Philly, when there’s a big game letting out at the stadiums.
4. Stay put between fares. Just find somewhere to pull over and read a book or something. Early on, I tried to strategize when I wasn’t getting any pings, moving my car a couple blocks at a time in an effort to get nearer a busier area. But chasing business doesn’t work, and puts unneccesary miles on your car, each of which costs about an invisible quarter.
5. Don’t chase surge fares. The Uber driver app shows a tempting map of where you can get surge fares, which can sometimes go up to five times the normal price. But don’t succumb to temptation — the surge is almost always gone by the time you get in range.
6. If you must chase surge fares, log out until you get to the surge zone. The algorithm Uber uses to calculate whether surge is based on how many people have the passenger app open vs. how many people have the driver app open. When drivers with an open app cross into a surge zone, the supply goes up, and the surge automatically decreases. So keep your passenger app open and your driver app closed while en route.
7. Get the most accurate map of surge fares in the passenger app. The surge fares in the driver app tend to vanish like mirages by the time you get to them. The surge fares reflected in the driver app appear to run a few minutes slower than what they actually are — a few times, I found myself in what was marked as a surge zone in the driver app, but getting pings for no-surge fares, which is infuriating. The surge fares reflected in the passenger app, though, tend to be updated in real time, so if you're clever and good at multitasking, you can sometimes use the passenger app to figure out where a surge is and get there before it shows up on the driver app and everybody else comes running.
8. Other drivers are visible in the passenger app. An exception to Stay Put Between Fares is if you're somewhere where you should be getting pings, and you're not. In particular, I had followed Uber's advice to go try to catch the stadium rush one day, then waited around for half an hour with no business. Opening the passenger app, I found that I was completely surrounded by a dozen other Uber vehicles. I drove around the other side of the stadium where there were no other cars and got a call almost immediately.
9. Don’t get stuck in the suburbs. The exception to Rule 2 is if you drop a passenger off way out in the suburbs. The suburbs blow. Since walking anywhere is much harder out there, you’ll keep getting asked to drive 15 miles to pick up passengers who wants to be driven half a mile to the mall — a transaction on which the driver actually loses money after you factor in expenses. And since the driver doesn’t know where the passenger wants to go until they get in the car, there’s no way to avoid these crappy fares.
10. Uber's app actually calls the Badlands the Badlands.
11. You can sometimes game the system. I still feel like a jerk for this, but I once was so annoyed at getting a no-surge fare when the driver app said I was supposed to be getting one that I tried punting the ball to myself — canceling a ride while I was en route hoping to get pinged by that same person again, but at surge price this time. It worked, but I felt really bad about it. Also, I never had the bladder control or attention span to test Uber's hourly guarantees, and they're unlikely to be around for much longer anyway, but several drivers mentioned that you could game that system by driving out to the far suburbs and hiding out in a diner or something.
12. Don't drive more than 10 miles for a fare. For one, the extra mileage and gas raise your expenses really high. For two, half the time the passenger will find a cab or get bored and cancel the trip when you're already halfway there. There's technically a cancellation fee that's supposed to make up for this, but there's so many loopholes about this that I never got one, even though a lot of people cancelled on me while I was en route to pick them up.
13. If you decline to pick someone up three times in a row, you get punished. When I was first driving, I accepted a ride out in the suburbs, then couldn't get to the person's house because of crazy road work. I spent 10 minutes trying to find an alternate route to the person, then finally just gave up and cancelled the ride. The person kept pinging me, and I kept declining. After my third decline, I got an eerie ping with no information at all. It was kind of freaky — as if Uber was sending the message "We noticed what you're doing, and we don't like it." Now, an upgrade to the app boots drivers out of the system if they turn down a ride three times in a row. The driver can log right back in, but it's a similarly creepy "don't think we didn't see that" message.
14. If it’s 1:50 a.m. and there’s no surge, log out and wait 15 minutes. There’s always a huge but short-lived surge when the bars close on weekends between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. Passengers often need to go to Manayunk, the suburbs, Jersey and other long-distance, high-profit places, and at quadruple the standard price, you can make more in half an hour than you have in the previous three. But I missed out on a lot of cash by making myself available to pick people up at normal pricing right before the closing-time surge kicked in, then missed out on it completely while I was driving back. Smart drivers log in at 2:05.
15. Returns diminish after about 2:30 a.m. There’s a huge bar-closing surge, then (in my experience) it drops off a cliff. I stayed out until 4 a.m. a couple nights just for the experience, but if you’re tired at 2:30, you won’t be missing much by going home. (Though if you’ve been driving in traffic all day, there’s something almost magical about how gloriously empty the roads get after 3 a.m.)
16. Avoid colleges. Sorry college kids, you’re actually all very nice, but college pickups have a much higher probability of calling an Uber to drive them three blocks home because it’s cold or getting amateur-hour drunk all over your car. Goes triple for suburban colleges like Villanova and Bryn Mawr.
17. Speak English as a first language, or be a woman. I honestly wasn’t a particularly great Uber driver. I didn’t do the water bottle/candy thing, I didn’t open the door for people, I didn’t ask people what they wanted to listen to on the radio, I didn’t get dressed up and I frequently missed turns because I chose being able to listen to an audiobook between passengers over having the app’s turn-by-turn directions work perfectly. (For reasons still unclear, the Uber driver app makes it very hard to have both working at the same time.) And, near the end of my Uber career, I started trying out all sorts of aforementioned dirty tricks I'd heard about to see if they worked. However, my rating was consistently good enough to put me in Uber’s VIP program. I chalk it up to the relative novelty value of being female and speaking English as a first language — both qualities were mentioned favorably by passengers a number of times.