Working

A Day in the Uber Life

The seismic shift from yellow cabs to ridesharing has transformed drivers’ lives as well, but there are still the same pains in the butt

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I haven’t been at the Uber lot at LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal five minutes, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter while I decompress and meditate on what I’m going to get from the 7-Eleven, when I spot the unmistakable body language of an approaching human. Sometimes salespeople stalk the FHV (For-Hire Vehicle, i.e., Uber, Lyft, etc.) lots, trying to entice drivers to sign up for some new fly-by-night rideshare platform, or buy high-tech gear like dashboard cameras. But I recognize this guy immediately: We used to go to the same garage in Flushing when we drove yellow cabs. I roll down my window to shake his hand.

“You do this now?”

“Yeah, you know.” I make a comme ci, comme ça face. “It took me a long time to make up my mind. I wanted to see how things were going to shake out first.”

He doesn’t remember my name. I don’t remember his. It’s fine. The mere fact that we were both parked here fills in our respective backstories, and it isn’t like we’re on each other’s birthday card lists. We recognized without words that we’d both made the transition from working in the century-old yellow cab industry to trying to catch the city’s latest brass ring, Uber driving.

“This is your own car, or you’re renting?”

He’s referring to the two methods for getting fixed up with a vehicle in order to accept rideshare requests from one of the widely accepted platforms. You either buy a car yourself, the normal, civilian way, and get it properly registered and fitted with plates and decals in accordance with municipal guidelines, or you rent. And I don’t mean like renting from Hertz or Avis: When you rent a vehicle to drive for Uber or Lyft, it’s similar to the “everything’s taken care of” model of leasing a yellow cab every morning or evening, except it’s an indefinite arrangement, paid for weekly. One all-in fee, paid to a company that might be as small in scale as a one-person sole proprietorship on the side of the road in outer Brooklyn.

These entities usually do nothing else besides managing cars for this exact purpose, and they charge a flat fee that covers insurance, maintenance, mechanical problems, and all the assorted legal bunk. The downside is that, somehow, this single fee tends to be slightly bonkers — quadruple or more what civilians pay when they lease or finance. You get sticker shock when you see this fee deducted from your pay every week, rain or shine. Remember in Goodfellas, when Sonny (Tony Darrow), owner of the Bamboo Lounge, took on Mafia caporegime Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino) as a business partner? The drivers are the Sonnys of this scenario: Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. You had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me.

A crucial detail that most riders are blind to is that Uber, Lyft, and all the other tech companies are totally insulated from this arrangement. As many journalists have pointed out, Uber is one of the largest transportation companies in the world, yet owns zero vehicles.

***

My friend drives a Lincoln MKX, a midsize SUV, rented from one of the major outfits in Long Island City. You see these places around Queensboro Plaza, using massive billboards and storefront signage to hard-sell to hundreds of cab drivers as they make their way toward the 59th Street Bridge. My friend says he shells out $600 a week for the Lincoln. I pay $450 a week for my Toyota Camry, the standard-issue rideshare vehicle, now almost as much of a fixture on New York City streets as the age-old yellow cab. Compared to the yellow cab, the Lincoln is a promotion, an upgrade, like choosing a Montblanc pen over a BIC ballpoint. With the MKX, he can accept UberBLACK “luxury” rides for a much higher minimum fare than I can. At least in theory, that means he can bring in higher revenue.

I rent my car from a small-time operation out near Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, set up in a disused nail salon, in a neighborhood famous for nothing. So small-time, the guy who takes his cut from my paycheck hasn’t bothered to change up the outdoor signage — but that’s OK because nobody’s busting down his door to get their nails done, anyway. I can still remember asking him about direct deposit the day I signed on. “There’s no direct deposit, no.” Answering with a wry smile like I was a tourist in Times Square asking a three-card monte operator which way to Grant’s Tomb.

My friend and I compare notes and misery. He’s been driving Uber for a year longer than me. He jumped into the game around the time the company became a regular feature around New York City streets — 2014 or thereabouts. I remember this sea change well: It was like having a front-row seat to watch New York City say “yes” to Uber and “no, but thanks for the memories” to yellow cabs. Over a short period of time, a lot of the regular hacks at my garage, especially the younger folks, simply weren’t picking up their steady cars anymore. And when I say a lot, I mean like a bloodbath, like Omaha Beach, Dog Green sector.

Management panicked because we were all independents, and could walk away with absolutely no advance notice. Handmade signs and photocopied news articles, taped up by the management, started to appear around the office and waiting areas, bad-mouthing Uber for unfair practices. The morning dispatcher who glared at you every day, just for living, suddenly was all smiles, cracking jokes. You started getting newer cars with low miles, not the junkers that had fun features like ripped seat belts and trunks that don’t open. There were two or three other employees around the garage, hard guys from the bad old days who’d rather be framed for murder than treat hacks with an iota of human respect. Because they wouldn’t change their ways, well, one day you noticed you hadn’t seen so-and-so for a couple of weeks. They vanished like political dissidents under an authoritarian regime.

These band-aid solutions were OK with me for a while. When you’re driving a yellow cab and you don’t have any other irons in the fire — an easy jam to find yourself in, when the game compels you to drive for twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week — you make your peace with every part of your job that’s a pain in the ass: shitty cars, hostile attitudes from everyone from the dispatchers and mechanics to the NYPD officers and Taxi & Limousine Commission agents, the long hours, the bad days where you drive all the way up Sixth Avenue, down Fifth, up Madison, and down Park with absolutely no hails. There’s a lot more to it, of course — you can use your imagination. To the job’s credit I’ve never, contrary to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, had to clean blood or cum off the seats. (That’s a little something called “the magic of the movies.”) You put up with all this garbage because, at the end of your shift, all you want to do is switch off your brain and collapse, and you lack the creative impulse to imagine a different strategy. Along comes Uber, and it’s imagined for you.

I’m a habitual late adopter, the kind of person who didn’t buy an iPhone until the third iteration. I waited and watched until well after a sizable chunk of the yellow cab labor pool had jumped ship. I’d spent months talking to drivers on both sides of the divide. Some made miraculous claims for switching to Uber — the kind of ludicrous revenue figures you see in work-at-home internet ads. I tried to stick to finding out basic facts about what the job was actually like, day by day, hour by hour.

That’s where I wanted the change, not some pie in the sky vision that I’d be swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, but a fundamental change in my routine. I didn’t want to freeze my nuts off in the dead of February grabbing the 7 train or the Q66 bus to pick up a cab in Flushing from the surliest people on the planet, only to make the reverse trip eleven hours later. I didn’t want to shell out upwards of $120 per day for the privilege. And I didn’t want to pilot a hunk of yellow metal that signaled to everybody in the metro area that I was some kind of wild-eyed kook. Uber signaled that those changes weren’t just possible, but necessary, and inevitable.

***

My friend and I wander over to one of the picnic tables at the edge of the holding lot. At the yellow cab lots, I’ve seen hacks play dominoes, hearts, and pickup hands of No Limit Texas Hold’em (you better believe it for cash), but never here. I’ve never seen waiting Uber drivers do anything besides smoke, look at their phones, and talk. And talk. And talk. Whenever drivers get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re long-haul truckers on the Texas Panhandle or pedicab operators on Central Park West — the place they occupy becomes a low-key coffee klatch. For us, because smartphone apps have replaced the taxi garage, this is one of the few places where we’re going to hang out together.

“It isn’t like it used to be, man,” my friend tells me. He describes Uber’s early adoption in New York City as some bygone halcyon era, when driving for the platform was like being one of the first miners during the Klondike Gold Rush. “They used to take 20 percent, now they take 25,” he says. “It used to be, you could choose to accept only Uber BLACK rides. Now they make you take everything. UberX and UberPOOL, everything. Sucks, man.” Like everything cab drivers say when they get a chance, what he says is a hybrid of truth and pity-me fiction. We all do it.

But the honey jar that drivers like him have their hands caught in is another story entirely. When you choose to operate a high-end vehicle, like the MKX, or a Lexus, or a fully loaded, black-on-black Chevy Suburban, as opposed to a more modest Hyundai Sonata, it’s a little like moving to a higher-stakes table in blackjack: The peaks and valleys are more severe, and a bad week can be lethal. If you’ve ever used the Uber app as a rider, you’ve probably noticed that there are different options for your ride, depending on your needs and your budget. The standard version is UberX: Any car that meets the company’s minimum standards may appear to pick you up. UberPOOL is often cheaper, and your experience as a rider may be identical to that with UberX, but you have to be OK with taking the scenic route as the driver fills his car with other customers along the way. (Airport shuttles, Access-a-Ride vans, and city buses operate on this model.)

You may like UberPOOL, and you may not, but many drivers hate it. Put yourself in my guy’s shoes for a second: It’s 2013, 2014, thereabouts, and you start out driving for exclusive, discriminating passengers. You have the option to accept only premium fares, if you so choose. (This is Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold.) Then, around 2015, you’re told you no longer have the ability to opt out of UberX and UberPOOL, and furthermore, the company tells you that they, uh, need a bigger cut of your money.

Not coincidentally, it was around this time that Lyft, Via, Gett, and Juno started to groom themselves as seductive alternatives to Uber’s relatively iron fist. Some trimmed their commissions by a few points, others gutted them. Some offered guaranteed hourly wages. One even offered stock options. At the time of this writing, Uber still dominates the market of rideshare platforms in New York City, but the others have achieved valuable footholds. Lyft has even acquired the not-dishonorable also-ran position, the other household name; Pepsi to Uber’s Coke.

When you park your car in the designated airport holding lot, you enter a virtual queue that eliminates the need for drivers to physically line up, as they still do at airport yellow cab lots. Instead, you get the unmistakable (branded) audio alert from whichever rideshare platform you happen to be logged into.

I hear the Uber ride request push notification from somebody else’s phone, and it’s a surreal little fillip, like when a ventriloquist throws his voice. (Every driver’s amygdala is conditioned to respond to these branded audio notifications, like Pavlov’s dog.) It catches my attention that the driver whose phone has lit up, one of the three guys sitting at the table, isn’t sprinting to his car. He isn’t doing anything. He smiles at the other guys sitting with him.

“I don’t want that shit.”

“What was it?” I ask him.

“Pool. Pool is shit.” His phone lights up a second time. I ask him why he doesn’t just accept the ride, why he’s picking and choosing. He tells me that UberPOOL (and Lyft’s counterpart, Lyft Line) rides cost him money because they’re cheaper fares. Plus he just doesn’t like them, point blank. The money objection makes no sense because turning down a ride and waiting for the next one is irrational, slot-machine mentality. You waste money by waiting longer — you even risk getting booted to the back of the virtual queue. It boggles my mind that a driver would wait an hour or more at the airport, only to decline the first request that comes down the pike because it doesn’t suit him.

“A ride is a ride, though, no?” I ask him. He shakes his head.

“You’re probably not going to get multiple riders from an airport pickup anyway, because you’ll be on the highway most of the time,” I continue. “And then you’re back in the city, just like you’d be anyway.”

I don’t really care about his business strategy and he isn’t really listening. In the Navy, older enlisted men and women who talk a lot and like to come across like they know everything are called “sea lawyers.” In the taxi industry, everybody’s a road lawyer. The pressures of the job to adhere to passenger expectations, to avoid Taxi & Limousine Commission agents who are out to ruin your day with fines and summonses, and to observe traffic enforcement rules, almost make it a matter of self-care to broadcast your opinions, given the slightest pretext. If you have ever been on the receiving end of a cab driver’s rant (or lecture, or tall tale), you’ve caught a glimpse of this culture.

My friend chimes in: “UberPOOL passengers are assholes, man.” I don’t really understand what he means, but another of the guys at the table nods in agreement. I’m a little taken aback by the apparent consensus. (I’m no statistician, but seeing two strangers instantly agree on something is powerfully suggestive of a larger trend.) But I don’t want to press the point. A lot of these drivers can be real characters, given to rigid prejudices and a stubborn adherence to routines that, from a distance, are indistinguishable from superstition. I often saw behavior like this in the yellow cab game. You probably have, too, if you’re a black New Yorker and you’ve tried to hail a ride in Harlem or Morningside Heights. I don’t agree with what they’re saying, but I recognize the impulse to view different market segments through a veil of various prejudices, because I’ve seen that brand of psychology, insidious but quite real, in practice in other industries. All industries.

Since I saw him back at the yellow cab garage, my friend has made a point of dressing up, trading in hack sweatpants for slacks and a tie, and trimming down his facial hair so he looks sharp, like a nightclub bouncer. He doesn’t look happier — we all look beat to shit — but he looks better. When you trade up from a shit-kicking yellow cab to a hot rod Lincoln, and you swap out your personal appearance from “just fell off a mountain” to “executive chauffeur,” perhaps you also start to think that all riders aren’t on an equal footing. Maybe it isn’t right, but it happens.

***

After waiting half again the amount of time I expected to, I catch a ride to Cobble Hill. The longer you wait at the airport, the more fervently you hope for a long ride, and the more anxiously you fear a short one. (Hello! My name is Jaime. Ask me about my Sunk Cost fallacy.) Most Brooklyn rides from LaGuardia Airport tend to gross around $30 to $35, which ends up netting the driver $19 to $22 once Uber gets its taste. All things being equal, a yellow cab fare might have been a dollar or three more, plus a tip, but you’re losing more to the garage.

Every passenger drop-off is a destination for the rider, and a new starting point for the driver. If I’m sitting in my car in Cobble Hill, I can look at my iPhone and mentally thumb through my options. Union Street is behind me, Atlantic Avenue is ahead of me. The closer I get to Flatbush Avenue and the Barclays Center, the more of a pain in the ass pickups will be. What I should do is try to get somebody from the Whole Foods on Third Avenue, or — better yet — hang around the IKEA in Red Hook. Occasionally, that IKEA contracts an NYPD officer to make sure drivers like me aren’t hovering like vultures, but that’s only inside the loading area. The No Standing zone across the street, which has little to no city enforcement presence, works just as well. 

For rideshare drivers on city streets, cruising around or idling in one spot will often give you an equal chance of getting your next fare, and there’s an ebb and flow in each neighborhood, at each hour of the day. Afternoons and evenings in Brooklyn are strong for ride requests, although, as the sun goes down, driver aggression goes through the roof there. I could log off and head home, I could park and maybe get something to eat, or I could see where the next fare takes me.

That’s the freedom, which is totally foreign for taxi drivers, who often have to hurry out of Brooklyn the moment they discharge their rider. For the yellow cabs, there’s Manhattan and the airports; everywhere else is “here be dragons.” For me, all five boroughs are my office. Whether you’re driving through some blighted street in the South Bronx, or creeping down pedestrian-heavy Union Square West, if there are more riders than available cars, you can keep working as long as you like. When you’re at the airport, you wait for an airport ride, hoping the math will work out (long wait = a good fare, in theory), but when you’re on the street, a whole catalog of strategies opens up. Mine tends to boil down to wandering over to a sure thing, like a hospital or shopping center, hoping I’ll catch a random hail along the way.

I’ve already been on duty for more than ten hours, which is about the time when my sciatic nerve starts to fire up to protest my foolishness. But it’s up to me: Rideshare driving is a “you’re your own boss” situation, and I have to decide if I’m going to listen to my dwindling checking account or a little discomfort on my backside. An unexplored nuance of rideshare technology is that it uses the same dopamine hooks that galvanize many of our smartphone interactions (Twitter notifications, texts, news alerts, etc.) to keep the labor pool pushing past various disincentives like body aches, fatigue, and stress. It’s cheaper than popping a few Advil.

I get the unmistakable rosy-fingers-of-dawn chime on my iPhone that sends me over to grab a Lyft Line (party of two) on Degraw Street, and that settles it. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

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